FLAGLER COUNTY, Fla. – A U.S. Census working trying to help residents fill out the 2020 Census was threatened by a Flagler County man Monday who threatened him with an AR-15 rifle, shooting as the man retreated, according to authorities and witnesses.
Flagler County deputies were called to the home on Clove Avenue in Bunnell around 6:15 p.m. after the federal employee reported Michael Cooper, 32, shot at him.
The census is used to determine how many congressional seats each state gets and the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funds annually that can fund community hospitals, fire departments, schools, roads, and other programs.
According to the report, the Census worker was wearing a lanyard that identified himself as an employee with the U.S. Census Bureau and was driving a vehicle that also identified him as such. Neighbors told authorities even from across the street they could clearly see the man’s credentials and heard him identify himself as a U.S. Census worker. They could also hear Cooper over the sounds of a lawn mower screaming at the victim and saw him produce a rifle and heard a shot fired, witnesses told deputies.
“The census worker saw the homeowner sitting on his porch, entered through an open gate and tried to explain to the homeowner why in fact he was there," Flagler County Sheriff’s Office Chief Chris Sepe said.
The Census worker parked off Cooper’s property and began to identify himself as soon as he started walking toward the home where Cooper was on the front porch, according to the report. The victim said Cooper immediately became irate and began to scream at him to get off his property, Cooper then went inside his home and came back out with a black assault-style rifle and chambered a round, according to the victim.
The victim began to walk away but as he did he said he heard a shot fired. The victim’s wife was sitting in the vehicle they both arrived in and said Cooper raised the firearm at the victim as he walked away. She told deputies she started honking the horn to warn her husband about the rifle being pointed at him. The couple left and called authorities.
“As the census worker turned around to retreat from the property, the homeowner actually raised the rifle with the barrel of the gun at the census worker’s back the entire time as he followed him off of the property," Sepe said.
Cooper told deputies the victim did not identify himself or have a badge and he was in fear for his life so he went inside his home, locked the door and armed himself before coming back outside.
Body camera video shows Cooper’s conversation with deputies before he was arrested. He told deputies he informed the man he was trespassing and even though he heard him say he was a “government employee” that did not give him the right to trespass.
“I told him he wasn’t welcome here. I told him he was trespassing. I told him he was on private property,” Cooper said, adding then he “cocked his gun.”
U.S. Census workers are legally allowed to walk onto a property even with a “no trespassing sign,” Sepe said.
He also denied firing his weapon while the Census worker was walking away, saying he did it only to discharge the firearm after he left.
“After they left, I fired one round because I don’t keep loaded firearms in my house," Cooper said. "They were gone, gone, gone.”
“How would they know you fired a shot if they were gone?” the deputy asks.
The deputies explained to Cooper “at this point, your life was not in danger to justify grabbing a firearm” and “he clearly identified himself.”
Cooper was confused as to what he did wrong, asking “can I go to jail for this?”
“I fired my own gun on my property when no body was here. I was in fear. I had multiple people in a truck at the end of my driveway,” he says.
Deputies collected Cooper’s rifle as evidence, along with a spent round casing.
Deputies said Cooper had no legitimate reason to fear for his life and could have called authorities after he went inside his home.
“Not only did we see the placard on his truck, and we saw the lanyard, but we have two independent witnesses that also said that it was very clearly and easily identified," Sepe said.
Cooper is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill.