Third Time is a Pattern
In 18 months Clark County Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed three people unnecessarily, including an off-duty police officer.
One unnecessary killing is a tragedy. Three unnecessary killings is a pattern that needs fixing.
Wrongful Death Lawsuits
I’ve filed two wrongful death lawsuits for HLG against Clark County in two different officer-involved shootings. On October 29, 2020, Kevin Peterson Jr. was shot and killed by Clark County Sheriff’s Deputies as he ran away from a drug sting operation. On February 4, 2021, Clark County Sheriff’s Deputies shot and killed an unarmed motorist, Jenoah Donald, after an illegal pre-textual stop.
Then, in January of 2022, one of the deputies who needlessly shot at Kevin Peterson shot and killed an off-duty Vancouver Police Officer, apparently mistaking him for a criminal suspect.
Accumulating evidence shows, as I wrote in the lawsuits, “Clark County has a policy, custom, and established practice of failing to supervise and train its officers to use deadly force only as a last resort.”
There have been numerous protests and local and national media attention concerning the Clark County Sheriff’s Department’s unwarranted use of deadly force.
Kevin Peterson Jr.
Like his father, Kevin Peterson Jr. played football for Union High School in Vancouver, Clark County. At the time of his death, he was a 21 years old. He was a popular kid with no criminal record.
Clark County Sheriff’s Deputies set up a sting to arrest Kevin for allegedly agreeing to sell 50 Xanax pills to an informant. Deputies set up the potentially dangerous operation in the parking lot of a Quality Inn on or about October 29, 2020, during peak traffic hours of 5:00 and 6:00 pm. Amazingly, deputies did not have the permission of the open business to use their property. Additionally, deputies did not take steps to insure the safety of the surrounding public.
At some point, Kevin realized he had been set up. His car was blocked in by deputies. He opened his door and ran. In his pockets were a cell phone and a gun. Something fell out of his pocket, but he picked it back up and kept running.
He did not say or do anything threatening to surrounding deputies. The deputies did not attempt to tackle or shoot him.
After running out of the Quality Inn parking lot, Kevin cut through some property, and then crossed into a U.S. Bank parking lot. Though the bank branch was closed, he was picked up on surveillance video. He can be seen on video walking with a cell phone as he FaceTimes his girlfriend Olivia.
She could tell he was scared and panicked. He was still trying to evade the deputies. Suddenly he spotted deputies arriving in front of him. He turned and ran.
“They’re shooting at me,” he told Olivia.
Hit by shots from behind, he fell. He sat up on the concrete and pointed his cellphone in the direction of the officers to show Olivia what was happening. There was another volley of shots. He went back down.
Deputies fired 34 rounds in two volleys. Three rounds hit Kevin as he was running away. One hit him in the chest when he sat up. He died at the scene from the gunshot wounds.
Detective Robert Anderson was the first to shoot. In a recorded interview given eight days after the killing, Detective Anderson, accompanied by a lawyer, explained why he shot a suspect who was running away. “I kinda just drew a line in the sand and I was – I said, ‘I’ve given suspect enough commands. If he takes another step, I’m gonna shoot him.’ Um, he continued to run. I started shooting.”
Deputy Jonathan Feller was the second officer to shoot at Mr. Peterson. Deputy Fuller, unlike Detective Anderson, was not a part of the drug task force. He was on patrol when he heard radio traffic referring to a “black male with a gun running south on Highway 99.” Deputy Feller took it upon himself to turn around and race full lights and sirens toward the action.
In a recorded interview given 11 days after the killing, Deputy Feller, accompanied by a lawyer, said he stepped out of his vehicle at the scene and, “I immediately drew my – my handgun …” He pointed his gun at Mr. Peterson and began yelling commands to stop running.
Deputy Feller fired his weapon within seconds of exiting his vehicle and before he had a tactical understanding of the situation.
In an eerily similar scenario a year later, Deputy Feller arrived at a scene and started shooting within four seconds. This time he shot and killed Vancouver Police Officer Donald Sohata.
After the Peterson killing, Clark County did not terminate, discipline, or even re-train Deputy Feller. Had the county done so, Officer Sohata would likely still be alive.
About three months after Kevin’s death, Jenoah Donald was pulled over in what’s known as a “pretextual stop,” where an officer uses a pretext to pull someone over when the officer lacks probable cause. A “defective rear light” was the pretext.
Two deputies were involved in the stop. One of the deputies was a rookie. Jenoah was cooperating with the senior deputy who did not see any weapons in Jenoah’s car. The rookie deputy, however, mistakenly thought she saw a weapon and freaked out.
From there, the deputies made numerous mistakes, demonstrating either a lack of training or lack of understanding. When Jenoah did not immediately exit the vehicle, the senior deputy made the inexplicable and dangerous error of immediately trying to drag Jenoah out of the car.
Jenoah was on the autism spectrum, and the deputies made no effort to communicate with him. The senior deputy even admits punching Jenoah in the nose without provocation.
Jenoah passively resisted the assault and somehow the car was bumped into gear and rolled forward. The senior deputy stepped back out of the car, pulled his gun, and shot at Jenoah twice. The second round hit Jenoah in the side of the head. He died a week later.
Jenoah’s wrongful death case, like Kevin Peterson’s case, received wide media attention, including Oregon Public Broadcasting, The Oregonian, the Columbian, The New York Times, and local television. Unfortunately, it’s a textbook example of what happens when officers over react and unnecessarily escalate a situation.
Clark County Needs Change
Law enforcement officers have a challenging job. It’s not for everyone. It requires training, discipline, people skills, and a true spirit of public service. I’ve known many officers who have these traits. Those who do not should look for another line of work.
Clark County is failing the community by not properly training officers in de-escalation, non-lethal tactics, decision-making, behavioral health issues, and the use of deadly force only as a last resort. After killing Jenoah Donald, Kevin Peterson, and Officer Sahota, the Clark County Sheriff’s Department has three strikes.
Sometimes I’m asked why the deputies aren’t facing criminal charges. The answer is that criminal and civil standards are dramatically different. In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt. In a civil case, a plaintiff’s attorney only needs to prove it’s more likely than not the defendant was negligent.
When asked by a reporters what she hoped for from the lawsuits, a victim family member said, “One of my hopes is that the truth and justice comes out, people are held accountable, things change.”
That’s our plan.
A Good Impression
Kris Brannon, a.k.a. Sonics Guy, died on February 11, 2021, from a heart attack. He was a good friend, a loyal supporter, and a local treasure. My wife and daughter also adored him. I wrote this tribute for my Facebook page.
“You do a pretty good impression of yourself.”
This is the first line of Lunar Park, a novel by Bret Easton Ellis. I shared this line with Kris. We were having a beer at an event as we often did. Though he was almost always upbeat, he had periods of introspection.
He reveled in his role as Sonics Guy and also saw the weird side of being a public figure and, occasionally, it unsettled him. When I quoted Lunar Park, he got it and laughed.
Public figures are Rorschach tests. People project qualities onto them. As Anais Nin said, we see the world not as it is, but as we are. This is how people see public figures as well. I don’t think I talked him into reading the book, but he was intrigued Bret wrote a novel about the funhouse mirrors of fame.
In a different conversation, also over beers at an event, he confessed he sometimes thought about running for office. I said, “Thinking about it is okay. It’s like crime. Only a problem if you actually try to do it.” He never did. He was involved – he served as emcee at more of my events than I can count – but he chose to be a champion of causes rather than a candidate.
Kris did things intentionally. He chose to be generous. He chose to be upbeat. He chose to be a loyal friend.
We returned to the issue of celebrity when Kris thought he was going to be the subject of adverse publicity. I advised him what my editor – also Bret’s editor – advised me about publicity. Don’t read it. Good or bad. Kris listened and asked for a favor. I did it, of course. Later, he thanked me more effusively than was warranted, which made me wish I could do more for him.
I felt sick when I heard Kris died. Just before I flew to Jakarta in February of 2020, Chelsea and I had dinner with him. Sloane, arguably his biggest fan, joined us. Kris made her laugh.
Afterward, Kris and I agreed we would gather at Devil’s Reef with Jack Cameron when I returned from Indonesia. I owed them both drinks. Instead, Covid kicked in, the city shut down, and the dinner with Chelsea and Sloane was the last significant time I spent with Kris.
I did see him on occasion though. As I drove down 6th Avenue there he would be, walking and waving to folks and I would want to shout, “You do a pretty good impression of yourself.”
Local Safety to Global Safety
Some news is fake, but it is still cool to wake up in Jakarta and see your case on the front page of The New York Times next to a story about Bret Ellis, a fine writer and friend of many years. The NYT, which still employs fact-checkers, got both stories right.
I am honored to to be meeting, learning about, and representing many of the victim families from the crash of Lion Air JT 610. I have spent most of 2019 in Indonesia. The victim families deserve lawyers who care about them and will fight for them. They have that.
In May, I was in Chicago where we filed our lawsuit against Boeing in federal court.
“Liability will not truly be in dispute here. Boeing is at fault. Their equipment failed. Their planes crashed twice,” Mark Lindquist, an attorney with the Herrmann Law Group who is representing the families of 26 victims of the Lion Air crash, told Yahoo Finance.
I also did an interview with 60 Minutes Australia as part of an excellent feature about the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft. The New York Times has run several solid stories about the aircraft, the crashes, and the surrounding circumstances.
Local papers generally do not have the resources or talent to do true investigative reporting, resorting to gossip-mongering instead, but Dominic Gates of The Seattle Times has written several well-researched, fact-based articles. He covered the filing of our initial lawsuit.
The story of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 is a cautionary tale about putting profits before people.
On March 10, 2019, a second, nearly new, Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashed. This time it was Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 302. The circumstances were eerily similar to the Lion Air crash. The same plane, the same defective equipment, the same fatal dive.
At HLG, we are also representing victim families from the Ethiopian Airlines crash. We have a head start with our experience and knowledge from working on the Lion Air crash.
The 737 MAX 8 has a new computer system, the MCAS, that essentially takes control of the aircraft from the pilots. The MCAS forces the nose down if it senses the plane may stall. In both of these crashes, the MCAS apparently incorrectly sensed a stall and forced the nose down into a fatal dive.
Preliminary reports from both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crash indicate that the pilots fought with the MCAS. You can see it in the flight patterns. The computer forced the nose down, the pilots brought the nose up, the computer forced the nose back down, the pilots brought it back up … until the computer overpowered the pilots.
At an international press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, I likened the MCAS to HAL, the villainous computer in the Stanley Kubrick movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw nodding heads. Fortunately there were movie aficionados in the audience.
So why was the MCAS installed?
Aeronautical engineers believe the 737, which had an excellent safety record prior to these two crashes, became an unstable plane when the engines were moved forward. The MCAS was designed to remedy this instability.
So why were the engines moved forward at the expense of the plane’s airworthiness?
Because the business minds of Boeing, according to Forbes and other sources, believed they needed a more fuel-efficient jet to compete with AirBus, a French aircraft manufacturer. The goal of a more fuel-efficient aircraft makes sense. The problem is the plane was rushed into service and carrying passengers before it was safe.
Boeing did not fully inform pilots, the airlines, or even the FAA of the potential dangers posed by the MCAS. The manufacture downplayed the dramatic changes to the 737 for fear the information would negatively impact sales.
In other words, it all comes down to profits.
For more information on the Boeing 737 MAX and our lawsuits, check the HLG website and stay tuned to my professional Facebook page and personal Facebook page. I am also sharing stories on the blog of my author website.
I’m grateful for this fitting transition from local safety to global safety.