LAKE STATION | An 84-year-old man who was pulled from a burning building by police 10 months ago was shot and killed by officers Tuesday after pointing a shotgun at them, officials said.
John Laco, who had addresses in Lake Station and Portage, fired a 16-gauge shotgun into the air in the parking lot outside Lake Station City Hall and got back into his vehicle, said Bob Byrd, spokesman for the Lake County Northwest Indiana Major Crimes Task Force.
Three police officers who had been inside the police station went to investigate about 10:30 a.m. after police received a call about a man with a gun, Byrd said.
The officers saw Laco sitting in his vehicle with a window rolled down and the barrel of a shotgun sticking out the window, Byrd said. Police told Laco to drop the weapon and exit the car.
Laco began exiting the vehicle and pointed the shotgun at police, who fired several times, Byrd said.
Laco was shot multiple times and was pronounced dead at 12:45 p.m., a Lake County coroner's release said.
Byrd did not say how many times Laco was shot and did not release the names of the police officers involved in the shooting.
An inoperable pellet gun that looked like a handgun was found in Laco's sweatshirt, Byrd said. Police were not aware of that weapon until after Laco's death, he said.
Police are investigating whether a report of a gunshot Monday night outside Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist's home, which is in a neighborhood south of City Hall, is connected to Laco, officials said.
"We are still talking to witnesses on the nature of the call," Lake Station Police Chief Kevin Garber said at a news conference Tuesday.
Soderquist declined comment Tuesday pending the police investigation.
Soderquist was not at City Hall on Tuesday when the shooting happened, officials said. Police had no indication that Laco ever entered City Hall, Byrd said.
One of Soderquist's neighbors, Tim Brewer, said he and his wife heard a loud gunshot Monday night.
"I heard it and I'm like, 'Holy cow.' It was loud. It had to be a shotgun or a large caliber," Brewer said.
Brewer said he went outside and didn't see anything. However, he had seen a suspicious dark-colored vehicle parked in two different locations in the area before he heard the gunshot, he said.
Byrd said there is no clear motive for why Laco went to City Hall on Tuesday.
Police have been interviewing Laco's family, including his children, and friends to help determine a motive. Laco was not married. Byrd said there is no indication Laco was suffering from dementia.
Before Tuesday, Laco had little contact with police other than the time they rescued him from the fire, Byrd said.
A Lake Station police officer on patrol the night of Feb. 20 found Laco's residence at 2701 Central Ave., on fire.
Several officers responded and pulled Laco from the burning building, Byrd said. Laco was taken to a hospital.
There was no indication of arson, Byrd said. The fire's cause was determined to be faulty electrical extension cords, he said.
Byrd said about 20 detectives from departments around the region were working the case with the Northwest Indiana Major Crimes Task Force, including officers from the Lake County Sheriff's Department and Indiana State Police.
Police blocked off Central Avenue for much of the day, rerouting traffic through the neighborhood to the south.
Yellow tape was strung around the perimeter of the City Hall property and the Lake Station-New Chicago branch of the Lake County Public Library, which sits just east of City Hall and shares the parking lot.
Two windows and a door at the library branch were damaged in the shooting, said Carolyn Strickland, assistant director for the library system.
Police believe the library was damaged by stray bullets from the gunfire and was not an intended target, Byrd said. It's a "real possibility" the shots that damaged the library came from police, he said.
Fifteen to 20 patrons and employees were inside the branch at the time of the shooting, officials said. No injuries were reported.
The branch was closed after the shooting, and police interviewed each person inside, Strickland said. People were allowed to leave the library following police interviews, but they were not permitted to remove their vehicles until police took down yellow tape from around the parking lot about 4 p.m., Strickland said.
The branch will reopen at 10 a.m. Wednesday, she said.
Ingrid Norris, director of the Lake County Public Library, who was present during the news conference, praised the Police Department.
"The Lake Station police were terrific. They calmed the patrons down, calmed the staff down," she said.
Norris also praised her staff members for how they handled the situation.
Jesus Ruiz, a mechanic at nearby San Juan Tire Shop, said he heard a loud bang about 10:30 a.m. as he and others were putting on gloves and hats in preparation for work.
Ruiz said he initially thought it was a tire bursting at the shop, which sits on the north side of Central Avenue across from City Hall.
The first bang was followed by about a dozen gunshots, he said.
When Ruiz made it outside, he saw smoke rising from near the entrance to City Hall and heard police yelling at a someone to get on the ground, he said.
Ruiz saw a man had been shot in the parking lot between City Hall and the library, he said. A dark-colored vehicle that had been near the man's body was towed from the parking lot about 2:40 p.m., he said.
Ruiz pointed to a white and red cloth on the ground and said it had been used to cover the man before his body was removed from the scene by coroner's officials.
Fire Department personnel arrived after 3 p.m. and began to clean the spot where Ruiz said the body had been.
"To think about it — you're just working and somebody gets shot," Ruiz said. "That's something else."
Tom Nikalaj, of nearby Joe's Auto Sales at 1900 Central Ave., said he was in the business Tuesday morning when he heard gunshots.
Nikalaj said he opened the front door and heard police yelling at a man to get down before he heard 10 to 14 shots.
"It was like watching a movie," Nikalaj said.
Nikalaj said he planned to go to City Hall to pay his water bill Tuesday morning but decided to vacuum some of the cars in the lot first.