BY ALEXA CAPELOTO AND NANCY A. YOUSSEF
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITERS
The blast from a shotgun across the cracked pavement of a parking lot Friday night forced a suburb known for its tranquility to face a brutal, senseless crime against one of its protectors.
Timothy W. Berner, right, is suspected in the shooting death of Sterling Heights Police Officer Mark Sawyers.
Sterling Heights Police Officer Mark Sawyers was dead. Suspect Timothy W. Berner was nowhere to be found. The exhaustive search for Berner since then has frustrated Sawyers' colleagues and unnerved local residents.
"With this guy still out there, it hasn't really given us time to reflect on the loss of Mark," Sterling Heights Lt. Mike Reese said. "And we won't be able to do that until we get this guy in custody. Then we'll grasp what happened."
The manhunt for Berner spans the state and goes nationwide Saturday with an episode of the TV show "America's Most Wanted." The many law enforcement agencies involved get about 200 calls a day, but tips so far have led nowhere, said Sterling Heights Capt. Dave Vinson.
Some leads are based on unsubstantiated rumors of a motive or link between Berner, 33, and Sawyers, 30. Police continue to say it does not appear Sawyers was a specific target beyond being a uniformed police officer.
The latest dead end was a Tuesday morning raid on a Roseville home Berner was once known to frequent. After seeing what looked to be lights and the glow of a TV screen in the unoccupied home, a Macomb County SWAT team burst in. No one was inside.
It was at least the third metro area home searched since Friday night. Officers in Detroit's 11th (Davison) Precinct also investigated Monday whether Berner was in a nearby motel but came up empty again, said Precinct Cmdr. Robert Dunlap.
The zealous investigation began soon after Sawyers was shot as he sat in his parked patrol car at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Officials from more than a dozen local police departments converged on the parking lot and combed the area for hours.
Attorney James Galen Jr. said he was gardening with his wife late Friday at their Mt. Clemens home when a group of eight or nine Mt. Clemens and Sterling Heights police officers approached, holding weapons.
"They initially thought it was one of my clients who did this thing," Galen said, because Sawyers had recently dealt as an officer with that client.
Galen said he brought his client to the Sterling Heights Police Department and turned over the man's clothing from that day. The man was questioned through the night and released.
"He was one of those leads that we had to close out," Vinson said of the client, whom the Free Press is not naming because he is no longer a suspect.
On Tuesday afternoon, Reese walked the Target parking lot where Sawyers was killed, describing the shooting for a crew from "America's Most Wanted." The episode airs at 9 p.m. Saturday on the Fox network.
Curious shoppers glanced at the small group but went about their errands. Doris Kollinger, a neighbor of the Sawyers family in Warren, said she was nervous about shopping so close to the marked-off crime scene.
"I wasn't even sure I wanted to come here today," Kollinger, 70, said as she left Target. "He was so innocent, just sitting there. It can happen to anyone, anywhere."
Thanks to donations from police unions, businesses and residents, the city doubled its reward to $20,000 for information leading to Berner's capture.
Warren Realtor Ralph Roberts also sought donations for au education fund for Sawyers' daughter Lily, just under a year old. By Tuesday afternoon, he said, he had gathered more than $5,000.
Sawyers was patrolling alone, a common practice, when police say he was ambushed by a man driving a red 1994 Camaro wish the Michigan plate YSR 497. Since then, the department has assigned two officers per car, supplementing with officers from outside the city, Vinson said.
The city is in the process of installing video cameras in its patrol cars, but had not yet put one in the marked Crown Victoria Sawyers drove.
Sterling Heights, considered a quiet, family-oriented community, has never dealt with the fatal shooting of a police officer. Officer Michael Zawojsky survived a closed head injury in July 2003 when a robbery suspect rammed his patrol car.
The city had no homicides for about five years until the strangulation of a woman in August 2002 and the suspected murder of a Madison Heights man in a Sterling Heights real estate firm in October.
"I think this was such a random act, such a heinous act, that it could have happened anywhere," Sterling Heights City Council-woman Maria Schmidt said of Sawyers' shooting. "It has nothing to do with the safety of our community. I'm very confident our community remains safe."
Berner is 6 feet 4 and weighs about 250 pounds, police said. He has blue eyes and brown hair. Anyone with information about the shooting may call the Sterling Heights Police Department at 586-446-2800 anytime.
Sawyers' funeral is at 11 a.m. today at Bethesda Christian Church, 14000 Metropolitan Parkway in Sterling Heights.