James Ahern, a history teacher at Dickinson High School, did not plan on becoming a hero when he went to school Wednesday. But upon witnessing a 27-year-old female allegedly shoot a police officer in front of the school parking lot, his instincts prompted him to react like one.
Ahern chased the woman for a few blocks before pinning her against a wall outside of a pizzeria. Those instincts were instilled in him during his years as a police lieutenant for the Jersey City Police Department and had not disappeared when he retired four years ago.
The details that precede the 1 p.m. shooting remain ambiguous, as the Police Department consistently refers to the inciting incident as an “investigatory traffic stop.” This much has been released: Jersey City Police Officer William Chavis pulled over a car on Palisade Avenue and noticed a syringe needle on the dashboard, police said. To ensure his safety, he placed the male passenger in the back of his police vehicle, according to Deputy Police Director Edgar Martinez. When officer Chavis turned around, Martinez said, the female driver allegedly fired three or four shots at Officer Chavis, striking him in the chest twice.
Augie Rullo, a school security guard, was driving into the parking lot moments before the shooting and said he saw Chavis talking with the woman outside of his police vehicle. “It looked like a routine stop,” Rullo said Thursday. He also noticed the male sitting in the back of the police car. But minutes later, he heard the words “officer down” on his radio and rushed back to discover that the officer had been shot and was lying in the street as blood poured out of his chest.
At the time of the shooting, Ahern, the teacher, was sitting in his car eating lunch. He noticed that a police vehicle had pulled over a car a few yards away, but did not think much of it. “I thought it was a routine traffic stop until I heard shots,” Ahern said Thursday.
He said the officer was retreating from the woman as she chased him, continuing to fire shots. “I got out of my vehicle and went over to that direction,” Ahern said. “[The officer] fell to the pavement.”
Ahern turned over the police officer to discover that it was Chavis, a 13-year veteran of the Police Department whom Ahern remembered working with when he was on the force.
Ahern told Chavis that he needed his gun and withdrew it from the holster. A school security guard standing nearby called the incident into the police as Ahern fled in pursuit of the female suspect. Police arrived seconds later.
Chasing the woman through the Hudson Gardens housing complex on Washburn Street, Ahern caught up with her at the entrance of Larry & Joe’s Pizza on Newark Avenue. With one foot it in the door of the pizzeria the female suspect allegedly came to a halt as Ahern grabbed her with one hand and held a gun to her head with the other.
The Police Department arrived on the scene seconds later, and quickly located the .38 caliber handgun used in the crime in the suspect’s purse, according to Ahern.
Police arrested Ivelisse Gilestra Chehata of North Bergen.
The 10 customers inside the pizzeria were shocked and frightened as Ahern pointed a gun to the suspect’s head, said Christina Papageorigou, owner of the pizzeria where the suspect was apprehended. “One client got so scared, she hid under the table,” Papageorigou said. “Our first reaction was to be scared of the guy. But we believe he did the right thing and we’re glad the police officer is going to be okay.”
Chehata was charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and weapons possession. Police later found two bags of heroin in her pocketbook and added charges of possession, they said. Chehata was arraigned Thursday and a cash-only bail was set at $500,000. She was transported to Hudson County jail in Kearny, Martinez said.
Rullo said that the male in the back of the car immediately distanced himself from the crime, exclaiming repeatedly, “She’s crazy! She’s crazy! She shot him!” The police have not released the identity of the male nor charged him with anything.
At the school
Responding to the incident as a possible threat to the safety of the students, Robert Donato, principal of Dickinson High School, made sure that all movement in the building ceased and locked the doors. “We didn’t know what was going on,” Donato said.
Don Howard, a vice principal at Dickinson who is in charge of security, said that he saw Ahern run after Chehata on Washburn Street and decided to cut her off at Newark Avenue. As he approached Newark Avenue, Howard said, Ahern already had caught her.
Chavis’ children said that they naturally worry about their father’s safety, but have never been put through an emotional upheaval like this before. One of them, a daughter, is a freshman at Dickinson High.
When Kimberly Chavis began hearing rumors that a police officer was shot outside of the high school, she said that friends asked her if she thought her father was involved. Doubtful that was the case, she told them that he did not work in that area of Jersey City.
Moments later, her name was announced over the loudspeaker and she reported to the principal’s office. She soon learned that the wounded officer was indeed her father, William Chavis, 43, and that he had been rushed to the Jersey City Medical Center. “I was hysterical,” Kimberly Chavis said. “I never experienced something like this.”
According to his children, Chavis showed promising signs of recovering when they visited him at the hospital. “I knew he was going to be all right, because he’s a fighter,” said his daughter, Christina Chavis.
Chavis was released from the hospital Thursday afternoon.
Three of the Chavis’ six children came to Dickinson High School Thursday to present Ahern with personal balloons and plaques expressing gratitude.
“I’m glad that I was just able to help,” Ahern said.