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'He needed help': How a 'psychotic' unarmed man was killed by a cop at a West Palm Beach school

A man, crouching down, poses with his arm around the shoulder of a woman in a wheelchair.
Robbin Jackman
via Facebook
Romen Phelps in February 2022, celebrating his 33rd birthday, with his mother, Robbin Jackman.

On his last day alive, Romen Phelps crashed his company van through a locked gate at his old high school, rammed a golf cart and slammed into a palm tree before skipping and dancing his way across campus.

Teachers shouted, “Code red!” Students fled. Police swarmed. Cameras recorded nearly every move.

But just two people and no cameras were in the school’s theater when the 33-year-old Dreyfoos High School of the Arts graduate was shot to death on May 13, 2022. One of them, off-duty West Palm Beach police Sgt. Christopher Nagel, killed Phelps with a single gunshot to the chest, police documents reveal.

Officers who had rushed to the scene were stopped by the theater’s locked main door, awaiting a key. The school police officer who had tracked Phelps since he arrived on campus left to get help — at the insistence of the off-duty sergeant.
Two minutes after she left, the sergeant would shoot Phelps. He would be pronounced dead seven minutes after that.

Those details gleaned from nearly 400 pages of investigative reports offer the first full public accounting of the shooting death of Phelps, an electrician acting erratically in the throes of mania fueled by marijuana and with traces of ketamine in his bloodstream.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg announced in May 2023 that no criminal charges would be filed against the sergeant.

The name of the sergeant had been withheld until last month, published by The Palm Beach Post after the Florida Supreme Court threw out a portion of a state law that had been used to withhold the names of crime victims, including police officers who use force.

The sergeant who shot Phelps, Nagel, 41, had been involved in six use of force incidents since he came to the force in 2007. He was lauded for his actions, receiving the Palm Beach County Police Chiefs Officer of the Year Award.

Nagel’s performance evaluation cited how he “calmly and professionally carried out his duties as a police officer while under extreme stress” that day at Dreyfoos. Aronberg’s investigative unit produced a detailed account of the shooting, examining video from dozens of cameras elsewhere on campus and reports written by the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and West Palm Beach police.

Stet Palm Beach paid the State Attorney’s Office $450 to obtain those investigative reports, a price that covered the cost of redacting exempt information, including the names of the shooter and the school district police officer and results of DNA testing.

To piece together the final two minutes in the theater, investigators relied on an interview with Dreyfoos School of the Arts Principal Blake Bennett and DNA evidence. Nagel, represented by attorney Michael Salnick, refused to grant police an interview or provide a videotaped walk-through of the shooting, as is Salnick’s advice in such situations.

But investigators had one key comment from Nagel, captured on the body cam footage of officers who entered the theater seconds after the shooting.

"Where's the gun? Hey, Sarge, was there a gun at all on him?” West Palm Beach police officer Hayley Nine asked Nagel.  

"Nah, he took mine …” Nagel replied. “He tried to take mine."

A crashed van surrounded with yellow police tape.
Palm Beach County State Attorney investigation
The work van Romen Phelps drove through the gates at Dreyfoos School of the Arts on the last day of school in May 2022.

‘I will put my gun away’

Minutes earlier, while still in the theater, school police officer Ellen Bango had ordered Phelps to the ground at gunpoint. Phelps complied. But soon after, he became irate, the report said, and he screamed at her about having her gun out.

“Listen, if you can stay calm and stay on the ground, I will put my gun away,” Bango told him. She holstered her weapon and moved back, jumping from the stage to the floor below.

Principal Bennett later told investigators she thought she had a better rapport with Phelps, who had been acting erratically, because she was “dressed down” while the school police officer was in uniform.

During an unpredictable series of exchanges over several minutes, she said Phelps calmed down as she asked him to “sing a little bit more of that song for me” or told him, “Hey, there is nothing to get upset about.”

That changed when the school police officer left, replaced by Nagel dressed in clothes clearly marking him as police.

Phelps and Nagel faced one another on the stage and Phelps charged, Bennett said.

"It looked to me like the officer was trying to take out his handcuffs," she said.Phelps, who was 5-feet-11, 207 pounds, "went at the officer with closed fists" as they struggled and went to the ground, she told investigators.

Phelps landed on top. The sergeant "reached for his gun and shot him," Bennett said. 

Taken to Gardens hospital the night before

Phelps had been alternating between rage and exuberance since the night before, when a friend who had attended Dreyfoos with Phelps 15 years earlier needed police help to get Phelps to leave his home.

The call, the first of two about Phelps to police that night, came at 6:09 p.m. from the Palm Beach Gardens home of Skyler Meany.

When police arrived, Phelps and Meany were outside. Phelps told police he had been smoking marijuana but that he had a medical marijuana card.

Since he could be considered inebriated, police told Phelps, they couldn’t just let him drive away.

Body cam footage of the conversation showed Phelps standing for several minutes with a blue shirt on a hanger in one handand a set of keys outstretched in the other hand, investigators wrote. Phelps dropped the keys, but held his empty hand outstretched.

The officer asked Phelps why he dropped the keys.

“Phelps responds ‘Oz,’ HBO, the show on HBO,” a reference to a 1990s show about life in prison, the investigator reviewing body cam footage wrote.The officer called for medics.

Over the course of an hour, police persuaded Phelps to go with the medics, leaving his company’s van at Meany’s house. But the medics needed police help because Phelps refused to lie down on a gurney.

“Phelps asks the officer if he (the officer) is going to blow his brains out,” the body cam video revealed. “The officer replies, ‘No.’” In audio from another officer, an investigator writes, “Phelps says he will not lay back (on the gurney) because everyone will think he is crazy. Phelps then says he is a genius.”

Before leaving the scene, one officer asked Meany if Phelps had made threats to harm himself or others, a key factor in determining whether Phelps could be held involuntarily under the state’s Baker Act. Meany said no.

A smiling man throws a 'V' sign with his left hand.
Photo provided by friends
Stet Media / Palm Beach Post
Romen Phelps, who died after crashing into Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach and being shot by a police officer while in the throes of a manic episode on May 13, 2022.

Phelps combative in ER; police called

The second call came in at 10:30 p.m. from Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center. Police were called about a combative patient in the emergency room — Phelps.

Phelps saw one officer activate the audio of his partner’s body cam. Phelps uses a pejorative to refer to the officer and adds: “I’m everything, the sword and the gun are one in the same. That’s the answer.”

One of the officers’ body cameras picked up a conversation between the ER staff and officers that medics had given Phelps ketamine and “he should be out but he has been up the entire time.”

While ketamine is known as a street drug that produces a hallucinogenic high, medics use it in lower doses as a sedative. But studies have shown it can induce psychosis in people with schizophrenia, which means it could have the same effect on someone suffering from psychosis, like Phelps, Delray Beach psychiatrist Dr. Irl Extein said.

“The simplest explanation is that he was psychotic and stayed psychotic as opposed to ketamine being a factor,” Extein said.There is no evidence in the reports that medical staff considered transferring Phelps, who had bipolar disorder, to a mental health facility.

At one point at the hospital, investigators wrote, Phelps said, “Yesterday, I was a danger to myself and others,” referring to an incident at a bar. But no comments are recorded about whether he considered himself a threat at that time.

The hospital released Phelps at 11:30 p.m. to his brother. They went to Meany’s house, where Phelps picked up the company van, a 2020 Chevrolet Express.

For Phelps’ mother, Robbin Jackman, the failure of the hospital to admit her son is where it all began to unravel.

“Romen needed help. He went to seek help. He didn’t get help. I think he was having a psychotic break,” said Jackman, who is pursuing a license as a mental health counselor.“Whenever Romen had something on his mind, he didn’t sleep. Whenever he didn’t sleep, he would go into a manic episode. He’d be super energized,” she said. “He was never mean. He was just full of energy.”Photos posted to social media showed Phelps out partying later that night on Clematis Street.

He came home to his mother’s house at 2:30 a.m., his mother said, but didn’t sleep, posting photos on his phone.

“He called me and asked if he could spend the night,” she said, because he didn’t have the key to his apartment and didn’t want to wake his roommate.

Meany said he got a text from Phelps at 4:52 a.m. “I would never harm you, you molded me into a phoenix crystal and for that I'd be forever grateful,” he wrote.

Clash with co-worker

Phelps left for work around 7 or 7:30, Jackman said.

She was in another room. “No hug or anything,” she said. “He just said ‘Mom, I’m going. I love you.’“‘Love you, too,’” she replied. “‘I’ll see you later.’” He returned to Meany’s house, where he had forgotten his wallet.

He still didn’t remember what happened,” Meany said. “He said, ‘The whole thing seemed like a blackout to me.’ He didn’t remember dealing with the police at my house.”Phelps reported to his job as an electrician at Lane Valente Industries. He picked up a co-worker, whom he had never worked with before.

They stopped at a convenience store for rolling papers, the co-worker, later identified as Yeovanny Taveras, told police. Phelps rolled a joint and smoked it, Taveras said.

After that, Phelps was ‘extremely erratic,’” police quoted Taveras as saying.

They were on Belvedere Road near Florida Mango Road stopped at a red light.

“Phelps ‘freaked out’ and began punching YT in the head,” the investigator wrote. Taveras got out of the van about 10:30 a.m. He told police he was uninjured despite receiving about 10 blows.

A van crashed into a tree.
Palm Beach County State Attorney investigation
Romen Phelps’ crashed work van at Dreyfoos School of the Arts.

Crashes van, dances ‘a little jig’

The next report of Phelpscame from a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy who called a friend on the West Palm Beach police force just before noon to see if they were looking for a white van with a ladder on the roof, a description of Phelps’ van.

The deputy had seen it driving the wrong way on Banyan Boulevard and blowing through a red light to turn south onto Tamarind Avenue — toward Dreyfoos School of the Arts.

Two minutes later, the first calls came in from the school.
The van smashed through the locked gate on the west side of campus at Tamarind Avenue on the last day of school. It demolished a golf cart and toppled a 40-foot royal palm. A school aide estimated the van’s speed at 70 mph, saying the engine “roared” before hitting the tree.

Teacher Ryan Toth told police Phelps got out of the van, dusted himself off and began to “dance a little jig.

Phelps reached into his pocket for a cigarette, appearing "completely out of it," Toth told police.

Toth told Phelps to step away from the van, worried that lighting a cigarette could spark a fire.Phelps replied: "Or what?"As Toth warned students to sound the code red alarm calling for a lockdown, Phelps wandered off, dancing and skipping his way onto campus, Toth told investigators.

School officer tries to cuff Phelps

School police officer Bango, on campus as a substitute, heard the crash and saw students fleeing. She ran toward the crash. She found the van, the wrecked golf cart and the broken tree. She radioed for medics.

Bango was filling in for a school police officer who knew Phelps from his years on campus. But that officer was out of town, attending his son’s graduation.

Bango, a school police officer for four years, caught up with Phelps at the student services building. He was talking to the staff. Students later told The Post he appeared calm.

 A crashed golf cart.
Palm Beach County State Attorney investigation
The golf cart demolished by Roman Phelps as he crashed a van into the Dreyfoos School of the Arts campus in West Palm Beach on May 13, 2022. Phelps, who was in the throes of a manic episode, was killed by a police officer that day.

She asked if he was driving the van and, she told investigators, he “kind of ignored my question.”

Phelps began to leave, saying he was “going outside to smoke a cigarette.”

Bango ripped the cigarette out of Phelps’ hand. She guided him toward the student services front desk. It didn’t work. Phelps made his way outside, toward students in a courtyard.

He skipped down the walkway while unbuttoning his shirt, Bango told investigators. Bango radioed for backup, calling Phelps Signal 20, code for a mentally disturbed person. She yelled for students to get into a classroom.

Witnesses told police and cameras confirmed that Phelps jumped up, grabbed a metal bar supporting the overhang and did three pull-ups.

A sophomore told The Post that Phelps asked her about her major. When she refused to answer, he continued walking.

Bango followedand tried to cuff Phelps.

“He pulled so hard and almost flung himself on the ground,” she told investigators. She couldn’t control him.Sandra Bullock, the school’s treasurer, said she came face to face with Phelps and he hit her left shoulder as he passed. “The lady hit me,” Phelps said. Bullock told Phelps she did not hit him.

Phelps responded, “No you didn’t touch me. She did,” pointing to someone else.

Phelps told Bullock he was “not here to hurt anybody.” While Bullock tried to steer him toward the parking lot, he moved toward the theater building.

He “pushed me aside a little bit,” she told police.

Phelps had been a theater major at Dreyfoos, where he became interested in electrical work. Even after he graduated, friends said he had worked as an electrician on theater projects and may have viewed the theater as a refuge.

“It was probably the place that meant more to him than any place in the whole world,” Meany said after the shooting. “If he had to choose to depart this world from any place, it would have been there.”Phelps flung open the doors to the building that contained the theater and classrooms. He banged on lockers as he walked along the hallway toward the backstage entrance.

Two students took shelter in a bathroom. One said Phelps shouted, “Where is my bass? I need my strings!"

Security camera screenshots of a man standing in a doorway.
Palm Beach County State Attorney investigation
A video camera captured Romen Phelps as he enters the student services building. The time stamp is 11:55 a.m.

Phelps flipped ‘to a different person’

Phelps entered the theater through a rear door.

He went on stage and sat down to play the piano. Bullock told police she thought “OK. Play the piano if that is what you want to do because nobody is in here and we are good.”

When Bango and Bennett arrived, Bullock left.

Phelps "flipped over to a different person," Bango told police. He went on stage and talked about what his life could have been like. He mentioned famous people. He appeared to be talking to an audience, she said.

Phelps sang “What I Did For Love,” which starts, “Kiss today goodbye,” a song from “A Chorus Line,” Principal Bennett told investigators.

He yelled at someone who was not there, saying “Who the f— do you think you are, why did you do this?”

He asked inappropriate questions, she told police.

When Bango approached, Phelps “got agitated, kicked over music stands, kicked the piano, screaming and yelling, charged at her a couple of times, charged at me a couple of times,” Bennett said.When he calmed, Bennett asked him to sing a little bit more. 

School officer pulls gun, Phelps complies

When Bango drew her weapon, Phelps charged. When she commanded him to stop, Phelps responded, "You want to shoot me, don't you?"

When Bango ordered Phelps to the ground at gunpoint, he complied. He soon began yelling at her about having her gun out.

He was like ‘Shoot me. Just shoot me. You are not going to shoot me. You want to f— me,” she told investigators.

“Listen, if you can stay calm and stay on the ground, I will put my gun away,” Bango told him.She holstered her weapon and stepped down to the aisle below the stage.

She said she had experience as a police officer working with people who have a mental illness.

Bango told investigators she was scared “because I could feel when I attempted to put him in handcuffs the power he had over me and it was me and the (school principal).” A detective asked her what would have happened if she had fought Phelps.

“If I didn’t use any other means, I’d probably be hurt,” she told him.

Fear of harm is a key factor in deciding whether lethal force is warranted.

At 12:10:31, Bango told police dispatch Phelps is calmed down “for now” but “will be irate when someone else shows up.” Dispatch responded that a West Palm Beach officer had just arrived.

Two side-on full-body photos of a police officer standing, with his head blurred.
Palm Beach County State Attorney investigation
West Palm Beach Sgt. Christopher Nagel, who rushed to the scene and fired the shot that killed Romen Phelps. His face is blurred to comply with state law.

Sergeant arrives, school officer leaves

When the first calls came in, Sgt. Nagel had been driving nearby after leaving the courthouse. He wore dark blue, uniform-style pants. His shirt had a yellow/gold imprint of a police badge on the chest with the words West Palm Beach police on the sleeves and the back.

He carried a Smith & WessonM&P 2.0 semi-automatic 9 mm handgun. Since he was off-duty, he had no body camera. He also didn’t have his department-issued holster, which has a locking mechanism. To pull his gun from his off-duty holster simply required a firm tug.

Bennett told police the school district was installing 120 cameras at the school but she did not know if any were operating in the theater. Police said they were not.

Nagel radios that he is inside the theater building at 12:10:25. He entered the theater through a backstage door. 

Bango saw Nagel enter “at the very back of the stage.” She walked up onto the stage and briefed him. He told her “go outside, grab your units and come back in,” a reference to getting backup.

To Bennett, Phelps appeared more agitated with Nagel in the room.

“There is a bigger man than him standing there,” she said she heard Phelps say. Phelps charged, Bennett said.

“It looked to me like the officer was trying to take out his handcuffs,” she told investigators.She said Phelps "went at the officer with closed fists." They fought their way to the floor, Bennett told investigators, weeping as she added: "All I kept going to do was distract him and keep your kids and teachers safe."

She said Nagel tried to cuff Phelps, but Phelps was “too big.” Phelps gained control and was on top with Nagel pinned to the floor, she said. Nagel “reached for his gun and shot him.”  Less than two minutes had passed since Nagel entered the room.

A stage with chairs thrown around.
Palm Beach County State Attorney investigation
The theater stage at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts after the police shooting of Romen Phelps on May 13, 2022.

‘Shots fired’

At 12:11:54 p.m., Nagel comes on the radio, the investigation shows. He sounds out of breath. He identifies himself and says: “Shots fired, one suspect down in, in the theater."

That’s when officers in the lobby, “not aware of the side entrance used by (Nagel),” got a staffer with a key and entered the theater, the investigation said.

“Random frustrating circumstances sometimes occur in cases like this,” Aronberg’s deputy chief investigator, former West Palm Beach detective Mark Anderson, wrote. “An infuriating impediment beyond anyone's control was the locked doors in the Meyer Hall lobby. “It is unfair to criticize the officers grouped in the lobby. They had no way of knowing the others mentioned had used side and back entry points,” he wrote. “Whether the first officer or two in the lobby could have made it inside before the shot was fired had those doors been unlocked will never be known for a certainty.”  Bango was with the group of officers entering the theater.

School police Lt. Summer Caudio shouted, “Long gun first.”

West Palm Beach officer Hayley Nine, carrying a rifle, led the way.

They saw Nagel on a knee tending to Phelps.

Caudio asked, “Is he shot?”  "Yeah, one gunshot,”Nagel said.Caudio asked him if he was OK. "Yeah, I am all right,” Nagel said. Nine asked for a chest seal, an airtight bandage to be applied over the bullet wound. "Where's the gun,” she said. “Hey, Sarge, was there a gun at all on him?” "Nah, he took mine,” Nagel said. “He tried to take mine."

Sergeant ‘visibly shaken’

Nagel looked scared, Officer Nine told investigators. “Nine had never seen him like that before,” they wrote.

He appeared "visibly shaken,” West Palm traffic homicide investigator James Ingrassia said. “I noticed there was blood on his hands from when he was trying, when he tried to do first aid before somebody else, I guess, relieved him before we came in."

Officer Nine administered aid for two or three minutes. A sergeant applied what is known as an ambu bag, which helped force air into his lungs.

When medics arrived, they pronounced Phelps dead at 12:19 p.m.

Ingrassia escorted Nagel out of the theater. West Palm Lt. Emily Wiggs escorted him to her patrol car and gave him hand sanitizer to clean the blood from his hands.

A gun in a holster.
Palm Beach County State Attorney investigation
West Palm Beach Sgt. Christopher Nagel’s gun and holster, used in the shooting of Romen Phelps at Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach on May 13, 2022.

‘I would never have left the room’

Aronberg, whose office successfully prosecuted a Palm Beach Gardens police officer in the 2015 shooting death of motorist Corey Jones, cleared Nagel in May 2023.

Phelps’ mother has not sued anyone. She said she has run out of legal options after approaching a half-dozen attorneys with none willing to take her case. It’s harder for a mother to win a civil suit, she explained, than a spouse or a child. Phelps was not married and had no children.

Court rulings have made it extremely difficult to win jury awards in police-involved shooting cases if the officer has “probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm.”

Local criminal defense attorney Val Rodriguez, who has gone to court before on behalf of people shot by police, said he wouldn’t take this case challenging the officer’s decision to shoot.

“The likelihood of success is very minimal,” Rodriguez said. “Any great defense lawyer for the cops is going to basically say this cop is a hero. He protected the principal from being killed.“I can’t have a jury think, ‘Geez, if I was in that cop’s position, what would I do?’”Joseph Giacalone, a former New York police detective and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, agreed that Nagel had no choice.

But he questioned a key decision leading up to the final two minutes: the school police officer’s decision to leave.

“I would never have left the room,” Giacalone said. “I got the radio, that’s how I get help. The principal could go open the door. I don’t need to do that.

“It’s as simple as that. You got caught up in the moment and the decision you made was not the right decision but that doesn’t make it an unfounded shooting.”DNA test results were blacked out in the reports. But the State Attorney’s Office investigator concluded that the level of Phelps’ DNA on Nagel’s gun was “so high that no reasonable person could offer a cogent argument to refute (Nagel’s) explanation … that he and Phelps were struggling over the handgun.”

Best practices called for the sergeant to “isolate and contain” while waiting for help, Giacalone said, as long as Phelps was not a threat to anyone.

But Nagel didn’t know for sure if Phelps had a weapon or would wield a nearby object, like a music stand.

“If you try and rush these kinds of things, they never work out well,” Giacalone said. But he noted, “You’re also dealing with someone who has a mental breakdown. They’re not going to follow directions and they’re going to fight you.”Police found a baggie with 4.4 grams of marijuana in Phelps’ truck. His blood contained a high level of a psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, Delta 9 THC, police said.

“Had he been arrested for impaired driving and had his blood tested in Ohio or Nevada, his THC impairment status would have been 12.5 times the legal limit,” investigators wrote.

‘The most dangerous choice he ever made’

The February 2023 report from Aronberg’s deputy chief investigator, Anderson, offered his broader take as he recommended to the state attorney whether charges should be filed against Nagel.

When a school intrusion occursthe bottom-line reality is that law enforcement responders must assume the intruder's intentions are violent, to wreak havoc and cause fear,” Anderson wrote.

“Why else would an adult man crash through a locked perimeter fence, struggle with a uniformed police officer, and make his way to where vulnerable students and school staffers are gathered? No reasonable person, certainly no reasonable officer, could assume the intruder's intent was anything less than hostile.

The school intrusion was without doubt the most dangerous choice he (Phelps) ever made, but it was not profoundly surprising considering his troubled past. The sad truth of this case comes from the undeniable fact that Romen Phelps was seriously mentally ill and was clearly having a break from reality. “With the totality of all the case facts explained in this review, the physical evidence being paramount, the decision by the Involved Officer (Nagel) to use deadly force was justified,” Anderson wrote.

“He was engaged in a violent fight with a deranged, physically fit attacker who gained the advantage in the life-and-death struggle on the floor of the school's stage. The battle's conclusion was about to result in one finality — which man would control the handgun. No other option was available to the officer at that moment in time.”

The report did nothing to ease the pain for Phelps’ mother, Jackman.

“He was acting like something was wrong because something was wrong,” she said. “Instead of trying to calm him down, I think, they were just egging him on.” 

This story was originally published by Stet Palm Beach, a WLRN News partner, in partnership with the Palm Beach Post.

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