Undercover drug detective, informant killed; 3 are arrested

CLEVELAND (AP) — A Cleveland police detective who had just joined a federal violence task force was shot and killed in his unmarked car along with a police informant during a drug operation, officials said Friday.

Three people have been arrested in the shooting that killed Detective James Skernivitz, 53, and another man on Thursday night. Cleveland Safety Director Karrie Howard said at a news briefing Friday afternoon that two juveniles and an adult taken into custody for unrelated arrest warrants are being questioned. Their names have not been released.

Scott Dingess, 50, has been identified by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office as the other man killed inside Skernivitz’s car.

An emotional Police Chief Calvin Williams did not provide details about the shootings during the briefing.

“It could have been random, it could have been targeted,” Williams said. “We don’t know. We’re still investigating.”

Skernivitz and Dingess were shot around 10 p.m. Thursday on the city’s west side. A Cleveland police official knowledgeable about some details of the shooting, but who was not authorized to speak publicly, told The Associated Press that Skernivitz was working undercover as part of a drug operation and that Dingess was a police informant.

Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, said there were no other officers in the area when the two men were shot.

Officials have not said whether Skernivitz was working Thursday night as part of the federal task force or as a member of the Cleveland police gang unit to which he was normally assigned.

Skernivitz was a 25-year veteran. Williams at Friday’s briefing called him a “policeman’s policeman.”

Skernivitz and other law enforcement officers were sworn in Wednesday at the Cleveland FBI office to become members of the FBI’s Violent Crime Task Force in support of Operation Legend, a Justice Department effort to crack down on violent crime in a number of U.S. cities, including Cleveland, FBI spokesperson Vicki Anderson.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr called Skernivitz’s death “a very sad day for the city of Cleveland and the entire law enforcement community.”

“It takes a special kind of courage to be a police officer,” Barr said. “Our men and women in blue put their lives on the line day after day in order to keep us safe. We will not forget Detective Skernivitz and his life of service and sacrifice.”

Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the U.S. and state flags to be flown at half-staff at public buildings in Cuyahoga County and at the Statehouse in Columbus.

U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman said Thursday that 54 defendants have been charged criminally, including 39 people for drug-related offenses, since Operation Legend got underway in Cleveland on July 29.

It has been more than 10 years since an on-duty Cleveland police officer was fatally shot.

Patrol Officer Derek Owens, 36, was killed in February 2008 while chasing a suspect. Owens caught up to the man, who turned and shot Owens in the abdomen below his bulletproof vest.

The man was found guilty of aggravated murder and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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