Officers lauded for quick action following murder
Two Central Point police officers are being praised by their chief for making a quick arrest following a murder Aug. 5 on the Bear Creek Greenway.
Central Point police officers Mike Jones and Brian Munoz estimate they had murder suspect Michael Atwood in custody within four minutes of finding 51-year-old Rickey Lemich's body just east of the Pilot truck stop in Central Point.
Atwood, 51, was indicted Aug. 11 by a Jackson County grand jury on murder and manslaughter charges in the death of Lemich.
At about 9 a.m. Aug. 5, Jones and Munoz responded to a trespassing complaint and found Atwood sitting under a tree on the nearby Burger King parking lot, sipping a beer.
"He was having a beer under a tree, which isn't allowed," said Jones. "He's well known to all of us. He had just been arrested on a parole violation weeks prior. This particular situation, we thought we'd take a softer approach. Told him, you know, 'Pour the beer out. Get going. Get off the property.' "
Moments later, as Munoz headed back to the police station, Jones was approached by a transient who told the officer he was worried about a friend of his who was camped on the Greenway near the Pilot station.
"He was telling me, 'Hey, something happened on the Greenway. There was a fight last night. I think my friend is hurt. Can you come check on him?' " said Jones, adding that the witness mentioned Atwood's name in relation to the fight.
Sensing something was wrong, Jones called Munoz back to the scene and the officers told Atwood to stick around while they trekked down the bike path to check on Lemich. Both officers were familiar with Lemich, so they called to him by name as they approached. That's when they found his body.
"We identified that it was who we thought it was, and that he was gone. And it was obvious that it wasn't due to natural causes," said Jones, who added that the case was personal for them.
"The hard part for us was this was somebody we've had a lot of contact with. A couple weeks prior, he had asked if I had any money on me. I had a talk with him, said, 'Rickey, get off the streets. Go live with your mom.' (Munoz) and I had both driven him to detox a few times."
Munoz said the department's connections in the community both encouraged the witness to seek out police help and made for a sad day when they realized who the victim was.
"It was definitely a shock for both of us. This department really encourages us to be part of the community and get to know people. As soon as we walked up to him and realized it was some type of violence — that it was a homicide — we just kind of looked at each other," Munoz said.
After finding the body, Munoz took off running, requested backup, located Atwood and drew his pistol.
While the case is far from resolved — Atwood is being held in the Jackson County Jail awaiting further court proceedings — police Chief Kris Allison said the department plans a formal recognition for Jones and Munoz.
"While they are very humble about how quickly they handled this case, it was amazing how these two officers put this situation under control and were able to assess it and analyze. If not for them, we would have had a very difficult outcome with a homicide suspect at large," said the chief.
"Because of these two officers' quick thinking and how well they know their community, they were able to get (a suspect) into custody quickly and potentially saved other lives."
Allison said the department's focus on community policing gives the department an advantage in the community.
"Our officers are part of our community, and they are sought out when people need help," she said.
"Knowing our community as well as we do and building a rapport with people on a daily basis makes a difference," Munoz said. "It's not always about being in trouble with the cops, but sometimes it's, 'Hey, it's winter, do you need a cup of coffee?'
"We have a really good department. I've even had people tell me, 'Hey, thanks, you guys are good to us. You do a good job,' on their way to jail."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org