EVERETT — Just weeks after taking office, Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney has reinstated a deputy who was fired over the fatal shooting of an Edmonds man.
The previous sheriff Ty Trenary fired deputy Art Wallin in October, concluding he violated policy both in pursuing and in shooting 24-year-old Nickolas Peters. In a termination letter, Trenary explained there was no imminent danger to Wallin at the moment he fired the fatal shots, and he questioned the deputy’s version of events indicating there was.
On Tuesday, Fortney called the former sheriff’s reasoning “completely flawed,” and he wrote he was shocked when the previous administration fired Wallin. He said the facts didn’t seem to warrant the termination. Wallin, who had been with the sheriff’s office for 13 years, was reinstated Friday to his position as a K-9 handler. He will receive backpay dating back to his termination.
“The bottom line is, Deputy Wallin never should have been terminated in the first place,” Fortney wrote. “Deputy sheriffs are expected to make split-second decisions in situations which are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.”
“In my judgment, Deputy Wallin put his life on the line to protect both his partner and his community,” he wrote.
Peters’ family, who reached a $1 million settlement with the county in a civil lawsuit, said they were “disappointed and concerned” with the decision to rehire Wallin, according to Seattle law firm Campiche Arnold.
“You don’t have to shoot people that have committed a Class C felony, who are now caught and surrendering,” attorney Jeff Campiche said.
Before becoming sheriff, Fortney was a night shift patrol sergeant who worked with Wallin for years in the South Precinct. He was a supervisor on Oct. 23, 2018, when Wallin called over the radio that he was in a pursuit east of Lynnwood. The Ford F-150 was maneuvering erratically, reaching speeds over 100 mph.
Fortney was also reprimanded by Trenary for not calling off the chase, when there was probable cause only for reckless driving. In a subsequent interview with The Daily Herald, Fortney said he chose to trust his deputy, who at one point called out, “We gotta take this guy out, he’s going to kill someone.”
Wallin appeared uncharacteristically agitated, Fortney said in October. Though he couldn’t see what was happening, Fortney said he felt there was more than just reckless driving happening. If nothing else, Fortney said, Peters’ speeding and erratic driving could have indicated he was under the influence. On the radio, Wallin did not mention the possibility of a DUI, according to transcripts.
“If I’ve got a 13-year decorated cop telling me, and I’ve never heard him say this on the radio and I work with him every night, we’ve got to take this guy out he’s going to kill somebody, I better damn well listen to that, and I better take it seriously,” Fortney said in October.
During the chase, the deputies hit Peters’ truck twice in an attempt to stop him. And twice, Peters’ was able to escape, striking the patrol cars in the process, Fortney wrote.
Deputies eventually collided with Peters’ vehicle a third time to make it spin out on Damson Road and pinned it against bushes and small trees. One deputy jumped on the hood of the truck and shined a flashlight through the windshield, while Wallin positioned himself outside the passenger door.
The two deputies shouted conflicting commands of “turn it off” and “hands up,” according to audio collected by investigators.
The deputies reported that they couldn’t see Peters right hand and that he wasn’t complying with orders — a claim disputed by his girlfriend, Britt Jakobsen, who was in the passenger seat. Jakobsen said they raised their hands, but weren’t sure how to follow the commands.
Wallin fired two shots, with both bullets going through Peters’ right arm. One embedded in his ribs, while the other pierced his right lung and landed in his spine. He died from his injuries at a hospital.
In documents obtained by The Daily Herald, an internal investigation concluded that there was “no statement, information, or evidence” that Peters was armed with a deadly weapon during the encounter, or that he threatened to use deadly force on anyone. There was a gun in the truck, but it was in a zippered case in a hard-to-get spot. And the truck apparently had been turned off.
According to documents from an internal investigation conducted by the sheriff’s office, Wallin said he had a “spidey sense” and knew Peters had a gun and figured he was reaching for it. He also said Peters was revving his truck in an apparent attempt to run over the deputies. Wallin reportedly claimed he turned off the truck himself after he shot Peters.
Trenary questioned the validity of Wallin’s statements, made in interviews that took place well after the shooting took place. In a letter outlining his decision to reinstate the deputy, Fortney took exception to the discounting of Wallin’s version of events. He said there was a clear threat presented to the deputies.
“On multiple occasions throughout this incident, Mr. Peters used his 3-ton pickup as a battering ram to attack Dep. Wallin and (the other deputy),” Fortney wrote in the reinstatement letter. “The danger of this cannot be understated. This is not a TV show where cops and bad guys emerge from ridiculous collisions with no adverse consequences. In real life, big vehicles cause big damage. They are a real threat to the lives of anyone in their way.”
While patrolling the South Precinct on New Year’s Eve, Fortney showed a Herald reporter the spot where Peters had been killed. There were no trees big enough to effectively trap a pickup truck, he said.
If Peters had time to start the truck, he could have seriously hurt the deputies, he said at a press conference Tuesday. Combined with Wallin’s belief that Peters might have a gun, that constituted a deadly threat in Fortney’s eyes.
“I am not willing to second-guess the reasonableness of the fear Dep. Wallin had that (the other deputy) was likely to be seriously hurt or killed if Mr. Peters was able to start that truck,” he wrote.
Another investigation was conducted by the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team, a cadre of detectives who investigate police use of lethal force. After reviewing that investigation, Prosecutor Adam Cornell wrote in July he would not pursue charges, explaining a jury would be unlikely to convict him.
In part, that’s because prosecutors would have to prove Wallin acted with malice, or “evil intent,” when he shot Peters. The shooting took place just a couple weeks before Washington state voters passed Initiative 940, making it less challenging for prosecutors to pursue charges when police kill someone.
The firing of Wallin, as well as deputies Matt Boice and Evan Twedt in a separate case of a policy violation, became the subject of an election controversy. All three worked under Fortney and had been strong advocates for his candidacy, he said. Claiming corruption, Fortney called for an independent investigation into the firings.
“It is well known inside the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office that you do not challenge this administration or you will face retribution,” he wrote in a Facebook post, days before ballots were due.
The Peters’ family attorney, Campiche, said it appeared Fortney made the decision to rehire Wallin before taking office, and in doing so ignored the conclusions of a “complete and thorough” internal investigation.
“Sheriff Fortney’s decision to disregard his own office’s investigation and reinstate Deputy Wallin is a clear statement that the new sheriff intends to protect and enable deputies who use excessive force upon his constituents, whether justified or not,” Campiche wrote in a statement. “Sheriff Fortney’s decision to give a gun and badge (and a salary) back to an unstable officer who has demonstrated his willingness to use unnecessary deadly force on citizens should be reconsidered.”
Fortney told reporters he wouldn’t comment on any statements from the family.
“Other than saying my heart breaks for them, I’m gonna leave it at that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to say anything else.”