ARLINGTON — Eluding police is a felony, but it isn’t supposed to be a death sentence.
Yet time and time again, high-speed chases under less-than-ideal conditions have led to fatal crashes in Snohomish County. The majority of local police departments have adopted stricter pursuit policies in recent years: the sheriff’s office, Everett, Bothell, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Marysville and Mountlake Terrace.
But not all of them.
Juliann and Erik Olson may never know why their son didn’t pull over for a Washington State Patrol trooper on July 26, 2014. It cost him his life.
The pursuit technically had been terminated for safety reasons. The trooper slowed down and turned off his siren for approximately 34 seconds, but he never stopped following Garrett Olson, according to dashboard camera video obtained by The Daily Herald. Olson crashed and died moments later.
The State Patrol says that under its policies, the trooper did nothing wrong.
Olson was 23 years old, and a mechanic at Boeing. He lived with his parents in south Marysville. They were helping him build a house on Jim Creek Road, east of Arlington.
He was 6-foot-5, with a bushy red beard.
He liked to cook, and he collected World War II memorabilia. He didn’t have any criminal history. He played on his computer a lot.
He bought his 2008 KTM sport motorcycle in April 2014. Three months later, he was riding it toward Jim Creek.
Just before 1:30 p.m., trooper Todd Israel reported two motorcyclists driving recklessly on northbound I-5 near Marysville. Israel said the riders were splitting lanes. They were weaving at speeds of up to 100 mph, according to a news release from the time.
Israel lost sight of the motorcycles, but a State Patrol airplane was overhead. The crew spotted Olson on Smokey Point Boulevard.
Israel turned around at Island Crossing and headed back that way. He caught up with Olson and attempted to pull him over.
Olson fled through a minimart parking lot, turning onto eastbound 172nd Street NE. The pursuit lasted about one minute and covered half a mile. The trooper said he called it off when Olson sped through a red light at 43rd Avenue NE, something witnesses also reported. Olson’s parents say they hired a traffic expert to watch the tape, who said the light was yellow.
When Israel terminated the pursuit, he turned off his lights and sirens while continuing eastbound. During that time, about half a minute, he was getting updates from the air crew. He then turned the lights and sirens back on, he said, to move traffic out of the way.
“I terminated, shut everything down but Smokey 6 (the plane) … said he was still with him so I was like, well, I’ll still continue, lit up again, but he was gone,” Israel said, later on the tape.
Olson lost control and drove into a ditch within two minutes, or 1.5 miles, after the pursuit ended.
At first rescuers thought his most serious injuries were broken bones. At Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, it became clear that his brain was damaged beyond repair. He died four days later.
Pursuits that go wrong are among the most dangerous and litigated parts of law enforcement. At least eight people have died in local cases since 2013. Of those, five were fleeing drivers. One was a suspect’s passenger. Two were innocent passersby.
In 2013, a Bothell officer chased a suspect from that city into downtown Everett. There, the man smashed his car into another vehicle at Rucker and Pacific avenues. The driver, a nurse on her way home from work, was killed.
The pursuit had been called off earlier in the night but took off again as the officer continued to follow the suspect. The officer later received a one-day suspension. He should have ended the chase as it grew more dangerous, the internal investigation found. Bothell last year paid the nurse’s family a $3 million settlement.
In 2014, a man crashed and died after a pursuit in Brier. The officers had terminated the pursuit but continued to follow without lights and sirens. The crash happened moments later, and Brier police initially tried to keep what happened out of the public eye. An internal investigation later determined the chase had not violated department rules.
Attention to Garrett Olson’s case has come mostly from his family.
While his parents waited for information, including public records, the statute of limitations lapsed for them to pursue damages, they said.
Because the crash initially wasn’t a fatality, it didn’t prompt a call to the State Patrol’s higher-level investigative team.
Fatal pursuit cases often are taken over by the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team, the same detectives who investigate police shootings. That happened in 2015 and again this past July. The Olsons don’t understand why SMART wasn’t summoned in their son’s death.
There was an administrative review, though.
That’s required for every State Patrol pursuit, not just those that end in crashes, said Capt. Scott McCoy, who oversees the agency’s regional office in Marysville.
Four supervisors read through the Olson case. “We put eyes on it right away,” he said.
There was no evidence the trooper had violated policies, he said. A potential violation is what prompts a more serious internal investigation.
A sergeant did get in trouble, but not for the chase. He received what the State Patrol described as “counseling for insensitive remarks made at the collision scene.”
Most local police departments make their pursuit policies readily available. Edmonds and the sheriff’s office post theirs online, for example.
The State Patrol only provided the newspaper with a copy in response to a public records request.
The policy says that after ending a chase, “officers may follow the vehicle’s predicted route of travel. The termination of a pursuit does not preclude any officer from further attempts to stop the suspect vehicle if the circumstances that lead to the termination no longer exist.”
McCoy said Israel’s decisions were reasonable in light of what the plane’s pilot saw, what the dashboard video shows and what the policy says.
Israel left the agency in 2015 for a job with the Everett Police Department.
Everett was one of the first places in the county to rein in chases, back in 2004.
More recently, Sheriff Ty Trenary in 2016 updated the county’s rules so deputies cannot stop a chase and then continue to follow the suspect. They have to pull over and stay there, among other restrictions.
Trenary was tapping into a national movement among police leaders. He also added a peer review board that treats chases with the same gravity as the use of force. Since then, the sheriff’s office has seen a drop in pursuits.
Marysville police also have made significant changes. As of January 2017, ending a pursuit means stopping and pulling over, Cmdr. Mark Thomas said.
The new rules are not about letting bad guys go, he said. Instead, the department asks officers to weigh more factors in their decision-making, as they start a chase and throughout its duration.
“I think the days of pursuing people until the wheels come off are over,” Thomas said. “We can no longer afford to have those kinds of risk factors for our community.”
Seattle attorney Tony Shapiro has sought damages on behalf of five people who were hurt or killed in pursuits in Snohomish and King counties. All were drivers or passengers in other vehicles. They had nothing to do with the chases, he said.
That includes a young man who was killed in a 1996 crash on U.S. 2 that also seriously injured a sheriff’s deputy.
The crimes that prompt pursuits must be serious enough to warrant the “potential danger for the police officer, the person he’s pursuing and the community at large,” Shapiro said.
He is critical of the terminate-but-follow technique.
“If you’re following in a way that you’re causing the motorist you’re pursuing to take reckless measures to avoid you, then it has the same effect,” he said.
The sticking points
Erik and Juliann Olson have been married more than 30 years. He works for the county, and once served on the Marysville School Board. She retired from the Marysville School District.
They haven’t stopped trying to learn more about what happened to their son. They filed a lawsuit against the State Patrol in October 2016, alleging they had been illegally denied access to public records. They say their disclosure requests took years longer than necessary. They believe they are missing records still.
As part of a settlement earlier this year, the state agreed to pay the family $67,681 but did not admit to any wrongdoing.
The Olsons also hired a doctor to review all their son’s medical documents. His heart was nearly twice as large as the average man’s, the doctor determined. They wonder if the previously undetected condition affected his choices.
“We were never asked any questions that may have given the WSP another angle to approach the investigation,” Juliann Olson said.
He also was legally carrying a pistol on his hip when he was being chased. Did that matter?
The air crew wasn’t taking video that day. The pilot later was recorded on an audio tape, asking the dispatchers questions about how the communications had been organized during the chase. He noted that at one point, Israel had lost radio contact with the plane.
“This is going to be a high-liability situation for us,” the pilot said the day of the crash. “I already see it coming.”
Three years later, the Olsons continue to pore over the hospital, autopsy and police documents. They wish they could ask their own questions of witnesses. Some of the medical records say their son was riding a stolen motorcycle. He wasn’t. It’s not clear where that misinformation came from. It’s yet another unresolved frustration.
They sold the property near Jim Creek. It was too painful to return there.
They remember Garrett Olson as a sequoia: towering, but gentle. They have love and purpose in their lives, but their grief can be cruel.
“It’s just a hole you never fill,” Erik Olson said. “It probably closes a little bit, but not much.”