By Mike Carter / The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Island County has agreed to pay $2.75 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a former U.S. Navy master chief who was shot while trying to help deputies subdue an armed sailor following a 2017 standoff.
Heath Garcia was shot in the foot with a high-powered rifle slung across the back of a deputy trying to arrest one of Garcia’s shipmates, Nicholas Perkins, who was drunk, suicidal and had barricaded himself in his house with several weapons, including a fully automatic rifle. A different deputy fatally shot Perkins shortly after the accidental shots rang out.
The lawsuit alleges the Island County Sheriff’s Office and its scene commander, Lt. Michael Hawley, were responsible for “state-created danger” and engaged in a “gross deviation” from standard police practices by creating a plan to apprehend Perkins that placed Garcia’s life at risk.
That plan, according to the lawsuit, involved agency officials allowing Garcia to enter the home to talk to his shipmate while armed deputies huddled outside.
The lawsuit alleges Garcia managed to persuade Perkins to give himself up despite fearing he’d be shot if he went outside. Hawley, meanwhile, had promised deputies would back up and be out of sight, the lawsuit claims.
But when Perkins exited the house, he saw deputies hiding behind nearby bushes, according to pleadings.
Yelling obscenities, he ran back into the home and retrieved a shotgun. Garcia again managed to persuade Perkins to leave the home and surrender, and as soon as they were out the door, Garcia wrapped the armed Perkins in a bear hug and called deputies for help.
Joining the fray was deputy Robert Mirabal, who had a loaded and charged AR-15 carbine slung across his back, according to the pleadings.
The weapon discharged at least 10 times during the scuffle, according to court documents. One of the high-velocity rounds tore through Garcia’s right ankle and foot, causing a devastating wound that ended his 18-year Navy career and left him disabled, according to his attorney, Jay Krulewitch.
“Heath Garcia was the tragic victim of wrongful conduct on the part of the Island County Sheriff’s Department,” Krulewitch said in a statement Wednesday. “Mr. Garcia was left to conduct face-to-face negotiations with a suicidal, intoxicated, armed and barricaded subject.”
Hawley’s decision not to pull the deputies back after promising to do so escalated the situation, and the resulting scuffle led to the end of Garcia’s career, Krulewitch said.
Moreover, Garcia witnessed his friend shot to death.
“This terrible and tragic ending to the incident was completely preventable and avoidable had Lt. Hawley utilized appropriate police procedures and properly managed this scene for the protection of everyone,” the lawyer said.
John Justice, the attorney representing Island County, did not respond to a request for comment.
In court pleadings, Island County claimed Perkins had managed to grab Mirabal’s weapon and was responsible for its discharge. But documents Garcia filed in U.S. District Court suggest Mirabal had not engaged the weapon’s safety and indicate the weapon was never tested for DNA or fingerprints.
Mirabal said the safety was engaged and that Perkins must have activated the weapon during the struggle, which ended when deputy Trevor Wolff fatally shot Perkins moments after the initial barrage of accidental gunfire.
The lawsuit alleges Mirabal was negligent in carrying the unsecured weapon into a close-quarters fight with a violent individual — and accuses Hawley, the incident commander, of ignoring well-established protocols by allowing an unarmed third party into the scene, creating the potential for a hostage situation.
The lawsuit also accused Island County of gross negligence by disbanding its SWAT team years earlier — the unit that would normally respond to calls of a barricaded person — and failing to train its officers in crisis management.
The lawsuit claimed the sheriff’s office had a critical-incident response team, which included a hostage negotiator, but that the unit was not dispatched to the scene until after Garcia had entered the house.
The settlement, reached earlier this month, comes after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected Island County arguments that Hawley should be protected by qualified immunity for his actions that night. The appeals court also dismissed Mirabal as a defendant.
The settlement also followed a September 2022 ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly, who denied Island County’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, finding there were factual disputes only a jury could settle.
The sheriff’s office was called to Perkins’ home Sept. 17, 2017, after receiving a report that he was intoxicated, armed with an automatic weapon and threatening to kill himself. The agency responded and set up a perimeter around the house, with Perkins locked inside a bedroom.
Garcia, a security chief at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and a friend of Perkins, heard about the incident and headed to the scene to see if he could help, according to documents.
Garcia said he was permitted to go into the house to talk to Perkins, which Garcia’s lawyers and hired police experts described as a “dangerous and amateurish” attempt to end a volatile situation, endangering Garcia’s life and creating a potential hostage situation.
The sheriff’s office disputes that officials initially permitted Garcia to enter the home but acknowledged that his later efforts to talk to Perkins, including his successful attempt to talk him out of the house, were done with the department’s knowledge and Hawley’s permission.
“This was an inherently dangerous situation,” noted Krulewitch, Garcia’s lawyer. “They didn’t send a deputy into the house, nor would they ever. Why they would let Mr. Garcia — or anyone — go in defies common sense.”
Zilly, the U.S. District judge, found evidence that Garcia’s injury was the result of a “chain of actions” by the sheriff’s office that began with Hawley allowing him access to a dangerous situation and ended with Mirabal entering the fray with a loaded and unsecured semi-automatic weapon within Perkins’ reach.