Michael D. Oswald saw himself as a man beset by conspiracies and forces beyond his control. His friends saw him as a lovable drunk with a tendency to fly off the handle.
Charlestonians know him as the man who shot and killed Sheriff's Deputy Joseph Matuskovic.
A 2010 court deposition and a recently released report by the State Law Enforcement Division shed new light on the life and final hours of Oswald, the West Ashley man who died after shooting an assault rifle at sheriff's deputies through the front door of his apartment on Sept. 8, 2014. We now know that Oswald got in a series of fistfights, developed a penchant for conspiracy theories that eventually alienated some friends and family, and — on the night of his death — fired on law enforcement officers without warning.
On Nov. 18, after SLED submitted its findings to the Ninth Judicial Circuit, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson announced that she would not be seeking indictments against the three deputies who returned fire after Oswald started shooting. "It is clear from your report that Michael Oswald killed Deputy Matuskovic and that deputies attempting to protect Matuskovic, themselves, and others in the area returned fire and killed Michael Oswald," Wilson wrote. "Likewise, it is clear that the officers were justified in shooting and killing Oswald."
Michael Oswald grew up in Fortville, Ind., a town of 4,000 partway between Indianapolis and Muncie. The Indianapolis Star, which ran a story on the shooting in mid-September, wrote that Oswald was "long known among friends for his anti-police sentiments." And by his own self-description, Oswald was a fighter. In 2010, after he sued three Mt. Pleasant residents for allegedly allowing someone to assault him on their property, Oswald said in a court deposition, "I've been in fights all my life."
"I have no way out, no other options, and I accept my destiny, come what may."
—Michael D. Oswald in an email to a fellow teacher, December 2002
"I have different thoughts than other people do, so when I open my mouth, all of my life, ever since I was a kid growing up in Indiana as a farm boy, I have been beaten up because guys thought I had a smart mouth because, you know, 'Them are smart words coming out of his mouth.' 'He thinks he's smart,' or something," Oswald said. "So they want to attack you, they hate you for it. You're like the nerd in school and everybody wants to beat you up and push you around. And you take it because you hate yourself, because you think you deserve it."
But Tim Apple, a childhood friend of Oswald's younger brother, doesn't remember Oswald that way. Apple says he spent many evenings sleeping over at the Oswald family's house when they attended Mt. Vernon High School together, and he says that from what he could tell at the time, Oswald was a helpful person from a kind and generous family. Oswald's mother Doris, he said, "was the most Betty Crocker mom you could have."
Still, from an early age, Apple says Oswald had a certain edge to him. "Mike has always been about his civil rights, I think since he hit puberty," Apple says. "He's the type of guy that will put his rights in your face and expect you to respect that. At the same time, most of the time back then, he would give out the same respect."
Growing up, Oswald delivered cars for a Pontiac dealership and supervised a crew for a landscaping company, according to a resumé in SLED's files. After graduating high school, Oswald went to Indiana University in 1996, earning multiple scholarships to study in the Classical Studies department. He said he double-majored in Greek and Latin with minors in French and English, all while working part-time as a copy assistant. He graduated with honors in 1999.
It's unclear what prompted Oswald to leave Indiana, but he took a job in 2000 working on South Carolina railroads. He said in his 2010 deposition that he was working for the S.C. Ports Authority as a railroad officer making $13 an hour, directing rail traffic in and out of the port. He left the job in 2001. "They busted up the unions and then they put me on a rotating schedule," Oswald said. "One month I was first shift and the next month I was second shift and the next month I was third shift. I just couldn't handle it."
The railroad gig would prove to be the first of numerous jobs that Oswald couldn't hold down for long. From there, he took a job in August 2001 teaching Latin and Language Arts at Chapin High School, a public school in a small South Carolina town on the banks of Lake Murray. Within his first semester there, administrators had given him several written reprimands for what they deemed "classroom management issues."
In one incident, according to a principal, Oswald gave a multimedia presentation to his class that was "revealing" and "sexually suggestive." He was also reprimanded for failing to attend an open house, leaving his class unsupervised in the media center, calling a student a "psycho" in front of the class, saying words like "sucks" and "frigging" in the classroom, and telling a student to "get the hell out." Once, he was chastised for singing and playing a guitar in his classroom while students in an adjacent classroom were taking an exam. In late 2002, Oswald announced his intention to join the military after finishing the school year.
"You’re like the nerd in school and everybody wants to beat you up and push you around. And you take it because you hate yourself, because you think you deserve it."
—Michael D. Oswald in a 2012 court deposition
The last straw for the administration appears to have come in April 2003, when then-Principal James W. Jordan placed Oswald on administrative leave pending an investigation of "improper and unprofessional conduct." In records provided to SLED by the school, the notice of the investigation is followed by several pages of handwritten notes, in different handwritings, about an incident that took place on April 8. The accounts were largely the same. One person wrote:
"Tuesday in class — 'As soon as I get my machine gun, I'll just take out my anger in Iraq. I'll just take out my anger, and if I get scared, I'll just think of Dr. Jordan's face, and I'll just take them out.'"
Jordan placed Oswald on administrative leave April 9, with a warning that he was not to enter campus or make contact with any of his former students. On April 10 Oswald tendered his resignation. Months earlier, in a December 2002 email to his department head, Oswald had written:
"As far as getting cold feet and suffering dishonorable discharge from the military, that's not going to happen with me. I failed at the railroad, I failed at teaching, I've failed at everything I've ever attempted except for Greek and Latin. If these people can't appreciate my talents, then I'll go somewhere they will.
"God hasn't let me come this far just to back me into a corner and have me killed, so no, I don't think I'm going to die. But at the same time, I have no way out, no other options, and I accept my destiny, come what may."
But Oswald never made it into the military. "I was enlisted in the Army, but I didn't end up going in," Oswald would recall later. Asked why he never got to enter the military, Oswald said: "Well, basically I had a bunch of credit — bunch of debt and stuff, and I wasn't able to pay it. So after my teaching job I thought I would go into the military and get my student loans paid off and stuff like that ... but I didn't end up going in because my credit was bad and I had creditors after me and you couldn't go in with — with all that debt."
Sometime after his abortive Army enlistment, Oswald made his way down to Charleston, where he bounced around from job to job. In his 2010 deposition, he said he stocked shelves for Publix and Piggly Wiggly, washed dishes for Outback Steakhouse, catered for Home Team BBQ, and sanded floors for a hardwood flooring company. None of the jobs lasted long. "I got sick of arguing with third-world slave labor," Oswald said, explaining his departure from Outback.
"I think it's always been pretty much mutual," Oswald said of his job history. "I wanted to quit, and they wanted to get rid of me."
In June 2007, Oswald got in a fight at Fiddler's Green, a now-closed Irish tavern in Mt. Pleasant. In a deposition three years later, Oswald said the fight started when he was getting dinner and a drink after work. He said a man knocked him in the back, causing his teeth to hit his beer glass.
"I just casually put my drink down," Oswald said, "and I stood up and I jabbed the guy five times in the head and then I sat back down at the bar and finished my dinner."
It was one of several brawls that Oswald boasted about winning. In another fight, Oswald claimed he gouged a man's eyes until they bled.
In all, Oswald had at least nine run-ins with law enforcement officers from the Charleston Police Department, Mt. Pleasant Police Department, and Charleston County Sheriff's Office between 2003 and 2013. He was convicted of driving under the influence and hit-and-run property damage in 2003. He faced a criminal domestic violence charge in 2007 that was later expunged. Art's Bar in Mt. Pleasant placed him on trespass notice in September 2008 after he got in a heated argument with a manager. He received a charge of marijuana possession in 2009. CPD handed him a Loud and Unnecessary Noise citation at his apartment in February 2011, after which they noted he became "verbally combative" with an officer. In February 2012 CPD found him sleeping in the middle of Lango Avenue and charged him with public drunkenness, and on New Year's Day 2013 he was arrested on a hit-and-run charge.
Witnesses said Oswald developed an antipathy toward police over the years, possibly starting in 2007 when he accused his then-landlord in Mt. Pleasant of allowing an assault to take place on his property. According to police incident reports, Oswald pulled up to the landlord's house with music blasting from his vehicle. The landlord's son said that when he told Oswald to turn down the volume, he cranked it up even louder. The son says when he reached into the vehicle to turn down the volume knob, Oswald punched him in the face.
Oswald drove away but returned shortly afterward, storming into the house and allegedly pushing the son's girlfriend. The son responded by punching Oswald four times, breaking his jaw. Oswald reported the incident to police, seeking an assault charge for the landlord's son.
Mt. Pleasant police dropped the case in 2009, so Oswald tried unsuccessfully to sue the landlord and his family for allowing assault, underage drinking, and illegal drug use to take place on their property. The defendants' attorney deposed Oswald on Sept. 21, 2010, and a transcript of the deposition reveals a contempt for the police department.
"You know, Mt. Pleasant police, they didn't do me any favors. They didn't do nothing. They're a bunch of lazy, no-nothing [sic] cops," Oswald said.
Oswald's father told SLED that his son did not have any known drug addictions or mental health issues, but he did say Oswald took the deaths of his brother and mother in the fall of 2010 especially hard.
The deaths came within weeks of each other. Oswald's brother was 30 years old when he died of a genetic liver disorder, according to Oswald's deposition. "It's just been one blow after another for the Oswalds," says Tim Apple, Oswald's childhood friend.
Around the same time, one Charleston area woman says she met Oswald at a bar. Actually, she met his dog first. Oswald had left his Jack Russell terrier Speedy out in the rain while he drank at the bar, and the woman wrapped Speedy in her jacket and brought him inside, intent on finding the owner and "ripping him a new one," according to a SLED report. But when she met Oswald, she couldn't stay angry.
"What I met was a very charismatic drunk who was set on letting the world in on the 'real' activities of our world," she said. "I listened and forgot all about the thought of preaching to the preacher."
Gradually, she and Oswald became bar buddies. She would greet Speedy, and Oswald would give her a hug. "I often enjoyed Mike's conversations, until they became anti-government," she said. "The conversations sounded like things derived from some sort of acid flashback."
It's unclear exactly when Oswald developed an interest in conspiracy theories, but witnesses say his fascination ramped up after the death of his brother. His father, Jerry Oswald, told SLED after the shooting that his son believed cellphone towers were "government listening devices" and that Oswald would accuse his own father of being "the enemy" because he was a retired government employee.
Apple, who partly kept up with his childhood friend via Facebook, says Oswald posted a lot of links about chemtrails, a popular category of conspiracy theory that claims the visible trails left by aircraft engines are actually chemicals used for mind control, biological warfare, or weather modification. Apple says he knew Oswald had also developed some strong "anti-government" leanings, but he avoided the topic when he talked with Oswald.
"He just was very against all the liberal things," Apple says. "Most of the time, the guy was actually sociable and easy to get along with, and you could have a different opinion and he wouldn't butt heads with you too much. But you could tell, he'd get depressed and these things would flow out of him at a faster rate."
In his 2010 deposition, reflecting back on why he had lost his teaching job at Chapin High, Oswald told an attorney he left the school because of "the federal takeover of our public school system." Asked to clarify what he meant, Oswald said, "Well, critical thinking out, brainwashing in, no critical analysis. It's all multiple choice in order to keep your children from thinking clearly about their enslavement."
According to Apple, at the time of the shooting, Oswald was having a hard time affording certain medications he needed, including possibly one for high blood pressure. He says Oswald had recently announced on Facebook that he was going off his meds.
But Oswald's father told SLED that his son's prospects weren't entirely grim at the time of the shooting. He said Oswald was self-employed doing fiberglass repair on boats and that he "seemed upbeat for the first time in a long while."
Apple says he doesn't understand the mindset that led Oswald to open fire.
"Had he really gotten that depressed and got his back against the wall to where he thought he needed to come out shooting like that?" Apple says. "That's really hard for me to wrap my head around."
Sept. 6, 2014, was the four-year anniversary of Oswald's brother's death. It was also the last time his father spoke with him.
On Sept. 7, 2014, police received a noise complaint from a woman who lived next door to Oswald in the Gardens at Ashley River, a West Ashley apartment complex populated by young professionals, restaurant workers, college students, and Caribbean immigrants. She said Oswald had been playing loud music on a portable radio on the balcony outside his apartment, 197-G. Thirty minutes later, she heard Oswald shouting through a bullhorn, "Nazi neighbors called the cops on us." She and her boyfriend heard banging on their door that night, but when they opened it no one was there.
On the morning of Sept. 8, 2014, the same woman found dog feces smeared on her doorstep. She filed a complaint at the property manager's office and again called the police, who knocked on Oswald's door but didn't get a response. She returned to her apartment at 3:30 p.m. and found Oswald standing on the balcony in front of his apartment playing loud music, dancing wildly, and screaming at her and her dog.
At 7:15 p.m., she and her boyfriend tried to leave the apartment complex in a car, and Oswald ran downstairs and pounded on the vehicle's window as they drove away. In a cell phone video she shot of the incident, Oswald can be heard singing "Bad Boys," the theme song from Cops. The woman and her boyfriend drove to the apartment management office and paged Sheriff's Deputies Julius Alexander and David Johnson, courtesy officers who live in the complex.
Alexander and Johnson watched the cell phone video and decided to interview Oswald before determining if they needed to make an arrest. They knocked on Oswald's door, identified themselves, and asked him to come outside. Oswald didn't open the door but spoke through his window.
"The resident acknowledged our presence and his awareness that we were law enforcement officers by making comments about the recent police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and telling us that cops were not well liked at this point in time," Alexander said. "He still refused to exit the apartment as requested. The resident became very loud and boisterous, shouting profanities within his apartment." By now, a crowd was starting to gather as residents came out to see what the commotion was about. Alexander called dispatch for backup.
"I often enjoyed Mike’s conversations, until they became anti-government. The conversations sounded like things derived from some sort of acid flashback."
—Aquaintance of Michael D. Oswald
The first officer to respond was Deputy Joseph Matuskovic, 43, a father of three young children who had been working in local law enforcement since 1997. Since he was a field training officer, a post reserved for high-performing officers, he had a trainee with him, Deputy Christopher Harris. They were also joined by Deputy Michael Ackerman.
The off-duty courtesy officers were not wearing bulletproof vests, so Matuskovic took charge. An apartment manager handed the officers a key to Oswald's apartment.
The officers returned to the second-floor balcony in front of Apartment 197-G, knocked on the door, and identified themselves again. Oswald didn't respond. Matuskovic unlocked the door and pushed it forward, but it only opened a few inches because Oswald had latched it. Officers say the conversation that followed was calm, with no signs of escalation.
"Michael, you need to come talk to us," Matuskovic said.
"Who is it?" Oswald replied.
"It's the Sheriff's Office. Come out and talk to us," Matuskovic said. "It's the Charleston County Sheriff's Office."
Seconds after Matuskovic said his last words to Oswald, at 8:05 p.m., a hail of semi-automatic rounds burst out of the door and wall. Oswald had opened fire with an AK-47-style assault rifle.
Matuskovic never had the chance to draw his service weapon. A puff of dust came out of his body armor, and he spun to the right and fell headfirst. Ackerman drew his gun and started firing back into the apartment, even as he felt a bullet lodge in his own right leg. When Ackerman tried to step out of the line of fire, he realized he couldn't move his leg and went down, continuing to fire from the floor of the balcony. Deputy Johnson grabbed Matuskovic's radio and called out to dispatch: "Code 46, shots fired, shots fired, officer down."
After Johnson, Ackerman, and Harris returned fire through the door of the apartment, a second volley of gunfire started from inside. Johnson fired some shots through the window, and then, after a short pause, he heard a single muffled pop from inside the apartment.
Within minutes, more than 100 officers from five different law enforcement agencies began to converge on the apartment complex. Charleston Police Sgt. Anthony Cretella charged up the stairs and found Deputy Ackerman still seated on the balcony, bleeding from his leg, with his gun drawn and pointed toward the apartment. No one knew for sure if Oswald was dead, if he had more ammo, or even if there were more people in the apartment who could open fire at any second. Ackerman refused to retreat.
"I then told him, 'I don't give a fuck. Get your ass down here,'" Cretella said in an incident report. "He listened and began to scoot to me with his gun still focused on Apartment No. 197. He said that he couldn't stand up, so I said, 'I'll help you.'"
After leading Ackerman down the stairs and handing him off to other officers for medical care, Cretella ran back up to the balcony and found Matuskovic lying facedown and unconscious in a pool of blood. Cretella and another officer grabbed Matuskovic by his gun belt and dragged him toward the staircase, where they carried him down to the parking lot. There was a hole in Matuskovic's bulletproof vest where one of the rounds had pierced through to his lower right abdomen. EMS took Matuskovic to MUSC Medical Center, where he died of his injuries at 8:37 p.m.
A tense standoff began. For six-and-a-half hours, officers took shifts standing guard through intermittent downpours of rain. Residents heard a voice over a loudspeaker: "Come out with your hands up." A SWAT team fired four canisters of tear gas into the apartment, and someone struggled to pilot a bomb-squad robot up the stairs to assess the crime scene. Finally, at about 4 a.m., officers entered the apartment and found Oswald dead.
Back in 2010, during the deposition Michael Oswald gave shortly after his brother's death, the defense attorney asked him a question:
"You like to do hypotheticals. If a stranger tried to walk in your house, would you stop them?" the attorney asked.
"Absolutely," Oswald said.
"What if he kept going on?"
"What if he kept going? Probably kill him."
Oswald completed eight hours of concealed weapons permit training on Jan. 15, 2011, applied for a permit the same day, and received his permit in April 2011. At some point, he also started acquiring weapons, including the assault rifle that he would use to kill Deputy Matuskovic and injure Deputy Ackerman.
Law enforcement agents entered Oswald's apartment after the shooting and found his body with wounds in the left upper back, right upper chest, and lower right side. It lay just on the other side of a bed that was barricading the front door. They found the assault rifle at his side and cartridge cases in the dining room.
In a hallway farther back in the apartment, officers also found what they described as a "weapon and ammo pile" that included a Springfield 1911-A1 handgun, 14 Winchester .45 rounds, three fully loaded assault rifle magazines, a magazine containing .22 rounds, and a sheathed knife. His bedroom, they noted, contained "a lot of clothes and gray tote bins with canned food."
Apartment management had sought to evict Oswald twice in 2013. At the time of the shooting, neighbors said they'd been dealing with loud noise from his apartment for months, and they often saw him drinking on the balcony with his dog.
One of Oswald's former neighbors, who wishes to remain anonymous, lived in the apartment beneath Oswald's for two-and-a-half years and moved out two weeks before the shooting. She says she never had a problem with Oswald's music and, contrary to some other residents' reports, thought he was a polite neighbor. The day she moved out, she says he stood on the balcony and said goodbye.
"He was wondering if I was leaving, sad to see me go, and he said I'd been a good neighbor," she says. "I said, 'You've been a good neighbor too.' And he said, 'You never know what kind of neighbor you're going to get.'"
"I just wish you could know if your neighbor has an assault rifle," she adds. "I wouldn't want to live next to somebody like that. It doesn't matter who it was."