Law enforcement in Florida shot and killed an unidentified suspect who fired a high-powered rifle at a controversial natural gas pipeline and exchanged gunfire with sheriff's deputies and state troopers after a vehicle chase on Sunday, authorities said. The shooting came less than a week after protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near North Dakota's Standing Rock Indian Reservation came to an end.
The Standing Rock protests, which generated international headlines and led to months of political and legal maneuvering, ended when law enforcement cleared the protesters' encampment and arrested dozens of people last Thursday. But as the violent encounter in Florida on Sunday shows, the contentious battles over pipelines in the U.S. could continue long after the Dakota Access Pipeline is completed.
Citrus County deputies and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper shot and killed the man in self defense, the Florida Highway Patrol said. The fatal shooting occurred after the man led authorities on a chase across two counties located more than an hour northwest of Orlando. Authorities originally responded to reports the man was shooting a "high-power rifle" at the Sabal Trail Pipeline and associated equipment along a state highway in Dunnellon, Florida.
The Sabal Trail Pipeline is a 515-mile natural gas pipeline that stretches from Alabama to central Florida. The project, under construction, is a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners, NextEra Energy, Inc., and Duke Energy, according to the Sabal Trail Transmission website. The pipeline's construction has prompted protests in Florida. Last week, two protesters were arrested and charged with felony grand theft, trespassing on a construction site and criminal mischief after wedging themselves inside the pipeline.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is investigating the shooting, has not released the identity of the victim. It has also declined to reveal the deputies and trooper involved in the shooting, who were all unharmed. They have been placed on administrative leave, which is typical protocol for law enforcement personnel involved in fatal shootings.
One witness who called 911 said he saw the suspect climb on top of a car and fire an assault rifle at the pipeline. Chevy Matthews told WFTV he heard 150 shots in 30 minutes before he saw the gunman. "He's in full tactical gear, it looks like," Matthews said.
The suspect fled the scene, but authorities identified his vehicle traveling south a 30 minutes later. One of the troopers struck and stopped the suspect's vehicle near Floral City. The suspect then opened fire at the trooper and deputies before he was fatally shot, the Florida Highway Patrol said.
On Monday morning, activists with Sabal Trail Resistance held a vigil for the man. Organizers said they didn't know who the man was, but said in a Facebook post that "its important to acknowledge that someone lost their life at the hands of the police in an effort to stop the pipeline."
"From what we have seen thus far, the person who was killed conducted a successful effort to sabotage pipeline construction this morning," the post said. "In response, law enforcement agents initiated a chase into Citrus County that ended in him being killed. There has been no evidence that this person posed any threat beyond causing property damage."
On Twitter, David Williams, a reporter with the local Fox affiliate, said the damage would not delay construction.