On most days I attend daily Mass at 9 a.m. at St. Columbkille, and afterwards, take a ride in the countryside. I often drive to Port William, past the old homeplace, and spend a few moments visiting my brother, Jack, resting peacefully in the cemetery.
On Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, my destination was different. A friend and I had been talking about New Burlington and not having visited the ghost town in a long time, I turned north on U.S. Route 68 and then headed down Center Road.
My sister Rita, who lives in Wilmington, called to check with me knowing I take S.R. 68 home every morning after church. “I heard all the sirens and thought maybe there was an auto accident out your way,” she said.
I told her I was OK, and just as I said those words, a Clinton County deputy sheriff passed me in emergency mode. Within minutes another deputy passed me, and then an Ohio State Highway Patrol cruiser went around me, the blue lights shining in my mirror.
The cruisers quickly disappeared among the hills and curves on Center Road. Passing Smith Road, I saw three officers standing on the narrow country road. They weren’t pulling accident investigation tools out of their trunks; they were sliding body armor over their heads, pulling the straps tight.
I canceled my trip to New Burlington, turned south on S.R. 380, and headed home. Little did I know, I was only a mile away from an extremely dangerous situation.
My wife Brenda sent me a text. “I just received an alert from the Clinton County Emergency Management Agency that a law enforcement response is occurring at Smith Road and State Route 73. Are you in New Burlington?” she asked.
“No, I‘m at Smith Road and 73. Several cruisers just turned onto Smith Road. It’s a full emergency. I want to get out of the way. I’m heading home,” I replied.
After walking into my computer room, I turned on my police scanner and watched the News Journal in Wilmington for updates.
It all began at the FBI building in Kenwood. A man, later identified as Ricky Walter Shiffer, Jr., of Columbus, attempted to enter the secure facility, firing a nail gun at employees before brandishing a weapon.
Armed FBI agents responded, and Shiffer fled north on Interstate 71. The FBI notified the Ohio State Highway Patrol.
A trooper spotted Shiffer’s vehicle on I-71 in Warren County and tried to stop him near the northbound rest area. Shiffer wouldn’t stop. A pursuit ensued and the gunman stuck a gun out of the car’s window and fired several shots at the trooper.
The chase entered Clinton County at 9:45 a.m. The fugitive exited at S.R. 73 at 9:50 a.m. Four cruisers were pursuing him. At 10:11 a.m. the suspect and law enforcement exchanged gunfire.
The news that followed was grim, soon to turn grave.
By this time, the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office and other surrounding jurisdictions had sealed off the area. The FBI had called for a helicopter, armored vehicle, and a SWAT team. CareFlight landed at the Wilmington Air Park. Shiffer slipped on body armor.
Shiffer had to know, as did most of the courageous officers who stood nearby, this was not going to end well.
Under intense surveillance, Shiffer sat down behind his car bleeding and holding a rifle in his lap. This situation continued for six hours. Negotiations were fruitless.
As the drama continued, I listened to the scanner and wondered what was going on in the mind of Ricky Shiffer. Law enforcement surrounded him. He had no avenue of escape. What was he thinking?
He pointed a weapon at officers. Eventually, shots rang out. Law enforcement processed the scene. The coroner pronounced the man deceased. It was over.
The Clinton County Sheriff’s deputies, troopers, fire and life squad personnel, and the FBI did an outstanding job keeping us safe during this dangerous situation.
But this was a human tragedy. Law enforcement officers are not faceless government men or women, and Shiffer was not a faceless political activist.
As one person commented in the News Journal, “Politics is not the most important thing in life. This incident involved humans. A troubled man who, for whatever reason, felt he could invade a federal law enforcement agency with a nail gun. He sat for six hours under a tree, near a cornfield, on Smith Road, contemplating death. What would make any person believe sacrificing his life for a political cause, one from which he was far removed and had absolutely no control over, was a logical thing to do? During those six hours, this man could have raised his arms and lived. Instead, he chose death.”
At the other end of the weapon, an honorable law enforcement officer had to use lethal force in a dreadful moment, a moment the officer will replay in his mind forever. A dam holding back a storm.
And that is indeed incredibly sad.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff.