SAN ANTONIO – A Bexar County Sheriff's Office sergeant who fired his weapon at a suspect during a chase in August retired weeks after the incident while it was under internal investigation, the Sheriff's Office confirmed.
The sergeant had also previously served two chase-related suspensions prior to the chase in question, according to records obtained by the Defenders.
Sgt. Christian Burchell retired on Aug. 23, less than three weeks after he told investigators he believed the suspect, Jonathan Thigpen, 28, was armed when he fled from deputies who attempted to pull him over in the Camelot II neighborhood.
Burchell stated he fired a shot at Thigpen on Aug. 5 after the suspect used his car to ram a patrol vehicle and hit other vehicles, before ditching his car and fleeing on foot outside Montgomery Elementary School.
Thigpen was not hit. Investigators later determined he was not armed with a weapon.
Surveillance video captured by cameras outside the school appeared to show Thigpen get out of the vehicle and run away from pursuing deputies.
"There is some evidence to indicate that it was questionable whether a gun should have been fired,” said James Keith, Sheriff's Office spokesperson.
Through his attorney, James Millan, Thigpen told the Defenders that "he could feel bullets whizzing by his head" as he drove away from deputies, raising questions about how many shots Burchell fired and at what point during the pursuit his weapon was used.
When asked whether Burchell fired at an unarmed man who was running away, Keith said, "It's very likely."
The internal investigation of Burchell stalled due to his retirement, but a separate criminal investigation remains open.
"Whenever somebody is the subject of an internal investigation, you always question a motive when they leave employment," said Keith, who pointed out that deputies encounter dangerous situations almost every single day.
The Bexar County District Attorney's Office has yet to receive the case, a DA spokesperson said. The spokesperson added that the case against Thigpen, who is charged with evading arrest and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, has been referred to a magistrate court while the defendant goes through a "sanity evaluation."
Thigpen has one previous arrest in Comal County for misdemeanor family violence, according to court records.
Burchell, who retired months shy of reaching 33 years working for the Sheriff's Office, declined a new request from the Defenders for an interview. but he said via telephone last week that there is "a lot of misinformation out there." Burchell referred all other questions to defense attorney Alan Brown, who confirmed he is representing Burchell and said his client has done nothing wrong.
"He's a good law enforcement officer," Brown said via telephone last week.
Burchell's personnel file indicated he served a three-day suspension last year after he damaged his patrol unit during a Northeast Side chase in June 2015 that he was not asked to join.
Burchell "turned in front of the pursuit" being handled by Precinct 3 deputy constables, cutting off them and the suspect's vehicle, according to Sheriff's Office records.
The records state that the chase eventually reached speeds of 101 mph, with Burchell "striking the vehicle several times" while pursuing too close.
Burchell eventually failed in his attempt to perform a PIT maneuver on the vehicle, then used pepper spray on the chase suspect, even though he was no longer certified by the state to use it, according to suspension paperwork.
The paperwork stated that Burchell never disclosed using the pepper spray, and that the information, instead, came from a deputy constable's report of the incident.
In 2000, Burchell served a one-day suspension after failing to disclose that a deputy he was supervising drove the wrong direction on a Loop 410 frontage road while engaged in a chase.
Burchell's personnel file also indicated he was demoted from the rank of sergeant during the mid-1990s after an investigation determined he had inappropriate contact with a deputy.
Burchell was later reinstated to the rank of sergeant on appeal, but the file does not provide details about the original investigation.
District court records obtained by the Defenders showed Burchell fired his weapon while in uniform at least two other times before the August incident.
In December 1990, an on-duty Burchell fired a shotgun toward a wooded area while pursuing an armed robbery suspect, according to district clerk records. No one was hit, and the suspect later served time in prison for the incident.
In November 1993, Burchell was off-duty, but in uniform, working security when he fired up to 10 shots at a suspect who was attempting to rob a man at gunpoint behind Tiffany's Cabaret.
The suspect, who later served prison time for the crime, was hit in the foot, buttock and upper and lower back.
Burchell's personnel file included no mention of either shooting, and it appeared he was not disciplined for either incident.