Planet Princeton

Attorney General: Shooting by police justified in Princeton Panera standoff

The New Jersey Attorney General’s office today issued the findings of an investigation into the fatal shooting of a Lawrenceville man during a standoff with police on March 20 at the Princeton Panera on Nassau Street. State investigators said the shooting of Scott L. Mielentz, 56, by police was justified.

“As a result of the investigation, Director Veronica Allende of the Division of Criminal Justice determined that presentation of the police-involved shooting to a grand jury was not required under the directive because the undisputed facts indicated the use of force was justified under the law,” reads the three-page report of findings in the case that was provided to the press today. “The investigation included numerous witness interviews, video of the shooting, forensic analysis of the scene, and other evidence.”

Scott Mielentz

Mielentz was fatally shot by Trooper William Kerstetter and Trooper Joseph Trogani of the New Jersey State Police SWAT unit, known as the TEAMS Unit. The troopers shot Mielentz with M4 rifles following a four-hour standoff in the restaurant. They shot Mielentz when he raised a gun and pointed it at the two troopers and other law enforcement officers, according to the report.

It turned out that Mielentz was armed with a Crosman PFM BB pistol, but all of the law enforcement witnesses reported that they believed throughout the standoff that the BB Gun was an actual firearm.

Under the Attorney General’s Independent Prosecutor Directive, the use of deadly force by the state
troopers was investigated by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team, made up of investigators from the Division of Criminal Justice and the New Jersey State Police Homicide Unit. According to the Attorney General’s office, the teams operate independently of their usual chain of command and report directly to the Director of the Division of Criminal Justice or a designee when investigating the use of force by state police.

The morning of March 20

Mielentz had arranged to meet a male friend at the Panera on the morning of March 20. According to the Attorney General’s office, Mielentz began talking about suicide and told the friend he had a gun. Mielentz then drew a black pistol and shouted, “I have a gun. Everyone out.”

The Princeton Police Department received a 911 call at 10:28 a.m. from a man reporting “There’s a guy with a gun at Panera.” Employees and customers fled from the restaurant. No one was injured.

Less than half an hour before Mielentz drew the gun in Panera, the Princeton Police received a 911 call from a second friend who reported that Mielentz sent him a text message indicating that he was going to end his life. Efforts by the police to locate Mielentz were already under way when the 911 call from Panera was received.

A female friend later told police that she received a text shortly after 9 a.m. that morning from Mielentz.  In the message, he indicated that he was ready to “depart this life.” Mielentz called that woman during the standoff and told her he wanted the police to shoot and kill him.

A Princeton officer was the first police officer to arrive at Panera, officials said. She went inside, where she encountered Mielentz. He pointed his gun at her and she retreated without firing, police said. Outside, she continued to move people away from the area. Other Princeton police officers entered the rear of the restaurant and tried to talk to Mielentz, who responded by saying “Shoot me, just shoot me.”

Mielentz told the officers that he was in pain and that the government had cut off his OxyContin. He falsely claimed he was a Vietnam veteran and had killed 1,000 people during the war. Those officers described Mielentz as erratic and irrational. He ignored officer commands to drop the gun and instead pointed the gun at the officers and at his own head.

State Police TEAMS Unit and other officers responded to the scene. A perimeter was established around the restaurant with a combination of local, county, state and federal law enforcement officers. The TEAMS Unit set up a position inside the restaurant to contain Mielentz in case he began to fire his weapon in the crowded mid-town area. Other officers, including crisis negotiators, also established positions inside the restaurant.

A State Police crisis negotiator and a member of the Princeton Police Department became the head negotiators. They tried to calm Mielentz and end the standoff peacefully, but they said he became increasingly agitated. The TEAMS officers who fired their weapons were positioned in the rear of the restaurant behind a dining booth and trash bins. The negotiators were next to those TEAMS officers. Another TEAMS Unit member in the rear of the restaurant evaluated whether he could use a stun gun on Mielentz, but determined that Mielentz was too far away, officials said.

During the four-hour standoff, negotiators said they used many tactics in their efforts to get Mielentz to drop the weapon and surrender. They offered him food and spoke sympathetically about his problems in order to establish a rapport, they said. They asked if they could help him in any way, and he responded “Yes, shoot me.”

According to police, Mielentz repeatedly asserted that he wanted to die and threatened to shoot an officer if the officers did not shoot him. They said he engaged in a cycle of agitated behavior. He would stand up, begin to raise the gun toward the officers, sit down, put the gun down, pick it up again, smoke a cigarette, and then repeat the cycle. He repeatedly put the barrel of the gun to his chin or head, police said. Officers said he seemed to be building up his courage. He approached police several times, raising the gun a little higher each time. He told officers he would give them a five count, and then counted down from five. Officers repeatedly commanded “Put the gun down” and “Soldier, put that gun down.” At one point, Mielentz held up a check and told negotiators it was a $5,000 check to be given to his son when he died.

Mielentz repeated that he was a soldier and a marksman, falsely asserting again that he had killed
hundreds in the military. Negotiators talked to him about his experience in the armed services and at one point said he could be an advocate for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Law enforcement witnesses reported that Mielentz made the following statements, among others:

“Just kill me. Do it for me, guys.”

“Just do this, guys. I’m going to shoot you, guys. Don’t make me do this.”

“It’s either going to be you or me.”

The shooting occurred at 2:54 p.m. In the final moments before the shooting, police said Mielentz walked out of the dining area he had occupied and faced the TEAMS members and negotiators while holding the gun pointed forward at a downward angle at his waist. Police said he smoked a cigarette, extinguished it on the floor with his foot, and then spread his legs while facing the officers. Witnesses reported that Mielentz counted down from five. He began to raise the gun hesitantly as officers pleaded with him not to do it. He then raised the gun up so that it was pointing at the TEAMS members and negotiators. The Attorney General’s report said that at that point, Troopers Kerstetter and Trogani fired their M4 rifles, killing  Mielentz. Kerstetter fired four rounds, and Trogani fired one round. Both troopers reported that they believed the lives of officers were in danger.

Mielentz was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy confirmed that he died of gunshot wounds to the head and upper torso. Toxicology tests identified one drug in his blood, the anti-anxiety medication diazepam, commonly known by the brand name Valium.

After analyzing the facts, the director of the state’s Division of Criminal Justice concluded that the troopers’ use of force was justified. “The facts and circumstances reasonably led the troopers to believe their actions were immediately necessary to protect themselves and their fellow officers from death or serious bodily harm,” reads the findings. “An officer may use deadly force in New Jersey when the officer reasonably believes it is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.”

In New Jersey, all investigations of police deadly force incidents are governed by the Attorney General’s Independent Prosecutor Directive, issued in 2006 and strengthened in 2015, which establishes strict procedures for conducting such investigations. It requires the Attorney General to review all deadly force investigations, and in some cases conduct them as well. In this case, the investigation was conducted directly by the Attorney General’s Shooting Response Team. The directive further provides that unless the undisputed facts indicate the use of force was justified under the law, the circumstances of the incident must ultimately be presented to a grand jury, composed of 23 civilians, for its independent review.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

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