EVERETT — On a recent morning the rose bush outside the house on 23rd Street was flush with pink blooms. The small patch of lawn was tidy, though a string of sunny days started to bleach the grass. Just a few weeds sprouted up between the gray bricks on the walkway leading to the front porch.
Dustin Willard built that path.
He and his younger brother bought the house in 2007. It isn’t in Everett’s nicest neighborhood, maybe a little too close to north Broadway, a stretch of road with a reputation. The house was the right price though for first-time homebuyers who made their living fixing vehicles.
The back yard was big enough for barbecues and there was a garage to putter in. The neighbors seemed friendly. Some had lived on the block for decades.
Dustin and his brother started sprucing up the place, painting, updating the electrical box and making other repairs.
Dustin was shot to death on the front porch Nov. 8, 2008.
Three Everett police officers, sent to investigate reports of a possible burglary in the neighborhood, fired 17 rounds. Dustin was shot six times, dying where he fell, halfway inside the doorway, halfway out.
He had come to the door with a shotgun, unaware of the two officers on his lawn and a third taking cover behind a utility pole between the sidewalk and street. The officers said when he first stepped out, the shotgun barrel was pointing upward. They said Willard lowered the gun, as if taking aim at them. In that moment, they believed Willard was going to shoot one or all three of them.
Dustin’s family figures he had two or three seconds to react between when the officers started yelling at him and when they opened fire. They don’t believe Dustin would have brought a gun to the door if he’d known officers were outside. They are certain he wouldn’t have knowingly pointed the weapon at police.
Records show six seconds elapsed between when an officer told a dispatcher someone was coming to the front door and when another officer radioed that shots had been fired.
Records also show Dustin was handcuffed and his house searched before paramedics were allowed to touch him. He was lying in the doorway for six minutes.
Those six minutes gnaw at Larry and Debra Willard. They wonder if their son could have been saved.
The Everett couple has lived with a lot of what-ifs in the nearly nine years Dustin has been gone. What if he had known the police were outside? What if the officers had announced themselves? What if they would have parked a patrol car with lights flashing out front?
They also have been living through the grief of losing a child.
Debra Willard barely managed in those first years. She gave up working at the family business. She could hardly get out of bed. She lost 30 pounds that first month, living on Starbucks coffee. The soft-spoken former Sunday school teacher pushed friends away. She stopped going to church. She wondered if she’d ever stop crying.
Larry Willard put his grief on hold to focus on caring for his wife. He would lie beside her at night, listening to her cry herself to sleep. It was a helpless feeling for a guy who spent his life fixing things with his hands. He set out to get them answers about their son’s death. He looked to the courts when a police investigation into the shootings didn’t yield enough answers. He sued the city and the officers. He remains convinced that police made poor decisions that cost Dustin his life. He was certain his family would get their day in court.
Yet, at each turn in the legal system, the Willards were told police did nothing wrong. The officers feared for their lives. They had a right to defend themselves and each other. The courts didn’t see the tactical decisions police made leading up the gunfire as grounds for a trial.
Larry Willard sought justice for his boy for eight years. His fight came to an end last fall.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2016 affirmed an earlier decision by a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle, siding with the city. A jury would never hear the case.
Larry Willard doesn’t get to speak up for his son. He won’t get answers to the what-ifs. He doesn’t need to remember every detail in the nearly 1,000-page police investigation just in case the lawyers call.
For Larry Willard the toughest part of losing his firstborn may lie ahead.
“Not being able to get to trial is extremely hard for me,” Willard said. “I’m trying to learn to live with it for the rest of my life, so it doesn’t take over my life. My son died for no reason. I hope I can let it go.”
Dustin Willard grew up in Shoreline and Mountlake Terrace. He worked at the family-owned auto repair shop in north Seattle alongside his parents and younger brother, Clint. He’d struck out on his own about a year before his death, taking a job at another shop. He was looking forward to becoming the lead painter when a position opened up.
The 31-year-old didn’t have a police record, not even a traffic ticket. He wasn’t the kind of guy who went looking for trouble, his family said. He was easygoing, a bit reserved.
“He didn’t let a lot of people in. With me, he wore his heart on his sleeve,” his mom said. “We were real buddies.”
Dustin liked to tease his mother. She often came to the shop weighted down with bags. She did the books for the business and ferried work home and back. Dustin dubbed her the bag lady. He once made her a gigantic bag out of masking tape and butcher paper. He wrote her notes on the shop windows with tape and slid spackle knives under the restroom door when she was inside just to hear her laugh.
Larry and Debra Willard bought their house in the Silver Lake area in 2003. Larry, 66, is the president of the homeowner’s association there. The boys were out of the house by the time the couple moved. They knew to show up for family dinners once a month and weren’t too old for the treasure hunts their mom drew up leading to Christmas stockings.
Dustin and his brother started looking for a house by 2007. The brothers were five years apart. Clint Willard said the age difference likely helped them get along and as they got older they eased into friendship. They camped and rode quads in the Cascade foothills. Dustin found the two-bedroom house in north Everett.
The bachelors threw a housewarming party with Dustin at the grill. He was proud of his home.
There was some trouble in the neighborhood. Vandals broke into Dustin’s car. Someone may have tried breaking into the backyard fence about a month before the shooting. His family believes those incidents were factors in Dustin’s decision to step onto his porch with a gun.
Dustin, his brother and some friends had gone to a pub on Colby Avenue on Nov. 7, 2008, a Friday night. Dustin was drunk when he walked home by himself a few hours later. He banged on the front door when the lock stuck. Neighbors heard the racket and saw someone walk around to the back of the house. They heard more banging and glass breaking. Dustin knocked over the recycling bin when he jumped the fence. He got in through the back door. The neighbors called 911 just before 2 a.m.
Everett police officers Stephen Harney, Aaron Showalter and Sunny Radosevich were at the north precinct on Wetmore Avenue when the call came in. Radosevich was the veteran, hired in January 2006. Harney had been an officer for two years and Showalter was hired in May 2007.
The trio headed to the neighborhood, along with three other officers. They cut their lights a few blocks away like they’d been trained. They didn’t know the address of the house so they started looking for signs of trouble.
Some of the officers reported hearing someone talking to a dog in Willard’s back yard. It was quiet in the house. The officers could tell the television was on. So was the front porch light.
Harney was heard saying, “It’s probably the homeowner.” Radosevich saw what looked like a boot print on the front door. She told the other officers and took cover behind a utility pole south of the front door. Radosevich asked a dispatcher to look for a phone number associated with the house.
Harney radioed that he was going to try to make contact. He and Showalter stood on the lawn, below the porch and out of direct sight of the front door. They later told lawyers they’d been trained to avoid standing directly in front of doors, or what they called the “fatal funnel.”
Harney told detectives he couldn’t remember if he rang the doorbell or knocked. There was no response. He tried again. The doorbell was broken.
Harney radioed that someone was coming to the door. Willard stepped onto the porch. Officers said they saw a shotgun. Radosevich yelled, “Gun. Gun. Gun.” Harney said he yelled, “Police. Drop the gun.” He backpedaled and fell down. Radosevich said she saw Willard aiming the gun at Harney. She opened fire. Showalter didn’t see Willard but saw the barrel of the gun. He saw Harney fall, thought the officer had been shot, and began shooting. Harney also fired his weapon.
Radosevich would later tell investigators that she believed she fired the last shots. Willard was face down but was moving so she fired two more rounds.
Dustin was hit once in the chest, twice in the back and multiple times in the legs.
The safety was still on the shotgun.
Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team detectives converged on the scene. The Everett officers were driven back to the precinct and photographed. Investigators collected their guns. It was nearly two weeks before they were questioned by detectives. Their attorney, Chris Vick, interrupted the interviews at times, asking his own questions. By then they’d written reports, reviewed and vetted by lawyers.
The case took 11 months to be forwarded to Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe. The delay was attributed in part to extensive ballistics testing.
The investigation also likely was delayed by another officer-involved shooting. In June 2009, Everett officer Troy Meade shot a drunken man seated in his parked car outside a restaurant. Meade was charged with murder by the fall. He was later acquitted but kicked off the force after the trial.
Roe announced in early 2010 that Harney, Radosevich and Showalter were legally justified in shooting Willard. They had the right to defend themselves and a duty to defend each other, Roe said. He blamed Willard’s death on a “deadly mixture of someone with alcohol-clouded judgment handling a firearm.”
Roe met with the Willards and their lawyer before making his announcement. The family said they only received the investigation a few days beforehand. They weren’t ready to ask questions. They called the meeting a disaster.
A short time later, Larry Willard started each day with the investigation in front of him, reading a couple of pages every morning for two months. “I read with tears many, many days.” He didn’t often share the details with his wife.
It was only last year that she learned paramedics weren’t allowed into the house right away. “That was a hard day for me,” Debra said.
The legal battle
The Willards had hired lawyers, mainly to get access to the investigation sooner. Once Roe made his decision, the attorneys told the Willards they weren’t able to go any further. Larry tried 14 different law firms before calling the Connelly Law Offices in Tacoma. They asked him to send a photograph of Dustin.
The lawyers filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court at the start of 2012, alleging the officers used excessive force, acted with negligence and violated Dustin’s civil rights. The lawsuit also blamed the city for failing to adequately train officers to avoid a deadly confrontation.
“I couldn’t imagine I’d be fighting the government one day,” Larry Willard said.
He is a Vietnam veteran, who served in the Army between 1969 and 1971. He spent a year in Vietnam, watching friends die in a war that never was going to be won, he said. The country turned its back on the young soldiers who returned home. For a long time, like many, Willard kept quiet about his service. The experience shaped what he saw as just and fair and what was not.
“I’m sensitive to injustice, and when my son died, it all came back,” he said.
The decision to sue the police cost them friends, the couple said. Larry Willard tried to explain that it was never about money. Nothing can make his family whole again. “It’s about making something right,” he said.
No one from the police department has contacted the Willards.
“The Court has affirmed that our officers did the right thing in a very challenging situation. However, any loss of life is tragic, and we extend our deepest sympathies to Dustin Willard’s family,” city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said last week.
Even before the Willards sued, they were told there wouldn’t be an internal investigation. Former Police Chief Jim Scharf said he was satisfied that the SMART investigation had proved the officers didn’t violate any policies.
SMART investigations have never been meant to sort out whether department policies were followed, Roe said recently. They are narrowly focused criminal investigations to determine if the use of force was legally justifiable.
Maybe it would have eased some of their suffering if they knew that changes were made because of their son’s death, Debra Willard said.
“I don’t feel like I’m beyond human error,” she said. “We were not expecting them to say what they did was a crime, but an acknowledgement of our loss, or someone saying it was a learning tool would have meant something to me.”
They don’t think they did anything wrong, her husband said.
The couple believes the officers also live with the death of their son. They wonder if it changed them, too. All three officers still work in Everett.
The city’s hired attorneys blamed Dustin for his own death. They attacked his character. They asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit in the spring of 2013. Later that year, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly sided with Everett, tossing the case.
The officers, he wrote, hadn’t provoked a violent confrontation. Their actions are judged “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with 20/20 vision hindsight.” The lawsuit, he wrote, challenges the tactical decisions but doesn’t establish excessive force.
The Willards appealed.
“The police are trained that if you point a gun at a police officer, it is first-degree assault and the police have the right to shoot to kill,” Larry Willard said. “OK, we understand that is the procedure and law. But didn’t Dustin have a right to know who they were before coming out of his door?”
The Willards waited three years for a decision from the federal appeals court. Word came down in March 2016.
In their decision the judges wrote: “There’s no evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could infer that the officers were acting with a purpose to harm Mr. Willard, unrelated to legitimate law enforcement objectives.”
The Willard family lawyers lost their request to have the entire panel hear the appeal.
“I had no idea we’d have to fight so hard to get a trial. At least you should get your day in court. If I get a traffic ticket, I get my day in court,” Larry Willard said. “The justice system should have afforded us the opportunity to defend our son because he can’t.”
“Even if we’d lost, I’d be OK with that. I would have given my son a voice. They have all the voice and it’s all one-sided.”
Clint Willard couldn’t get to his house on 23rd Street. The police had blocked off the roads. He couldn’t reach his brother by phone. Detectives wouldn’t say much. He called his parents and his father came up. They were told there had been an incident and investigators believed Dustin was dead inside the house.
Detectives cut holes in the drywall to dig out bullets. Windows were broken. Siding was damaged and the porch railing had been shot up.
Friends spent three days repairing the damage. No one from the city offered to pay.
Clint eventually moved back in but left about six months later. It wasn’t home anymore.
The family also eventually walked away from their auto body repair shop. Debra Willard couldn’t go back and her husband didn’t want to be too far from her. He kept the car dealership and worked on the vehicles in their garage at home. It took a couple of years before he felt comfortable leaving his wife alone.
He kept going to church, reading his Bible. The couple eventually found a new church, where Debra felt welcome. She connected with a counselor at Providence’s Hospice Bereavement Department. Debra Willard, 62, attended counseling for about three years.
For a few years on the eighth of every month, the Willards visited Dustin’s grave. He’s buried at Evergreen Washelli Cemetery in Seattle. “You will always be our precious beautiful boy,” reads his headstone. The family visits mostly on holidays now.
His brother’s death changed their family, Clint Willard said. “We have fun when we’re together, but it always feels like something is missing,” he said.
Debra Willard has learned some tools to keep looking forward, not dwelling in the past. Her two granddaughters, Clint’s children, give her hope about the future. The girls, 5 and 1, are the stars of most of Grandma’s photographs. Uncle Dustin would have adored them.
“I think I have been able to find some peace, but I was so robbed of my joy,” she said. “I don’t know if that will ever fully return.”
Larry Willard is still working and volunteers at the Everett food bank twice a week. He has been going to counseling since the fall. His grief has been waiting for him. He can’t bury himself in the legal fight anymore.
He hasn’t found peace, his wife said.
The couple has been married 40 years.
A few years ago they were walking through a festival in Seattle when Debra spotted a heart-shaped necklace. The pendant is made of maple, a strong durable wood. A black vein transects the heart. “Look Larry, it’s my broken heart,” Debra told her husband.
“Actually, it’s a mended heart,” the vendor said.
Larry bought the necklace for his wife.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.