Parents sue police over son’s shooting death
EVERETT - The parents of an armed man shot and killed by police at his doorstep in 2008 are suing the city in federal court over allegations the officers didn’t need to kill their son.
Dustin Willard’s parents argue the officers identified in the suit, Sunny Radosevich, Aaron Showalter and Stephen Harney, failed to announce their presence the night they were called to Willard’s house in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 2008, and that other actions could have been taken to prevent the fatal shooting, according to Larry and Debra Willard’s lawsuit.
The city’s and the Willards’ versions of what happened that night differ as to whether Willard, 31, raised his gun at officers and whether or not officers properly approached the situation.
The officers came to Willard’s house on a 911 call from a neighbor who thought a burglary was in progress. The officers positioned themselves around the house, hid and rang the doorbell, which wasn’t working at the time, the Willards’ lawsuit says. It also claims that officer Harney had already determined the homeowner had probably been making the noise that prompted the 911 call before ringing the doorbell.
After hearing rustling noises outside, Willard came to the front door with a loaded shotgun and peered outside. He didn’t know three officers were hiding outside, the Willards’ lawsuit says.
The Willards’ lawsuit says Willard never raised his gun. The city says he did and aimed it at officers.
Radosevich yelled “gun” to her partners, described by Willards’ lawsuit as panicking, and they shot at Willard. The city says the officers fired in defense.
Officers fired 15 or 17 rounds, hitting Willard four or six times, depending on the differing accounts of the night. He died at his front door.
“It was an entirely preventable tragedy and our lawsuit will prove it,” the Willards’ attorney Julie Kays said last week. Kays is one of three attorneys working the case from the Tacoma firm Connelly Law Offices.
Kays said the officers’ reports gave her “goosebumps.”
The officers never announced their presence, the Willards’ lawsuit says. The Willards argue police failed to take reasonable measures to announce their presence, such as using a loudspeaker.
Officers did not need to make a “knock and announce” in this situation, city spokeswoman Kate Reardon said last week.
“No decision to enter a building had been made, so it does not apply here,” Reardon said.
The night 911 was called Willard had returned home drunk and locked out of his house. He kicked the front door and then tried the back door, the Herald reported in 2010 from police detective reports.
“The officers responding to the 911 call that night acted reasonably and prudently while investigating a report of a dangerous crime in progress, and took reasonable, lawful action to protect their own lives when the suspect threatened them with a loaded shotgun,” Everett’s response to the lawsuit states.
The three officers hadn’t been on the force for long when the shooting happened. Harney had the most seniority with two years and was the lead officer that night.
No internal investigation
In 2010, Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe called the incident “unspeakably sad and tragic,” but determined the officers didn’t commit a crime, the Herald reported at the time.
Roe made his decision based on reports by detectives in the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team (SMART) investigating the shooting. The Willards’ lawsuit says the three officers waited 11 days before giving investigating detectives their statements. The officers had their attorney look through their statements first, causing the delay.
At the time, Roe in his report called Willard’s death “the heartbreaking product of that frequently deadly mixture of someone with alcohol-clouded judgment handling a firearm, not any kind of police misconduct,” the Herald reported.
Everett police protocol puts any officer shooting through a review by the SMART team, Reardon said.
The SMART team reports the results of its investigations to the county prosecutor and the Police Department, Reardon said.
Then-Police Chief Jim Scharf decided not to conduct an internal police investigation on the shooting after reviewing the SMART reports, Reardon said.
“He concluded no additional investigation was necessary because it was clear the officers’ actions were consistent with department policies that allow officers to defend themselves from deadly threats,” Reardon said.
Willard’s death is the consequence of inexperience, lack of training and lack of oversight, Kays said. She noted the officers’ short number of years on the force as being part of the problem. Harney had two years, Showalter had 19 months and Radosevich was one month shy of two years with the Everett Police Department.
All three officers are still with the department, Reardon said.
The Willards’ lawyer says police could have announced their presence better by calling the house, using a loudspeaker or a myriad of other methods. They failed to “knock and announce,” the lawsuit says.
Kays said the lawsuit seeks to address whether there were reasonable alternatives to using deadly force.
“If the police had been trained ... Dustin Willard would be here today,” Kays said.
“It’s up to law enforcement to take information from a 911 call and verify it,” Kays said.
Kays said it was not unreasonable that Willard answered the door with a firearm considering the late hour. The neighborhood had a number of recent vandalism and crime incidents, the Willards’ lawsuit says.
“Radosevich panicked and began yelling “gun” and fired her weapon at the homeowner,” the Willards’ lawsuit says. “At no time did the homeowner raise his shotgun into a firing position, nor did he fire or attempt to fire his shotgun,” it says.
The city says Willard “moved his shotgun into a firing position and aimed it at police officers.”
Kays said they have “retained the services of a ballistics expert” to answer whether or not Willard raised his gun.
The Willards filed a $20 million claim against the city in 2009. In January 2012, they filed their lawsuit in Western Washington U.S. District Court asking for unspecified damages to be proven at trial and for attorneys’ fees.
The trial is scheduled to start Sept. 9 in Seattle.
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