It started out as a story about a police officer who was ambushed in small-town Louisiana.
But within days, the tale unraveled. The officer had shot himself, his department said.
At 11:20 p.m. on Sunday, Police Officer John Michael Goulart Jr. radioed in to the Pineville Police Department that he needed help.
He said that he had been fired upon by an unknown assailant as he was getting out of his patrol car at a strip mall in Pineville, a Louisiana city of 16,000 people that lies about 100 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. “A Great Place to Call Home,” reads a sign on Main Street.
Officer Goulart said that one bullet had pierced the door of his vehicle and another had struck him in the leg, a police spokesman said, quoting the report.
The officer said he didn’t return fire, Deputy Chief Darrell B. Basco, the spokesman, said in an interview on Friday. “He said he was ambushed by an unknown person.”
An ambulance was dispatched. Officer Goulart was taken to the hospital, treated for an injury to his calf and released, Deputy Chief Basco said.
Then his fellow officers mobilized. They searched for a gunman. They canvassed shops for video from security cameras. They knocked on doors and talked to neighbors, the deputy chief said.
“We never developed any suspects as this went on,” he said. Against the backdrop of nationwide protests against police misconduct, the ongoing story touched a nerve in Pineville. In the 24 hours after the shooting, the department’s Facebook page filled with messages from people in the city calling the officer a hero, wishing for “swift justice” and a speedy recovery.
“Prayers for this officer and his family blood and Blue,” wrote one. “I pray each morning and night for these men and women, just let them go home safe and sound.”
The police chief, Donald Weatherford, thanked the public for the “overwhelming response” and offers of financial support.
He added, “Your continued support and information for the investigation is most needed.”
But after that investigation took its unexpected turn, the Facebook messages turned from prayers and offers of rewards to anger.
“Do yourself a favor, and donate to something actually worth donating, like to the family of Breonna Taylor or the many other victims of bad cops just like this one!!!!” one poster wrote.
On Tuesday, Officer Goulart was booked at the Rapides Parish Detention Center on charges of criminal mischief for false report of a crime, and malfeasance in office, records show. He was released after posting bond and placed on paid leave.
The mayor of Pineville, Clarence Fields, said he knew of Officer Goulart as a “very good police officer.” But the fabricated ambush story was, he said, “unfortunate,” considering “everything going on in America relative to relationships between police and the community.”
“They are mindful that they will probably be looked at very differently and receive some criticism,” he said of the Police Department.
But the quick outcome of the investigation has helped ease tensions. “Had it gone on longer than it did, it potentially would have had an effect on our community,” Mayor Fields said.
Calls to Officer Goulart’s home were not answered on Thursday and Friday. It was not immediately clear whether he had a lawyer.
The case has not yet been turned over to the district attorney’s office, Deputy Chief Basco said. The department is still investigating, he added.
Officer Goulart, who has been on the force for about five years and has no previous disciplinary record, had a “backup” gun, which he is allowed to have, in addition to his department-issued Glock 40-caliber, the spokesman said.
His stop at the mall that night was routine for officers, who may stop there to make sure no one has pried open doors, Deputy Chief Basco said. Then, gunfire.
“He said he did not see anybody,” he said, quoting the officer’s version of events. “He heard the shots, and was shot.”
Bullet casings at the scene did not come from the department-issued sidearm. The deputy chief declined to provide further details.
“We determined that he was untruthful and that he had shot himself,” he added. “But part of what we are still doing is investigating the motive, as to what he thought was going to happen by reporting an ambush, instead of that he had shot himself.”