VANDERGRIFT, Pa. — When a car struck a police officer this week, prompting him to fire several shots at the driver, authorities said it appeared to be a targeted attack by a man using his vehicle a weapon.
But state police are now investigating whether the mayhem stemmed from a malfunction in the equipment that enabled the motorist, a man with a prosthetic leg, to drive.
The 67-year-old man’s car struck Vandergrift police Officer Joe Gray and a garbage truck worker Wednesday morning. Gray felt he was being targeted by the car and shot at it, said Trooper Stephen Limani, a spokesman for Kiski Valley state police barracks, which is conducting the investigation. Two bullets pierced the car’s windshield, but the driver was unhurt.
“A vehicle is a deadly object,” Limani said. “We had the officer struck with what appears to be a deadly object. He’s lucky his injuries are nonlife-threatening, and we’re fortunate it worked out the way it did.”
Limani told The Associated Press on Friday that the focus of the investigation is an accelerator pedal that was installed to the left of the driver’s brake pedal.
“It appeared to be professionally installed,” Limani said in an email Friday. “We are getting a search warrant for the vehicle to make sure the work was done properly and to see if there was a malfunction. I am told the results may take weeks.”
The driver hasn’t been charged, though he has been questioned by police. He told troopers what witnesses at the scene overheard him saying: that the accelerator stuck and he couldn’t stop the car. He didn’t immediately return a message left by The Associated Press on his home answering machine Friday.
Witnesses say the Chevrolet Impala appeared to be out of control as it pulled into a gas station parking lot about 9 a.m. Wednesday. The car looped around Gray’s patrol car, hit an ice machine and a merchandise display, then struck Gray and the garbage collector.
Gray was tossed into the air, but he struggled to his feet, aimed his gun and yelled at the driver to stop before firing as the car made a sharp U-turn back toward him, witnesses said. The car was hit with bullets, then struck a gas pump before coming to rest.
Gray is off on worker’s compensation but will be placed on paid leave if he recovers enough while the state police investigation continues, which is standard for officer-involved shootings, Vandergrift police Chief Joseph Caporali said.
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said his office will review the state police findings before determining whether the shooting was justified or whether the driver should face charges.
Asked how a mechanical malfunction could affect those decisions, Peck said: “I can’t answer that question. You’re asking me to judge facts and we don’t know all the facts for certain.”