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What the killing of a 2-year-old Kansas girl reveals about the world of police snipers

This is the weapon Sniper 1 fired in Baxter Springs, Kansas in March 2022. It is a .308 Winchester bolt action rifle with a mounted optical scope, bipod, sling and wrapped suppressor.
Kansas Bureau of Investigation
/
Report
This is the weapon Sniper 1 fired in Baxter Springs, Kansas in March 2022. It is a .308 Winchester bolt action rifle with a mounted optical scope, bipod, sling and wrapped suppressor.

In March 2022, a Missouri sniper shot and killed a toddler in error, acting — according to experts — contrary to training and best practices.

When a Joplin Police Department SWAT sniper got into position at a hostage scene in August 2023, he would have had training, practice and experience. Shooting at a target more than 100 yards away was not inevitable.

But, on the night of March 26, 2022, an officer known in investigation records as Sniper 1 fired his weapon into a camper in Baxter Springs, Kansas. In interviews with the investigators, Sniper 1 said he fired his weapon because he believed he had a clear shot at the suspect Eli Crawford, 38.

Crawford had already shot and killed Taylor Shutte, 27, the mother of two-year-old Clesslyn Crawford, known as Clessie.

The KBI investigation discovered Sniper 1 killed Clessie with one shot through her head.

As part of an eighth-month investigation into what led to Clessie’s death, the Midwest Newsroom and KCUR took a close look at the world of police snipers to better illustrate their training and professional practices.

News A Missouri police sniper killed a 2-year-old girl. Why did he take the shot? Sam Zeff

Police snipers exist in a world of their own.

Of almost 15,000 local police agencies in America, only 900, or about 6%, have SWAT teams. Many of those teams include snipers, who are trained to engage targets from positions of concealment or distance.

The world of the sniper has its own rules, requirements, and lingo.

The first rule — and it may seem obvious — is to hit the right target. This did not happen in the hours-long Baxter Springs standoff.

“The law enforcement sniper must be absolutely sure of the identity of any target to be engaged,” reads the FBI’s Advanced Rifle Training guide. This guide is considered the gold standard for snipers.

In movies and TV, the primary mission of the sniper may appear to be killing a target. In fact, their primary job is to gather intelligence for other officers, and the FBI refers to the position as “observer/sniper.”

“The more detailed the intelligence that is reported, the better and more effective are the planning and subsequent actions of the decision makers in command,” reads the FBI manual.

Here is how the American Sniper Association puts it: “The primary duty is to utilize their (sniper) training and equipment to attain a position of advantage and covertly supply real-time information to the rest of the team.”

While observation is the first order of business, sniper training focuses on that rare moment when they take the shot.

How rare is it for snipers to pull the trigger? The American Sniper Association says between 1980 and 2023 police snipers fired 509 times. That’s about a dozen times a year. Eighty percent — that’s 407 people — were fatal. By comparison, in 2023 alone, 1,340 people were killed by police in the U.S., according to the CDC.

Clesslynn Crawford, age 2, was the daughter of Taylor Shutte and Eli Crawford. <br/>
Nicholas Family
/
Provided
Clesslynn Crawford, age 2, was the daughter of Taylor Shutte and Eli Crawford.

A delicate balance

There are two words that dominate training in sniper world: precision and repeatable.

Precision starts with the sniper rifle. Of every 100 rifle barrels manufactured, only six meet FBI standards.

“Using a less than perfect barrel creates vibrational motion that varies randomly,” the FBI sniper manual says. And that randomness, along with flawed steel or bad boring, can cause inaccuracies.

Missing the target by just an inch could be tragic. Snipers also use match quality — think Olympic shooting — ammunition. Most snipers use a 168-grain bullet, that is about a third of an ounce. If the bullet is off by a few grains, it could react differently, and the shot missed.

Precision also comes from the scope. Anyone who has seen a cop show about snipers gets a point-of-view shot looking through the scope’s crosshairs. It improves aim by magnifying the target and adjusting for distance and wind. At a long distance all sorts of variables exist, including gravity. Rings on the outside of the scope are turned to make adjustments. However, one former FBI sniper said if a sniper finds themselves turning the rings too much, they should stop and recalculate.

“Don’t dope your scope,” he said.

All of this is critical because there is almost no margin of error in sniper world. Police snipers aim for something they call the T.

“It can be envisioned as a two-inch lateral band around the head, centered on the eyes,” according to the FBI manual. How small is that? It’s the size of a passport photo. Such a shot immediately incapacitates the target so even if their finger is on the trigger, they can’t pull it because their brain is destroyed.

Wind, temperature, and even barometric pressure also play roles in accuracy. That 168-grain bullet can move three inches in a ten-miles-per-hour wind if fired at 200 yards.

How can a sniper achieve such precision, especially when the average length of the shot is over 50 yards? Many are 100 yards and almost half of those shots are at night, according to the American Sniper Association survey.

That’s where the word “repeatable” comes in.

In sniper world, every shot ever taken is recorded in a book.

“Without a record book, any shot taken in a crisis situation amounts to an educated guess,” the FBI manual warns.

On the practice range, a sniper records everything; length of the shot, the temperature, light conditions, wind direction and velocity and even the altitude. During an actual crisis, the sniper can look in their book and match the conditions around them.

Snipers must do everything the same every time. The way they hold the rifle, how far away their eye is from the scope, how much pressure on the trigger all must be consistent, according to the former FBI sniper.

Finally, those in sniper world believe they are special, even among law enforcement.

“This position requires strength, stamina, self-discipline, intelligence, desire, dedication and a love for the art,” writes American Sniper Association president Derrick Barlette.

The identity of Sniper 1 is a mystery. He sued the City of Joplin, forcing it to redact his name from the KBI report before KCUR and the Midwest Newsroom received a copy through the Missouri Sunshine Law.

KCUR, the Midwest Newsroom, the City of Joplin and Sniper 1 are fighting over that redaction in Jasper County Court.

News A Missouri SWAT sniper sued to keep his name a secret. We’re suing to learn his identity Sam Zeff

But we do know a few things about Sniper 1 gleaned from KBI documents.

He is a white male who is now 32 years old. When he shot Clessie in 2022, he had been an officer for six years, all with the Joplin Police Department. Sniper 1 was on the Joplin SWAT team for five years, and “had served as the sniper team leader for two years,” according to his interview with the KBI.

From other sources we also know that Sniper 1 is still a Joplin police officer making $50,000 a year.

He is, however, no longer on the SWAT team. Sniper 1’s lawyer, Sean McCauley from Kansas City, spoke for his client.

“My client’s heart goes out to the family. My client was, and remains, utterly dismayed at the loss of Clessie,” he said in an emailed statement. “If there was anything that could be done to change things, my client would do it in an instant. Although it does not compare, my client continues to cope in the aftermath of this terrible event.”

This story is a collaboration between KCUR 89.3 and the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Sam grew up in Overland Park and was educated at the University of Kansas. After working in Philadelphia where he covered organized crime, politics and political corruption he moved on to TV news management jobs in Minneapolis and St. Louis. Sam came home in 2013 and covered health care and education at KCPT. He came to work at KCUR in 2014. Sam has a national news and documentary Emmy for an investigation into the federal Bureau of Prisons and how it puts unescorted inmates on Grayhound and Trailways buses to move them to different prisons. Sam has one son and is pretty good in the kitchen.