Police shooting at Rockton Walmart leads to high-speed chase


Stock photo of Walmart: Random Retail

A Rockton Police officer shot a 25 year-old man in the arm as the man apparently tried to run him down with a vehicle in the Walmart parking lot at 4781 E Rockton Rd. The shooting happened on Thursday night, Nov. 17, 2022, about 7:42 p.m. when the officer was on patrol.  No one else was injured. 

Both suspects live in Janesville, according to Wisconsin court records. The injured suspect, Austin K. Levitski, 25, a white man with facial tattoos, has three active warrants for theft from the Rockton Police Department and several convictions in Rock County, Wisconsin, mostly drug-related. The other suspect, Melody Gackstatter of Janesville, 32, was released on bond from Rock County, WI on Oct. 28, 2022.

An announcement by Rockton Police said, "Because [the] incident involved one of its own officers, the Rockton Police Department immediately requested the assistance of the Winnebago/Boone County Integrity Task Force, which will perform a full investigation."

The Rockton Police announcement said, "All evidence and facts will be submitted for review to the Winnebago County State's Attorney's Office. No additional information will be provided at this time."  

But later, a news release [PDF] from Winnebago County State’s Attorney J. Hanley gave further details.

To begin with, Hanley said, "It is imperative that the community understand that the following information is based on a preliminary and ongoing investigation, which continues to evolve as investigators interview witnesses, review physical and electronic records, and analyze forensic evidence. The Task Force and the State’s Attorney’s understanding of the facts and circumstances may change as additional evidence is collected and analyzed. Further, the State’s Attorney will, and must, reserve all judgment until the investigation is complete... Any allegations contained herein are merely allegations and all are presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty in a court of law."

The Walmart incident started a couple of minutes before the shooting, when a shopper told Rockton Police Sgt. Ben Heintz that at that moment, suspected shoplifters were loading merchandise into their vehicle. Heintz found Melody Gackstatter in the parking lot with a shopping cart and Austin K. Levitski in the front passenger seat. Apparently Gackstatter quickly climbed into the vehicle, but Heintz told both suspects to get out. 

Instead, Levitski allegedly slid into the driver’s seat and put the vehicle into drive, accelerating toward Heintz. According to Hanley, Sgt. Heintz "put his hands out as the vehicle was coming at him, touching the front hood area of the vehicle." Heintz was able to get out of the way before he could be run over, but he fired three shots at the vehicle.

Hanley says Levitski and Gackstatter then escaped east on Rockton Rd and south on IL 251, at speeds over 100 MPH. The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office and the Roscoe Police Department joined the chase. Near Forest Hills Road, Levitski left 251 and circled back, finally colliding into a garage near Dorothea Avenue in Machesney Park. After the crash, Levitski got out of the vehicle and tried to run away, but officers stopped him with a taser. Levitski and Gackstatter were arrested and Levitski, with a gunshot wound to his arm, was taken to Javon Bea MercyHealth Hospital, where he is in fair condition. 

Trooper Genelle Jones of the Illinois State Police Public Information Office told us Levitski had been hospitalized following the arrest, but "he has since been released to the custody of the Winnebago County Jail, with prior warrants and pending charges. The passenger, Melody Gackstatter, has pending charges as well."

Because of the shooting by his officer, Rockton Police Chief Hollinger asked the Winnebago Boone County Integrity Task Force to take over the investigation. "Officers from Rockton Police Department will not participate in the investigation," confirms Hanley.

Task Force investigators, still in their beginning stages, are now talking to witnesses, getting evidence from the scene, and looking at videos including body and dash camera footage from the officers. So far, authorities say they will not be publicly releasing video evidence while the investigation is going on. 

During the investigation, Sgt. Heintz will be on paid administrative leave. An internal investigation will determine "whether the officer was following all policies and procedures before and after the incident."

Rockton Police Chief Matt Hollinger says, "Investigators with the Integrity Task Force have our full support and assistance as they continue their work to determine all the facts surrounding this incident."

Sgt. Heintz voluntarily took a blood test, which Illinois law requires. The Rockton Police Department "has turned over all available camera footage and physical evidence from the incident to the investigators and has pledged its ongoing assistance as the investigation continues."

What happens next?

Reports and questions immediately surfaced on social media and on Rockford Scanner, which calls itself "the area's favorite entertainment website," about why and who fired shots, what happened after the shooting, and the extent of his wounds. Initial photos and posts on Nextdoor were later removed.

The police have referred further inquiries to the Winnebago/Boone County Integrity Task Force, which is headed by a commander from the Illinois State Police. The task force is comprised of all law enforcement agencies in Winnebago and Boone County. We have reached out to the Illinois State Police by email.

Walmart's Amanda Jaeger, Senior Manager, Digital Strategy, Corporate Affairs, had no further comment, but told us, "As this is still an open investigation, I will refer you to local law enforcement in your area. Thank you for reaching out."

Why can't the police release more details now? 

After a 2021 police shooting in Rockford, Winnebago County State's Attorney J. Hanley prepared a document [PDF] called Officer-Involved Shootings: An Overview of the Process [DOC]. In it, he agreed, "The public has a strong interest in learning the facts surrounding an officer-involved shooting or death." But he cautioned, "As with any investigation that may lead to a criminal prosecution, the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct and the Illinois Code of Criminal Procedure place restrictions on the information that the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office may release to the public." 

One of the main reasons for not releasing more information is to protect a defendant's right to a fair trial. The Illinois Rule of Professional Conduct 3.6 (a) won't allow an attorney to make “an extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and would pose a serious and imminent threat to the fairness of an adjudicative proceeding in the matter.” That's called "trying the case in the media." If the details get wide publicity before all the evidence is in, it becomes hard to find any jurors who haven't already made up their minds about who's guilty and who's innocent.  

Illinois Rule of Professional Conduct 3.8 (f) allows prosecutors and their staffs to make statements that "serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose," but  not to "heighten public condemnation of the accused" which could result in a “serious and imminent threat to the fairness” of a future trial.

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