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Locals say suspect in NHP trooper’s killing had COVID-19 obsession

Updated April 1, 2020 - 6:31 pm

A man accused of fatally shooting a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper had spent the weeks leading up to the killing on a paranoid quest to warn people in White Pine County of his theory that COVID-19 was spreading through the water and sewer systems.

The White Pine County Sheriff’s Office was contacted after three of the known incidents involving Ruth resident John Dabritz, according to court documents and interviews with locals who had interacted with the 65-year-old man prior to the shooting.

Dabritz made his initial court appearance Wednesday in Ely in connection with the fatal shooting five days earlier of Sgt. Ben Jenkins on U.S. Highway 93, north of Ely. He is charged with open murder, third-degree arson, grand larceny of a motor vehicle and grand larceny of a firearm.

During the 20-minute arraignment, which was livestreamed because of the coronavirus outbreak, White Pine County District Attorney Michael Wheable said prosecutors could decide to seek capital punishment.

Shackled and dressed in orange jail garb, Dabritz at times stared at the ceiling of the courtroom as prosecutors, his public defender and the judge spoke about the death penalty.

He did not enter a plea, and a preliminary hearing was set for April 16. He will remain at the White Pine County jail without bail.

An obsession

According to interviews with three members of the White Pine County community who had encountered Dabritz prior to the shooting, his obsession with the virus began as early as March 4.

On that day, Dabritz showed up at the McGill-Ruth Sewer & Water District office in McGill wearing a large mask and ranting about COVID-19, demanding to speak with an engineer or water operator, according to office manager Amy Garcia.

“He had this paper in his hand, and he was getting really aggressive with off-the-wall stuff,” Garcia said, adding that Dabritz had thrown himself down in a chair, “talking about the virus comes from the sewers, and his wife was some famous scientist.”

His ex-wife, Haydee Dabritz, is an epidemiologist in California. The woman told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that her ex-husband was a research scientist in the 1980s, before he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

During the March 4 encounter, another water district employee, Kurt Carson, asked the man if he was sick.

“Yes,” Dabritz replied, according to Garcia.

“You probably shouldn’t be in public,” Garcia recalled telling the man.

Because Dabritz hadn’t made any threats, Garcia said the water district staff did not call authorities, though Garcia said the incident left her feeling unsettled.

Legal mental health hold

Just over a week later, that encounter in the water district office would come up again, while Dabritz was hospitalized at William Bee Ririe Hospital in Ely.

According to a hospital employee, who spoke to the Review-Journal on the condition of anonymity, Dabritz first came to the hospital for issues unrelated to his mental health. But he soon was placed on a legal mental health hold, after he began wandering the halls, and he brought a “concerning” note to the nurses’ station, according to the employee, who works in a clinical position.

“I told the church in Ely they laughed got kicked out of the water dept for wearing a mask,” he stated in the handwritten note, a copy of which was provided to the Review-Journal. “don’t know why I tried to save this town of dirt bags.”

According to the employee, Dabritz told hospital staff he had $30,000 worth of “illegal untraceable weapons” and “wanted to save us from the suffering of coronavirus.”

In another portion of the note, he wrote, “Oh yee of Little faith and mindless objectivity the crisis robbed priest of the opocolyst have poked out your eyes & made you senceles.”

Dabritz remained at the Ely hospital until he was transferred from the facility around March 14, the employee said.

The man’s whereabouts after he left the hospital are unclear, but according to the employee, Dabritz returned to the hospital on March 21, prompting assistance from the Sheriff’s Office. Dabritz was trespassed, the employee said, and his photo was displayed at the nurses’ station with instructions to call 911 if he was seen on the property.

‘Very erratic’

Two days later, Dabritz made his way to The Ely Times newsroom, according to Kay Roberts-McMurray, a reporter for the newspaper.

Dabritz showed up, flash drive in hand, wearing a neon green face mask. He wanted to take out a full-page ad with his name, date of birth and a symbol, according to the reporter.

Roberts-McMurray said the man’s house in Ruth had been spray-painted with various symbols and the wording “(expletive) the toads.”

“He said he had the best story, and it was going to blow my mind,” the reporter said. “It had to do with coronavirus.”

Their conversation “was very erratic, and much of it didn’t make sense,” Roberts-McMurray said.

Though she said she wasn’t threatened by Dabritz, the reporter sent an email to the Sheriff’s Office, which had apparently instructed her to lock her doors and “be careful.”

“His behavior was just so uncomfortable, very in your face, with no personal space,” Roberts-McMurray said.

The next day, on March 24, according to court documents, Dabritz “delivered a box with concerning content” to Ely Justice Court, prompting courthouse staff to contact law enforcement.

Further details about the content are not known. The Sheriff’s Office has not responded to requests for comment.

‘Completely off the rails’

Around the same time, Dabritz began sending his ex-wife, the epidemiologist, a stream of rambling emails.

“They were definitely strange, incoherent,” Haydee Dabritz said Friday evening. “It seemed like he had gone completely off the rails.”

Spooked, she deleted most of the messages. The couple divorced in 2013.

By Friday, just before dawn, Dabritz had pulled over in a rented 2020 Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck along a remote stretch of U.S. 93, according to his arrest report and criminal complaint.

At 5:54 a.m., Jenkins stopped to check on a motorist, who opened fire, striking the sergeant in his “shoulder and/or head,” according to the complaint.

The motorist stripped Jenkins of his uniform and firearm, set the Dodge pickup on fire and fled in the sergeant’s patrol truck, authorities have said, leading to a four-hour manhunt involving at least five Nevada law enforcement agencies and the Utah Highway Patrol.

During that window, according to the William Bee Ririe Hospital employee, staff “feared that he was possibly returning” to the hospital, sending some staff members into a panic. Investigators do not believe any other crimes were committed before the motorist was taken into custody in the small town of Cherry Creek.

A motive for the shooting has not been released by the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office or the Metropolitan Police Department, the agencies leading the investigation.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter. Contact Glenn Puit at gpuit@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0390. Follow @GlennatRJ on Twitter.

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