Suspect in Iowa trooper's fatal shooting had run for sheriff

RYAN J. FOLEY
·5-min read

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The candidate for sheriff in rural Iowa had an unusual background: a record of alcohol-related crimes that landed him in the same county jail he would run if elected.

But Michael Lang, a construction worker with no policing experience, told a newspaper that “any decent man or woman” would be better for Grundy County than his opponent, a longtime deputy who would defeat Lang in the November election.

Six months after voters rejected his candidacy, Lang has been charged with murder in the fatal shooting of Iowa State Patrol Sgt. Jim Smith during an April 9 standoff at his home. Residents and investigators are struggling to understand how the suspect in an officer's death that has devastated the state could have been a recent candidate for sheriff, winning 1,544 votes in a county of 12,000.

“I’m kind of bewildered by that,” said Mitch Mortvedt, assistant director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation. “Like everybody when they first heard it, it was that ‘huh?’ look. But he was on the ballot. It's real."

Smith, a 51-year-old father of two who had worked for the patrol 27 years, is the second Iowa State Patrol officer who has been shot and killed in the line of duty since 1936. A visitation is scheduled Thursday in his hometown of Independence, where Smith has been remembered as a law enforcement leader, devout Christian and family man, with a funeral set for Friday.

Police say Lang's violence began last Friday evening in his hometown of Grundy Center, 80 miles northeast of Des Moines, after an officer tried to pull him over for suspicion of driving while barred. A brief chase ensued. Lang, 41, got out and allegedly put the officer in a chokehold, disarmed his Taser and yelled “shoot me!" throughout the scuffle.

Police say Lang fled — taunting a deputy to “come get me” — and barricaded himself inside his home, with firearms he legally owned despite at least seven arrests for drunken driving or public intoxication over two decades.

Smith, leader of the patrol's regional tactical team, was among the officers who surrounded the home. Within an hour, troopers and a canine unit entered through the garage to arrest him. Lang allegedly fired a shotgun as the team cleared the upstairs, fatally wounding Smith.

Two officers retreated to the basement as others dragged Smith out of the home. Mortvedt said those officers became hostages as the standoff continued for hours and Lang made comments about wanting to kill more police.

Eventually, another tactical team entered the home with an armored personnel carrier. Police say Lang shot at the vehicle, and was shot by officers. Emergency responders airlifted him to University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City, where his once-critical condition has improved and he's expected to soon be released and jailed.

Investigators haven't said whether Lang had been drinking. But he was known as a belligerent drunk and had been barred from nearby Scotty's Saloon. He was cited for trespassing after going there March 31 but continued coming back in the following days.

“He was just terrorizing us,” a bartender told the Des Moines Register.

In 19 states that have “red flag” laws, it's the type of behavior that could prompt police to seek an extreme-risk protection order to temporarily remove Lang's firearms. But Iowa isn't one of them, and Kirk Dolleslager, who defeated Lang in the sheriff's race and was among the officers present during the standoff, vowed to oppose such legislation during the campaign as an infringement of gun rights.

The trespassing citation was Lang's first legal blemish since 2016, when he was charged with public intoxication after showing up drunk to a meeting with his probation officer. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, where the administrator said he'd been a “model prisoner."

A judge ordered Lang to get extended alcohol treatment, then backed off after a substance abuse evaluation didn't recommend it. Lang told the evaluator that he didn't feel his alcohol use was a problem and he wouldn't have transportation to Waterloo to attend the program.

Lang never lost his voting or gun rights thanks to two plea agreements that knocked felony charges down to misdemeanors, including a third-offense operating while intoxicated charge in 2009.

Dolleslager, a longtime deputy who'd been a backup officer on prior interactions with Lang, said he was puzzled when Lang filed to run for sheriff last year.

“I don't know what his motive for running was. I think it was just his dislike of law enforcement and it's his right, so he chose to exercise it,” he said.

Dolleslager said Lang's low-budget campaign included some signs and door-knocking.

Some neighbors saw Lang's candidacy as a signal he'd turned his life around. Lang has a young son with Erin Higgins, who wrote on Facebook that she and the boy are heartbroken Lang "didn’t get the help he needed before it was too late.”

Lang won the Democratic primary in the sheriff’s race last June. Dolleslager, a Republican, defeated him in the conservative county in the general election, 77% to 22%.

In a candidate questionnaire for the Grundy Register newspaper, Lang called staffing at the sheriff’s office too high, said marijuana should be decriminalized and embraced protests against police brutality. “All law enforcement should be reminded that they are paid by the people to protect the people,” he wrote.

Asked what he’d do to address mental health issues, he said, “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”