“It never really goes away.” Parents’ pain haunts officer who shot suspect

When he was a Columbus Police SWAT officer, Pete Tobin took the life of an armed robber at an Eakin Road carryout. Photographed January 14, 2020. Doral Chenoweth III | Columbus Dispatch

“It never really goes away.” Parents’ pain haunts ex- SWAT officer who shot suspect

Every Fourth of July, Pete Tobin relives a moment from more than 35 years ago that he still carries with him today. Tobin has had a long, successful career in law enforcement but that doesn’t erase a fatal shooting that saved one person but left parents without their son.

Every Fourth of July, Pete Tobin’s thoughts are hijacked by a moment in time.

It was just before 10 p.m. on July 4, 1984, when an 18-year-old walked into the Eakin Road Market on the Hilltop with a gun.

The teen moved across the store, stopped in front of the clerk and pointed the gun directly at her head. He didn’t say a word.

The clerk pleaded with the robber not to shoot her.

Tobin, a Columbus Police SWAT officer on a stakeout at the store, was sitting on a stool, hiding behind a stack of milk crates. When the man started climbing over the counter, Tobin took action.

He lunged from behind the milk crates and shot and killed the man.

It’s a moment that has never left him.

“It becomes part of your life,” Tobin said. “It never really goes away. I think about his mother and father, and the clerk, especially on the Fourth of July.”

Video by Doral Chenoweth III

Tobin, a native of Buffalo, is now 73. He has been the U.S. Marshal leading the Southern District of Ohio for more than five years and has had a storied career in law enforcement for more than 45 years.

His work in law enforcement started shortly after he served three years in the Army, part of it providing security in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in the late 1960s. He tried working for a printing company for a few months but hated it. Five months into a marriage that has now lasted 48 years, he told his wife, Suzy, he was going to be a policeman. He started as a patrol officer for Columbus Police on Aug. 1, 1971.

Tobin spent 24 years with the department, including 10 years on the SWAT team — two of those leading it. He went on to work as the police chief in small cities and for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, where he served 10 years as chief of the narcotics division and two as superintendent.

There are some moments, including the one inside that market 35 years ago, that Tobin still carries with him.

He had taken a life before the market robbery, and would again after. But he said it was the pain of this particular armed robber’s parents and how he was almost treated like the criminal following the shooting that made this one different.

The market had been robbed twice in the weeks leading up to that July 4. The clerk told police that a man had pointed a gun at her, taken all the cash in the register — typically a few hundred dollars — and ran out of the market late at night.

The Columbus SWAT team decided to set up a stakeout. For three nights, Tobin and two other SWAT officers took turns watching the counter behind a stack of milk crates.

When he was a Columbus Police SWAT officer, Pete Tobin took the life of an armed robber at an Eakin Road carryout. Later, he commanded the Columbus SWAT team; He is holding a photograph of that SWAT team. Doral Chenoweth III | Columbus Dispatch

On the day of the robbery, Tobin had cooked steaks on the grill to celebrate the holiday with his family. His instincts told him the man might return that night, so Tobin decided to return to the market for the night shift.

He has replayed what happened next more times over the past three decades than he can count.

There were no customers in the market at the time.

“I am sitting on a stool behind those milk crates when all of a sudden she started screaming, and then she dove on the floor behind the counter,” he said. “The bad guy jumped up on the counter and started going over the counter after her, and I shot him dead.

“Only time in my career I didn’t give a warning. There was no time. She was an easy mark and helpless. I wish it didn’t have to happen, but I have no regrets. I look at it to this day that I had to protect an innocent woman, and she thanked me for being there.”

“It becomes part of your life. It never really goes away. I think about his mother and father and the clerk, especially on the Fourth of July.”

Pete Tobin
Former Columbus Division of Police SWAT officer

The shooting received local media attention, including a story published in The Dispatch on July 5, 1984. The 18-year-old’s father was quoted in the story saying his son was the victim of an ambush by the police.

“He had no right to do what he did, but they didn’t have to kill him,” the young man’s father told a reporter. “It was an ambush, and an ambush is nothing but murder.”

Tobin said he was bothered by those comments or any accusation that the shooting was wrong or could have been avoided.

He said he was even more bothered by the way he was treated after the shooting. Even that night, a few hours after the incident, a police lieutenant starting reading Tobin his Miranda rights as if he was a criminal suspect. One of Tobin’s SWAT partners told the lieutenant to stop, but soon an internal investigation involving the homicide unit, internal affairs and the prosecutor’s office was launched.

Tobin was put on “light duty” and assigned to an office for a few weeks. As is standard procedure in police shootings, the case was presented to a grand jury and Tobin gave his account of what happened in the market.

The grand jury chose not to indict Tobin, and the prosecutor ruled that the shooting was lawful.

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Tobin, however, was frustrated that the police department didn’t put out a statement early on saying that based on the information they had compiled, the shooting was justified.

“He was going over the counter with a gun right at the woman,” Tobin said. “I had to protect her life above all.”

Still, Tobin has never let go of the pain of the armed robber’s parents. He understood their anger at him and, as a parent himself, he can’t imagine losing a child.

He never attempted to reach out to the family, fearing it would only make things worse. And to his knowledge they haven’t reached out to him.

But that night still lingers and probably won’t ever leave Tobin’s mind.

“It will always be part of my life,” he said. “It doesn’t go away.”