TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Six days ago, the City of Ithaca and the Village of Cayuga Heights were both plunged into an unusual circumstance: being ordered to shelter-in-place as police troopers armed with rifles and dressed in army fatigues combed neighborhoods near Ithaca High School for a possibly armed and dangerous suspect fleeing from a downtown shots fired incident as the sun set on a brisk evening.
When the dust settled, two people were in custody, 22-year-old Ramello Jackson of Ithaca and Trimard Campbell of Utica, also 22 years old. Both were charged with similar crimes: a felony weapons possession charge, a low-level drug possession charge, plus obstruction of governmental administration (for Jackson) and fleeing a police officer in a motor vehicle (for Campbell).
The announcement of the charges provoked confusion, especially considering the magnitude and intrusiveness of the search process. Why had so many resources been dedicated to finding suspects who, when apprehended, were only facing relatively minor charges? Why was a six-hour manhunt through a large swath of Cayuga Heights and Ithaca necessary for a crime that, realistically, doesn’t rank very high compared to the seriousness of some other recent crimes in the area, particularly without a victim?
Sheriff Derek Osborne was one of the leaders of the response, along with Ithaca Police Department Acting Chief John Joly, Cayuga Heights Police Department Chief Jerry Wright and senior officials from the Cornell University Police Department. Osborne acknowledged he had seen negative reaction to the search tactics and the size of the operation, but also pointed out that others were angry the search was concluded without the capture of the third suspect. At the time, police said they had no reason to believe the third suspect was a threat to the public, stating that the shooting had been the result of a specific dispute between two groups.
“I saw a lot of people were upset that the search ended when it did, and then I saw some people that thought it was too big,” he said in an interview. “When I see people split like that, that tells me I probably made the right decision. […] I’m very comfortable with the decision we made to put it at the level we did, and I was also comfortable with the decision we made to end it when we did.”
In his mind, Osborne said, the shooting incident represented an “attempted homicide” since the groups were targeting each other. When the fleeing suspects drove out of the city, county police were able to get involved—an opportunity Osborne had wanted since the recent spate of crimes began about six weeks ago.
“When he runs out of the vehicle after trying to shoot somebody and has a visible handgun on his person, we’re going to pull out all the stops to catch that person, and I’d do it again tomorrow,” Osborne said, acknowledging that he understands why the level of intensity of the manhunt could have frightened some residents, especially the appearance of the Special Response Team—the aforementioned officers in military garb. “Yeah, I can see that. […] For safety reasons, we thought it’d be best to have the chopper make some passes first to see if we could see him right off the bat. We didn’t, so then the special response team did the grid-type search.”
As for the fairly light charges, Osborne said those were a result of conversations among law enforcement and Tompkins County District Attorney Matt Van Houten. When all was said and done, there simply wasn’t much evidence that rose to the level of serious charges, he said, even with bullet casings found at the scene of the initial shooting incident.
“I wasn’t happy with that either,” Osborne said. “There just wasn’t a lot there. If we had located someone in the City of Ithaca who had been injured as a result or had been killed, that would have changed things completely. All we had was charges we could base on items that we found on them at the time. […] When the decision was made to dedicate resources to the search at the level we did, I didn’t do it based on what charges we may have afterwards, it was based on the safety of the community at the time.”
Osborne confirmed that police still do not have an idea where the third suspect is or even who they are, though he said police do have some leads that they’re just not comfortable sharing publicly yet. He did reveal that the suspect had been spotted at one point during the search by the helicopter loaned to local police by the New York State Police, yet when the helicopter had to depart to refuel shortly thereafter, police lost track of the suspect.
Once the sun went down and the K-9 units lost the scent, though in an entirely new area as the suspect traveled from the site of the crash near North Triphammer Road in the heart of Cayuga Heights to back toward Lake Street near Ithaca High School, police became confident that the suspect had left the area and wouldn’t be immediately discoverable.
The shift to a new area came with its own hiccup, as police momentarily implemented a stay-in-place order for a five-mile radius around an address on Renwick Heights Road, leading some to assume the suspect had holed up in that residence—and confusing some others, as a five-mile radius around that address is basically the entire campus of Cornell University, the City of Ithaca, and a sizable portion of other municipalities too. About 10 minutes later, the order was dropped to a mile radius around the same address.
“That one location was honestly just a mistake, that was where we had seen the suspect and when the dispatch center put out the alert they included that address,” Osborne said. “That wasn’t our intent to include the specific address and scare the hell out of the people there, but that was just one of those things that happens in the heat of the moment.”