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Man killed after grabbing gun in trooper scuffle is ID'd

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia State Police released the name of a man who was shot and killed by a trooper following a struggle in which he allegedly grabbed and refused to drop another officer's gun.

Stephen Lawrence Knight Jr., 31, of Villa Rica, Ga., was fatally shot Saturday night after allegedly stealing a police cruiser and scuffling with Bluefield Police Officer J.W. Murray and State Police Trooper J.R. Coburn.

During the scuffle, Murray called for help after Knight "gained control" of his handgun, West Virginia Police Sgt. Michael Baylous said Tuesday.

Baylous said a witness described Knight as a convicted felon who would do anything to keep from returning to prison.

"He had made statements that he would not be captured by police again," Baylous said. "If that was a possibility, he was going to do something to kill himself or cause police to kill him."

According to media reports, Knight was arrested for public indecency in 2007 in Georgia. He was arrested again in 2010 for felony violation of probation and spent time in prison, reports said.

Just before midnight Saturday, Murray and another Bluefield officer pulled over a vehicle with Knight and three other people inside.

Murray put Knight into handcuffs and placed him inside the police cruiser. But Knight was able to bring his hands from behind his back to his front and he jumped into the driver's seat and took off.

At some point, the three other people who had been with Knight fled the scene in their own vehicle.

Murray called for backup; Coburn, who was working a special detail nearby, responded. Coburn is stationed in McDowell County but was hired to watch Appalachian Power equipment.

Knight drove east on U.S. 460 when he spotted Coburn's oncoming cruiser and attempted to make a hard turn onto a side road just before he drove into a ditch.

Murray and Coburn chased the man up a hillside and attempted to subdue him.

Then there was a struggle for Murray's handgun, Baylous said.

"It was later advised that the suspect could have gained control of the weapon," Baylous said. "The officer did not have control of it after telling [Knight] to release the weapon. He was actively resisting."

Coburn then shot Knight at least once, Baylous said.

Coburn was placed on leave but returned to work Tuesday, Baylous said.

Coburn also fatally shot a suspect in January during an alleged standoff. He was off-duty and on his way to his Princeton home on Jan. 29 when he responded to a call about a man armed with a rifle. He went with Mercer County sheriff's deputies to the Woodlawn Cemetery in Bluewell to look for the man.

The man, Jackie Spalding Jr., 34, allegedly fled from officers and was found a short time later in a vehicle on a service road behind the mausoleum.

Police said Spalding repeatedly refused commands to show his hands as Coburn approached the man's vehicle. Coburn then shot Spalding to death when he reached for the rifle.

Baylous said Coburn was unfairly portrayed in news reports and believes Coburn was justified in his actions during the potentially deadly situation.

"That could have been me; that could have been any other police officer on the scene," Baylous said. "We don't go out looking to get involved in critical incidents. The suspect causes the situation to occur. We have to weigh officer safety into every decision we make."

Baylous said troopers are sworn to protect, and it's not uncommon for troopers to respond to calls while they are off-duty.

"Not only is there a professional obligation -- you could also say there's a moral obligation to respond when people need assistance," he said.

Coburn remains under investigation for both fatal shootings. A completed report has not been handed to Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash.

Police are working to identify the three other passengers inside Knight's vehicle who drove off.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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