A young Marine sergeant from Chesterfield County who fatally shot himself early New Year’s Day during a traffic stop in Midlothian had been struggling with alcohol and was detained previously for a mental health commitment order, according to his wife and the authorities.
Sgt. Shawn Childress, 24, a Manchester High School graduate who was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., pulled a handgun and shot himself about 1:15 a.m. Jan. 1 after a Chesterfield officer stopped him for suspicion of drunken driving on Midlothian Turnpike near Courthouse Road, police said.
Childress earlier had gotten into an argument with a friend and began to drink, telling the friend that if he got pulled over by police he would shoot himself, because “he would lose everything, including his son and his career,” said his estranged wife, Jessica Childress, with whom he had been separated for about a year.
“He did have a history of alcoholism,” Childress said in a phone interview. “He got a previous DUI about four weeks [before his death] in North Carolina. He got into an altercation with the friend he was staying with that night and had relapsed into drinking.”
Chesterfield police Capt. Jay Thornton said authorities had contact with Shawn Childress last fall with regard to a “civil committal for a mental health evaluation.” Childress was detained but Thornton did not have any additional details.
“It was a little bit of a unique circumstance because he was active military,” Thornton said.
Jessica Childress said she wasn’t aware of any mental health problems her husband had that would have required treatment.
“That is the one thing that he would not tell me because I’m the mother of his son,” she said, noting their separation. “Someone has asked me that before, and I truly don’t know the answer.”
Nat Fahy, public affairs officer for Camp Lejeune, could not immediately provide any information on Childress’ background, including whether the Marines had initiated the mental health civil commitment order. Fahy said he would research the matter and respond later.
Childress, who joined the Marines after graduating from high school in 2013, had served three deployments overseas, according to his obituary notice. It couldn’t immediately be discerned where overseas he served.
Jessica Childress said her husband had been home for the holidays. He would stay with his mother in Chesterfield if he didn’t stay with friends while in town.
Childress said she believes her husband feared he would lose custody of his 18-month-old son if he was charged a second time with DUI.
“He would be facing jail time and potentially losing his career, which ultimately would [result] in losing his income,” she said. “And if we were to finish going through with the divorce, [he could lose] custody of his son — because he would have to go to jail for two DUIs. I think that was running through his mind.”
Childress said she had no questions or concerns about the police traffic stop.
“Ultimately, I don’t believe he would have [shot himself] if he wouldn’t have gotten pulled over, but no one is to blame here,” she said.
Thornton said the officer was attempting to initiate a field sobriety test investigation when the man suddenly produced a gun and shot himself. “There was very limited conversation,” Thornton said.
He was still inside his car when he pulled the trigger, Thornton said.
“We do find ourselves, as an agency, very fortunate that that’s all that happened,” the captain said.
“Of course we never know what people are thinking, or what they’re doing or what they’ve been involved with when [officers] pull them over.”
“But that’s probably the last thing that that officer expected to experience,” he added. “Fortunately, as tragic as it was, nobody else was hurt.”
Thornton said police have not established Childress’ blood-alcohol content on the night he was stopped.
“We don’t know if he was over the presumption of intoxication for a DUI. That was the basis for the whole encounter,” he said. “We’re still waiting for more affirmative evidence from the medical examiner about toxicology.”
Childress’ obituary urged that memorial contributions be made to the Veterans Crisis Line at www.veterancrisisline.net.