By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
EVERETT — So far Everett has paid lawyers about $210,000 to defend against a federal lawsuit quietly filed a year ago by the parents of a man who was fatally shot by police in 2008.
Larry and Debra Willard are suing the city and police officers Stephen Harney, Aaron Showalter and Sunny Radosevich. The couple’s son, Dustin Willard, was shot to death Nov. 8, 2008, in the doorway of his north Everett home.
The three officers were responding to a possible burglary at Willard’s house after a neighbor called 911. Willard came to the door with a loaded shotgun. The officers told investigators that Willard ignored commands to drop the shotgun and leveled the weapon at them. The officers fired 17 times. Willard was hit several times, dying inside his home.
Willard’s parents claim that their son was gunned down senselessly.
“They know in their heart of hearts what happened to their son was wrong. They want justice for their son,” said Julie Kays, one of the attorneys at Connelly Law Offices in Tacoma, which is representing the Willards.
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe concluded in 2010 that the shooting was “unspeakably sad and tragic” but didn’t amount to a crime. Roe reviewed the investigation conducted by detectives with the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team (SMART) and determined that the Everett police officers were legally justified when they shot Willard.
In his letter to investigators, Roe pointed out that Willard was a hard-working man without a criminal history. At the time of the shooting, he was highly intoxicated and his judgment was impaired, Roe wrote. He was not the kind of man who would have pointed a gun at police if he had been thinking clearly, Roe concluded.
No internal review
Former Police Chief Jim Scharf never ordered an internal investigation into the shooting.
The city was satisfied with the findings of the SMART investigation presented to the prosecutor’s office, city spokeswoman Kate Reardon told The Herald. Based on the SMART report and Roe’s ruling, “it was clear to the department that there were no department policy violations by the Everett officers involved and that no internal investigation by the department was warranted,” she wrote in an email.
The Willards are concerned that Everett police never conducted an internal investigation to determine if there was a gap in training or a need for policy changes, Kays said.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges that the officers failed to properly identify themselves or even make attempts to contact Willard. Instead, the lawyers say, the officers were lurking in the dark outside Willard’s home and never announced their presence until Willard came to the door with a shotgun.
Officers told investigators they followed procedure and quietly surrounded the house because a burglar could have been inside.
Willard wasn’t aware that the officers rang the doorbell. It wasn’t working. He came to door after he and his dog heard sounds of rustling and movement from outside, according to the lawsuit. He grabbed his shotgun to investigate. There had been several instances of vandalism and other crime in the neighborhood, and given the late hour Willard reasonably believed he was in danger, the lawsuit said.
Willard couldn’t see the officers hidden in the shadows with their guns drawn, but they could see him and the shotgun. The lawsuit alleges that Radosevich, who was taking cover behind a telephone pole, “panicked and began yelling ‘gun’ and firing her weapon at the homeowner.”
“At no time did (Willard) raise his shotgun into firing position, nor did he fire or attempt to fire his shotgun,” according to the lawsuit.
Harney and Showalter were feet from Willard, near the porch. They told detectives how they scrambled back while bringing up their handguns and aiming at the man with the shotgun.
“The only thought in my mind is this guy’s gonna kill me with a gun. I didn’t think that he was a homeowner or a burglar. It’s a guy with a gun,” Harney told detectives.
Showalter described being transfixed by the shotgun’s barrel as it preceded Willard through the open door. He told detectives he started to fire as he was backing away, heard gunshots and saw Harney fall. He didn’t know the other officer had tripped.
“At that moment I believed my partner had been shot and uh, I was in fear for my life,” Showalter was quoted in the police transcript.
The officers fired 17 times. Four bullets struck Willard. Two others grazed him.
The lawsuit disputes that the officers gave Willard the opportunity to drop his gun before they fired.
Willard “had no animosity towards the police, and he would have immediately put his weapon down if the police had properly identified themselves and given him a chance to do so,” according to the lawsuit. “Moreover, the homeowner never would have opened his front door carrying a shotgun if the police had properly announced and identified themselves.”
The officers needlessly created a situation that led to the use of deadly force, the lawsuit alleges. They could have tried to call into the house or talk to Willard who had been in the back yard at one point, lawyers wrote in the lawsuit.
The city is accused of failing to properly train the officers to respond to 911 calls, investigate such calls and execute proper “knock and announce” procedures. The city also failed to appropriately supervise less-experienced officers, court papers said. At the time of the shooting, Harney was the most senior officer in that group, with two years on the force. Radosevich was a month shy of her two-year anniversary and Showalter had been an officer for 19 months.
The lawsuit also finds fault with how the city and the officers delayed providing statements to investigators. The SMART detectives noted in their reports that the Everett officers reviewed their statements with a civil attorney before agreeing to be questioned by investigators.
The Willards allege that the officers waited 11 days to speak with detectives because “they were more concerned with protecting the department and their own careers,” court papers said.
Records recently obtained by The Herald show that the Christie Law Group was brought in on the shooting well before the civil lawsuit was ever filed. The law firm billed the city for 11 hours of work in November 2008 — right after Willard was shot. Everett paid the law firm nearly $5,000 between November 2008 and December 2009 for representation regarding the shooting, records show.
The city then hired Hillis Clark Martin and Peterson in 2012 to defend against the civil lawsuit. That’s the same firm that was hired to fight a lawsuit stemming from a June 10, 2009, line-of-duty shooting.
That shooting and the subsequent murder trial of then-Everett police officer Troy Meade in large part publicly overshadowed Willard’s death seven months earlier.
Detectives still were investigating the north Everett shooting when Meade fatally shot a drunken man who was seated in his car outside the Chuckwagon Inn on Evergreen Way.
Willard’s parents filed a $20 million claim against the city in October 2009. That was around the time Meade was charged in connection with Niles Meservey’s death. In April 2010, a jury acquitted Meade of murder but stopped short of calling the shooting self-defense.
Two years later, Scharf fired Meade after a delayed internal investigation concluded that officer violated department policies at the time of the shooting. Scharf told lawyers that he’d decided to buck department policy and delay the internal probe into Meservey’s death until after the criminal case and a civil lawsuit were resolved.
The city eventually settled the lawsuit filed by Meservey’s family for $500,000. The city racked up more than $700,000 in legal fees paying for Meade’s criminal defense, fighting the lawsuit and labor matters. Meade collected $183,984.87 while on paid administrative leave.
The decision to delay the internal investigation into Meservey’s death had been controversial within the police department. There was speculation that the city chose to wait because it wanted to avoid gathering evidence that could have weakened the city’s civil case.
Scharf testified in 2011 that the “uniqueness” of the Meservey shooting prompted him to ignore department policy and suspend the internal investigation. The following month, city officials, however, acknowledged that Scharf also declined to initiate an internal probe into Willard’s death. They also revealed that not all Everett police shootings undergo internal investigations.
“In cases like Willard, where there are no criminal charges, the department does not always follow its administrative review with an internal investigation,” spokeswoman Reardon wrote in 2011. “An internal investigation is necessary when additional information or review is needed to determine whether department or city policies or procedures have been violated. Willard was handled consistent with other incidents in which it was clear from the initial investigation that no policy violations occurred.”
The Willards’ attorneys say the police department should have done a more thoughtful analysis of what happened the morning the Everett man was killed.
“In our investigation we’re seeing areas of concern with respect to the department’s training and its policies,” Kays said.
The trial is scheduled to begin in September.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.