A Nevada man who admitted he shot at a fleeing vehicle after the occupants left the Midtown Safeway in Palo Alto on Aug. 3 said he was attempting to stop the occupants after they allegedly took several cases of expensive liquor and left without paying, according to court records. But now he faces three felonies and a misdemeanor after police tracked him down through information he left after paying for his groceries.
Christian David Poppe, 37, allegedly pulled a 9 mm pistol out of a holster hidden in his pants and fired four shots at a white Lexus SUV occupied by at least two people who allegedly stole liquor as they left the store parking lot at 2811 Middlefield Road. He had first tried to stop the driver by standing in front of the vehicle, which he claimed had tried to run him over. The driver of the car fled the scene at a high rate of speed and evaded capture after leading police in a pursuit that at times exceeded 90 mph on city streets and more than 100 mph on U.S. Highway 101.
Poppe, of Henderson, Nevada, is charged with willful discharge of a firearm with gross negligence, shooting at an inhabited dwelling or vehicle, assault with a deadly weapon or great bodily injury -- all felonies -- and misdemeanor carrying a concealed weapon on a person. He is scheduled to appear in Santa Clara County Superior Court in Palo Alto on Jan. 29 to enter a plea.
Court documents provide insight into modern police work using various technologies to quickly identify a suspect and track him down. Police arrested Poppe on Aug. 8 in Danville, five days after the incident. Currently, he is out of custody on $100,000 bail.
The night had started out in mundane fashion, with Poppe entering the store at around 9:30 p.m. He spent 27 minutes shopping for about $57 worth of groceries, which included fresh greens, tomatoes, multigrain bread and chicken tenders, according to court documents.
But at the time he was shopping, another man also entered the store. Witnesses saw the man fill crates with various expensive bottles of liquor, which he left on a table at the back of the store. He carried out two boxes at a time without paying, then returned and repeated his activities, making an estimated three trips, according to store surveillance video.
Poppe left the store, and he noticed the man, who was carrying the boxes to his white Lexus SUV, had left without paying. He approached the car, noticing the rear hatch was open. The trunk space was filled with liquor bottles, he told police.
The man shut the hatch and entered the passenger side of the vehicle, which was being driven by a woman wearing a pink shirt. Poppe said he stood in front of the vehicle and shouted for them to stop. Instead, the driver lunged forward and struck him, causing Poppe to fall backwards, he said. He drew his gun from a holster in his pants. Poppe said at this point he had tunnel vision, focusing only on the car and not the consequences. He believed he was acting in self-defense, he told police. The female driver "floored it" and "tried to run me over," after which point he fired his gun at the front windshield.
A witness at the Chase bank ATM across the street was just entering her car when she saw a man, later identified by police as Poppe, hold up his hand as if to say "don't run me over." He then put both hands on the handgun and fired at the vehicle, which was coming head on at him, according to court documents. Orange sparks emitted from the gun as he fired. He was standing in the driveway and may have dodged backwards to avoid being struck, she recalled.
The man allegedly tucked the gun in his waistband and walked back toward the store where several people had gathered. A witness said the man, who was wearing a Las Vegas Raiders hat, looked "stunned." Witnesses recalled hearing the man say the driver tried to hit him.
When the man walked to his truck, a parked in the middle row of stalls spaces close to Middlefield Road, a female witness admonished him, according to court documents.
"That was stupid, didn't your mother ever teach you to walk away from trouble, not start it?" she said.
Meanwhile, the liquor-laden Lexus drove away at a high rate of speed -- so fast that the car's undercarriage set off sparks as it struck the driveway, witnesses told police. The car swerved into oncoming southbound lanes on Middlefield Road as it sped north.
Two police officers on the lookout for the vehicle were traveling east on Oregon Expressway. They saw the Lexus pull out in front of them, jump the median and come back onto the road. The driver, a male wearing a black baseball cap turned backward and a dark shirt, made a U-turn on Bryant Street. One of the officers noted the driver's side window was smashed, he said in court papers.
The officers pursued the Lexus as it drove west on Oregon Expressway and turned south onto Alma Street. The car accelerated at more than 90 mph and swerved right to left. The Lexus turned east onto East Charleston Road, at one point going around a car in the left-turn lane. The driver ran a red light and turned east onto San Antonio Road, then entered the northbound Highway 101 on-ramp.
The vehicle nearly collided with several cars on the ramp before entering the freeway, according to court documents. Once on the freeway, the Lexus sped at more than 100 mph, swerving in and out of traffic and then exited at Embarcadero Road. Officers lost sight of the SUV and terminated the pursuit, they said.
Looking for a shooter
Police used surveillance footage from inside the Safeway to send out alerts to other law enforcement agencies the next day. Belmont police quickly identified the victim as a prolific liquor thief who steals throughout the Bay Area. At the time, he had a misdemeanor warrant for his arrest and a warrant for an undisclosed felony from Pittsburg stemming from a 2017 case. He was last registered as an Oakley resident. Police there checked his known residences but did not see the SUV, according to court papers. As of Jan. 3, the alleged thief has not been arrested, Palo Alto police spokeswoman Janine De la Vega said.
Palo Alto investigators obtained a search warrant for Safeway's corporate office for the alleged shooter's Safeway Club card, which they learned was in his parents' names. A search for information from his Bank of America credit card used at Safeway revealed his name to be Christian David Poppe.
Police also found Poppe's Bank of America card was used at the Shell gas station on Embarcadero Road at 11:27 a.m. on the day of the shooting. Obtaining the station's closed-circuit television footage, police confirmed that Poppe was driving a large, black, Chevy Silverado double-cab pickup truck, as witnesses had described. Investigators traced the truck using Google Maps to a location in Henderson, Nevada.
Investigators also searched law-enforcement databases and social media pages for information about Poppe. A Facebook account with his picture appeared to be the same person in the surveillance footage. At Palo Alto police's request, Henderson police did a visual check of all addresses listed for Poppe but they did not locate the black truck, according to the court documents.
Witnesses had described Poppe, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 205 pounds, as highly muscular, as though he worked out. Surveillance video showed he had tattoos of barbed wire around each bicep. On Aug. 8, police checked local 24 Hour Fitness facilities to see if Poppe was a member. The facilities are connected across the country through their database, police said in court papers.
The manager at the Mountain View location confirmed that Poppe was a member and had recently visited multiple Bay Area locations. Poppe checked in at Redwood City on Aug. 4 and at the Walnut Creek 24 Hour Fitness Super Sport gym on Aug. 6. Surveillance footage from the Walnut Creek location showed Poppe checking in, and as he entered and left the parking lot where police were able to obtain images of his license plate.
Police entered the license plate number into the system with a "felony stop, armed and dangerous" notice for all law-enforcement agencies. Detectives placed a license-plate-reader alert into police databases to track the truck's whereabouts.
Recent hits on the plate showed that Poppe had been in Walnut Creek. On Aug. 8, investigators notified Walnut Creek and Danville police of Poppe's warrant and the likelihood that he was still in the area. Danville police later located Poppe in his truck and took him into custody without incident.
A remorseful, would-be hero
Poppe cooperated with police, court records show, even providing them with the code to the locked gun safe in his truck bed where the weapon was stored. A Glock 9 mm handgun was in a holster designed to be worn inside of pants, as witnesses had described. A 10-round magazine next to the gun had seven unspent bullets. If he had one round in the chamber and fired four rounds, seven remaining rounds was consistent with the number of leftover rounds after the shooting, police noted.
Police also obtained Poppe's cellphone that contained conversations in the WhatsApp messaging application and discovered he had texted a girlfriend about the shooting.
Poppe told police that he had never been in a situation such as this before. He said he left the scene because he was a bit scared and unsure of what to do. He consulted with a friend who is an air marshal and drove back toward the scene from a friend's house where he was staying, but he left after seeing the police cars.
Poppe's case is an example of how situations can rapidly escalate, even when one's intentions are good. He decided to intervene because he doesn't like people who "steal, break the law and take advantage of other people," he told police. He felt like he needed to tell the people taking the liquor that they had to pay for it. He did not consider what would happen afterwards, he said.
He hoped the alleged shoplifters would just stop when he intervened, and he regretted being "a Good Samaritan." He said he had made "a huge mistake."
He did not know at the time if he had hit anyone, but was focused on the SUV coming at him, he told police.
"At the time I felt it was justified and it was right, and now I just feel really stupid, and I wish none of this ever happened. But I feel like if I was a police officer, a police officer would have done the same thing," he said.
Asked by police if he considered that he might end up taking someone else's life over a basic shoplift, he said he hadn't thought about it. "I felt like I was protecting myself. I mean, I didn't try to hit someone with a car. I just didn't think they would try to run me over."
He also did not consider that the shoplifter might have had a gun, he said. At the time, even without his handgun, he said he would have intervened because he believed it was the right response. But in hindsight, he would have stayed out of the situation, he told police.
Poppe has a degree in security management and as gone through executive-protection training. The gun was one he had purchased for the executive protection class, he told police. He has a concealed-carry permit from Florida and also had one in Nevada, which he let lapse. He also has a record of felony arrests for undisclosed offenses, but he was able to get the concealed-weapon permit because they were knocked down to misdemeanors, he told police.
In California, 35 out of 58 counties allow some concealed carry permits as of January 2018, but cities within these counties can be stricter. Some counties don't allow permits for concealed weapons at all. California does not allow reciprocity, meaning that concealed weapon permits issued in other states are not allowed, according to state law. Non-residents can't obtain a concealed weapon permit in the state. As of Jan. 1, Californians seeking to carry a concealed weapon must have at least eight hours of safety training.
In Palo Alto, the police chief makes the decisions regarding concealed weapon permits. To be considered for a permit, one must be a Palo Alto resident, at least 21 years old, be free from criminal convictions that would disqualify the applicant from carrying a firearm, submit to fingerprinting and a background check, be of good moral character, have at least three letters of character reference, show good cause for the issuance of the license, be free from any psychological conditions that might make the applicant unsuitable for carrying a firearm and complete required training.
Santa Clara County does consider concealed weapon permits, but there are restrictions.