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Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay listens to a question from the media Tuesday afternoon along with Deputy Chief Mike Tusken during a news conference about the officer-involved shooting that occurred Monday in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Duluth police had been to shooting victim’s house multiple times

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The 34-year-old man shot by a Duluth police officer early Monday had been the subject of eight police calls in just over three weeks, and was twice taken to the hospital on suicide threats during that time, Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said.

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“Joe Zontelli has been in crisis,” Ramsay said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

Zontelli, 34, was struck by two bullets fired by Officer Marc Johnson, a seven-year veteran of the force, when he refused to drop a knife after barricading himself in a basement room at a Piedmont Heights residence, Ramsay announced. Zontelli, who also inflicted injuries to himself with a knife, has been improving and is expected to survive his injuries, the chief said.

Johnson, a canine handler who deployed his German shepherd partner Oakley during the incident, is on paid administrative leave.

“Preliminarily, it doesn’t look like there’s any issues with the way things went down,” the chief said of Johnson’s actions.

Ramsay said he did not have information on where the bullets struck Zontelli, or the degree of injuries caused by the gunshots. He said five officers were present at the time, but only Johnson deployed his duty weapon.

Ramsay said he did not yet know the exact circumstances that led to the shooting, or whether Zontelli lunged at or threatened the officers during the incident. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, not the Duluth Police Department, is handling the investigation.

“Officer Johnson has expressed that Joe did something that caused him to fear for his life and the lives of the other officers in the room,” Ramsay said. “We’ll know more when the BCA is done with its investigation.”

Police were called to the home of Joe and Amy Zontelli, 3202 Piedmont Ave., about 4 a.m. Monday. Ramsay said the call was placed by a third party, who was not in the house at the time. While the initial call was for a domestic disturbance, Ramsay said officers on scene learned that the call was actually related to suicidal threats and that no domestic violence had occurred.

Joe Zontelli, the subject of the call, barricaded himself in a basement room after officers arrived. He had cut himself with a knife and stated that he was going to “bleed out” in 30 minutes, according to police.

“As the officers were determining what to do, they noticed there was blood pooling under the door, so there was some exigency in their mind on how to handle it,” Ramsay said. “He was shouting that he wanted to die and that he was going to bleed to death. So the officers decided to force entry into the room to provide him help. Unfortunately, it did not turn out like they’d hoped.”

When Zontelli refused to drop the knife he was holding, Johnson deployed his dog in an attempt to distract him so the officers could take him into custody, Ramsay said.

Ramsay said he does not know exactly what led to the shots being fired, and said that is up to the BCA to determine.

“I’m not privy to all the details,” he said. “We want to keep this an external investigation. We don’t poke around; they do their business separate from the police department.”

He noted that officers were recording the incident via the department’s new body cameras, and said that video would be used in the investigation and should be publicly available once the investigation is completed.

Once the BCA completes its investigation, the case will be sent to St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin to determine whether the use of deadly force was justified. Rubin told the News Tribune that it was too early for him to determine whether his office would review the reports or refer them to another county attorney.

Ramsay said Johnson’s return to the force would be subject to his own readiness and the recommendation of a psychologist. He noted that officers involved in shootings are deeply affected by the experience, and many leave law enforcement within a few years.

The shooting was the fifth involving a Duluth police officer in the past four years. In all four previous cases, the actions of the officers involved were determined to be justified. Before that, Duluth police had not been involved in a shooting since 2001.

Ramsay said it’s hard to draw parallels among the five recent cases, saying each brought its own unique circumstances. While officer-involved shooting statistics are not well kept in the law enforcement community, Ramsay said Duluth still sees fewer cases on average than other comparable cities.

“There’s no common threads in these shootings,” he said. “We just look at them on a case-by-case basis. All of ours were very, very different, and the officers had no other choice in those cases.”

Ramsay said he had an opportunity to speak with Zontelli’s wife and father.

“I expressed sympathy for the situation and apologized for what they are dealing with,” he said. “Their lives have been put out in the public, and having to deal with Joe’s serious injuries as well. It’s an unfortunate situation.”

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