OMAHA, Neb. – In the hours before Jeff Layten was fatally wounded in a shootout with police at an Omaha hospital, the man friends described as easygoing was making despondent calls to relatives and had led officers on a dangerous chase before crashing his truck, police say.
It was one of Layten's calls Wednesday morning from a pay phone at Creighton University Medical Center that prompted a concerned relative to call 911, and led police to the armed 39-year-old Valley man, Omaha police Chief Alex Hayes said. Two officers suffered minor gunshot wounds in the subsequent shootout; Layten died hours later.
"It's just a really tragic situation," Hayes said.
Layten owned the Upland Fields Hunt Club near Tekamah in northeast Nebraska, and he was used to hosting prominent public officials and business leaders there. He also had at least four years of Army training, said Omaha attorney James Martin Davis, who considered Layten a friend. Layten had minor run-ins with the law for a hunting violation and a bad check, but no other criminal cases involving Layten appear in online court records from the past decade.
"I can't imagine Jeff Layten, in his right mind, would have pulled a firearm and shot at an Omaha police officer," Davis said.
Police say Layten's troubles began hours before the shootout, in Tekamah, about 40 miles north of Omaha.
The Burt County Sheriff's Office says deputies went to Layten's former home in Tekamah to investigate a domestic assault, but they were told he had already left in his pickup truck and had taken three guns with him.
La Vista police Chief Robert Lausten said a woman called his department at about 12:15 a.m. Wednesday to report that Layten, her sister's estranged husband, had attacked her sister in Tekamah and threatened to drive to La Vista to kill her and her mother.
Lausten said officers set up surveillance at the La Vista homes and that Layten drove by his estranged wife's mother's home within minutes.
Officers tried to stop the truck, but Layten took off and led police on a chase through the city at speeds of over 90 mph, Lausten said. Officers gave up the chase, and Layten crashed into a utility pole in nearby Ralston a short time later. Layten fled the scene armed with a rifle, the chief said.
Omaha police are still trying to determine Layten's whereabouts between the chase and the hospital shootout, Hayes said. At some point, Layten left a rifle at a pay phone in south Omaha, Hayes said. Police recovered the gun after one of Layten's relatives reported that he'd told them about it, Hayes said.
Hayes said Layten had been expressing suicidal thoughts to several relatives during phone calls Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Hayes didn't say exactly what Layten told his relatives.
Layten arrived at the hospital around 8 a.m., Hayes said. Authorities traced a call Layten made at the hospital after the concerned relative called 911 around 9 a.m.
When police arrived, Layten was still standing at a pay phone in a hospital lobby, Hayes said. Confronted by a team of four officers who ordered him to show his hands, Layten pulled out a semiautomatic .45-caliber handgun, Hayes said.
About the time one officer was firing a Taser at Layten, he was firing his gun, Hayes said. Police then returned fire, striking Layten in the upper chest several times, Hayes said.
Officer Lee Kerniskey was grazed in the thigh, and Officer Eric Picht suffered a gunshot wound in a foot, Hayes said. Both were treated and released.
Layten's past as the owner of a 360-acre private hunting club offered little immediate explanation for the events of the last 24 hours of his life, and his family declined to talk about him Wednesday.
"Jeff's entire family is profoundly saddened by today's events. We appreciate the media's respect of our privacy in this time of mourning," the family said in a statement released by police.
U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Nebraska, issued a statement saying he's hunted on Layten's property many times.
"Jeff has always been an easygoing person, and today's episode is very out of character for him," Terry said.
Burt County Court records show Layten was fined $50 in 2008 for violating deer regulations and fined $10 in 2007 for writing a bad check.
Creighton University Medical Center has 334 beds and a network of nearly 300 physicians who practice in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.
Associated Press writers Timberly Ross and Nelson Lampe in Omaha, and Margery A. Beck in Lincoln contributed to this report.
Creighton University Medical Center: http://www.creightonhospital.com
Omaha Police: http://www.opd.ci.omaha.ne.us