About 20 minutes after a man brandished a gun during lunch at a Pleasantville restaurant, he was dead in a shootout with police on a main Atlantic City street.
In between, he led police on a chase through Egg Harbor Township and Ventnor, allegedly shooting out of a black sport utility vehicle believed stolen out of Williamstown, police said.
The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the shooting, but would release no information about which city the officers who shot the man were from. They identified the suspect as Antoquan T. Watson, 27, of Williamstown.
“Is that a gun?” John Celestino asked as he and co-worker Carrie Gill ate lunch at La Escondida II at about 12:30 p.m. Thursday.
The two Press of Atlantic City employees had been at the restaurant less than a half-hour when they saw a man pacing around with an angry look on his face and a black gun in his hand.
Later the waitress who served the suspect said he got mad after trying to pay his bill with two rejected credit cards. When he didn’t have enough cash to cover it, he pulled out a gun, said the woman, who asked that her name not be published for fear of retaliation.
Seconds after the man left, a patron ran to the window and yelled: “They’re chasing him with shotguns,” Celestino recalled.
Soon, Egg Harbor Township and Atlantic City police joined in the pursuit, which went down the Black Horse Pike into Egg Harbor Township’s West Atlantic City section before veering onto West End Avenue and into Ventnor, where the street becomes Wellington Avenue.
Mortimer Spreng was walking from a gym in Ventnor Heights when he heard the sirens and saw a bunch of police cars racing down the stretch of road.
“They were in a hurry, and I kept thinking, that black SUV should get out of their way,” Spreng said.
Then he realized that’s who they were chasing.
The scene repeated itself about 10 minutes later when they went screeching past again, headed toward Albany Avenue, where he saw the SUV weave in and out of stopped traffic to get onto the road into Atlantic City.
He said he never heard gunshots, but that — on the way back — the SUV’s windshield had a crack in it that wasn’t there when he saw it the first time.
“I don’t know what happened in between,” he said.
But later, he saw police collecting shell casings.
As the pursuit continued onto the Albany Avenue Bridge, police reported the driver fired a shot. That’s when even more officers joined in the chase. The scene down Atlantic Avenue included police cars, SUVs and unmarked cars, lights flashing and sirens wailing.
“He was pointing the gun out the window,” a woman outside the Public Safety Building between Iowa and California avenues.
Moments later, the SUV got bumped and swerved onto the curb outside the Tanger Outlet stores on Atlantic Avenue, just past Missouri at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway. He got out of the SUV and started shooting, according to witnesses.
Police returned fire and the man was killed. His body lay covered on Atlantic Avenue across the street from where the vehicle sat, all its doors open.
“They said he was armed, but we didn't see his arms go up at all,” said another witness, who asked to go only by Max. “So I didn't understand what was going on. That's why everyone panicked and just ran across the street.”
City Councilman Marty Small said the incident would be another reason for people to point to problems in Atlantic City’s Tourism District, “but, by no means did this have any involvement with people from Atlantic City.”
No information on how many shots were fired was released, but police eventually expanded the crime scene a block to Michigan Avenue after it was discovered shell casings had traveled past where the chase ended.
City Emergency Management Director Tom Foley's city vehicle sat at the corner of Arkansas and Atlantic avenues with at least one bullet hole near the driver's side door.
Foley, who was talking to police on scene just after the shooting, said he couldn't comment on how his car was shot.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said the tragedy could have been much worse.
“There's no doubt in my mind that the actions the officers took saved lives,” he said, calling them “heroic.”
Pleasantville Mayor Jesse Tweedle came to the scene, and said he couldn't believe that no officers were hurt.
“Looking at both vehicles my officers were in, I don’t know how my guys survived,” he said of the Pleasantville police cars shot up in the gunfight.
Three of the officers taken to the hospital for evaluation were from Pleasantville, Tweedle said. The department still has four officers out from a shooting that killed a man last year. A grand jury determined that that shooting was justified.
Celestino was still at the Pleasantville restaurant when the chase came to an end.
He and Gill asked a police officer if the man had been caught.
“Let’s just say, he pointed his gun at the wrong person,” Celestino said the officer replied.
Four law enforcement officers stayed at the restaurant for several hours after the incident and interviewed staff, including the waitress.
After law enforcement officers left, restaurant staff turned on the bar televisions, excitedly clustering around the screens for the news coverage of the incident in the otherwise quiet restaurant.
Tweedle said he and Guardian are remaining in contact about the investigation and how their officers are doing.
“That’s just a continuation of the Pleasantville-Atlantic City partnership,” he said.
Staff writer Derek Harper contributed to this report.
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