CHICAGO -- The shooting of two Chicago police officers in an unmarked van was likely a case of mistaken identity, Chicago police said Sunday.
During a press conference Sunday morning, Area Central Commander Brendan Deenihan described the events that led to a suspect, who police say they have identified, opening fire on two plainclothes officers with an assault rifle and injuring them. They have since been released from the hospital.
According to police, on May 2 around 6:30 p.m. officers responded to calls of a juvenile that was shot while riding in a black SUV at 21st and Halsted. Recognizing some of the people in the SUV as La Raza gang members, police said, the 9th District officers decided to get their covert van and follow the vehicle. But Deenihan said the passengers inside the SUV realized they were being followed, and likely made calls that led to what came next.
Deenihan said the officers inside the unmarked van noticed a minivan that was behind them and decided to stop following the SUV. But as they made a turn, the stolen minivan opened fire and shot at the back of the van, striking its gas tank in the process. The minivan then pulled up alongside the officers as their vehicle rolled to a stop, swung open the door and opened fire with an assault rifle.
"They thought they were probably shooting at a rival gang member,"Deenihan said. "It's not like the van was throwing gang signs at them or pointing guns at them - it could have been a van full of kids for all they knew," Deenihan said.
After they were struck, the officers were able to fire through the windshield at the stolen minivan, shooting its tires in the process. The vehicle was later abandoned near 38th and Racine, and the shooter and driver fled on foot. Deenihan said the shooter buried the rifle in a nearby wooded area, but it was later found by a police dog during a search.
Police later released these images of the damage to the unmarked van:
"It's actually quite remarkable... that the officers were not killed,"Deenihan said.
Deenihan said detectives were able to learn the identity of the shooter and driver by speaking to La Raza gang members, who cooperated after they realized it was officers who were shot and not rival gang members.
"For some reason shooting back and forth at each other they think it's some kind of game, but they know how serious it is when the police are involved, and we had two officers who almost died," Deenihan said.
Charges have since been filed against 18-year-old Angel Gomez, who police say was the driver during the incident.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson praised the efforts of detectives during the Sunday press conference, and repeated his calls for stricter gun laws in Chicago.
"We want to create a mental culture where they won't want to pick up a gun and fire it - and the only way we can do that is by holding them accountable," Johnson said.