Relations between the King County Sheriff's Office and the state Department of Corrections have been strained by the shooting of Dustin Theoharis, who last winter was shot multiple times, survived and plans to bring a civil suit.
Relations between the King County Sheriff’s Office and the state Department of Corrections (DOC) have been strained after a sheriff’s detective and a corrections officer reportedly shot a man about 16 times, severely wounding him during a joint operation that took an unexpected turn.
Both agencies, in separate reviews, found the shooting last year to be justified, but lingering questions about whether the confrontation could have been avoided or handled differently led the Sheriff’s Office to tighten its oversight of a longstanding program in which it works closely with the DOC to apprehend so-called high-impact offenders and gang members, according to newly disclosed records.
The fallout also prompted newly elected Sheriff John Urquhart to indefinitely suspend some operations with the DOC because its officer wouldn’t cooperate with the sheriff’s shooting-review board.
The incident occurred inside an Auburn-area house Feb. 11. The man who was shot, Dustin Theoharis, now 29, survived multiple wounds to his arms, legs, torso and jaw, including fractures that required a series of surgeries.
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“He is thankful to be alive, but he has a long way to go to recover,” said his attorney, Erik Heipt, of Seattle.
Heipt said Theoharis was shot about 16 times and plans to file a civil suit in which a key issue will be whether the officers had justification to enter the room in which he was shot, Heipt said.
“We think it’s pretty clear that they didn’t,” Heipt said.
DOC Specialist Kris Rongen, assisted by sheriff’s Detective Aaron Thompson, went to the house to serve a felony arrest warrant on an ex-offender — someone other than Theoharis — who had failed to report to community supervision. Two other sheriff’s detectives joined them.
After taking the ex-offender, Nicholas Harrison, into custody, Thompson and Rongen learned that Theoharis was in a different part of the house, according to a summary prepared by King County prosecutors who reviewed the incident. They decided to check whether Theoharis had a gun, which would be a violation of Harrison’s probation.
Rongen and Thompson headed to a dark room where Theoharis was lying in a bed.
“Specialist Rongen and Detective Thompson said that they identified themselves, gave Mr. Theoharis commands that he did not comply with, that he said he had guns, and that it appeared that he was reaching for one,” according to a report by the sheriff’s shooting review board.
In a written statement, Thompson said he believed Theoharis was reaching for a gun between the box spring and the mattress.
Rongen and Thompson both fired their handguns, hitting Theoharis as he rolled off the bed.
No firearms were found in the room. A flashlight was found in a pool of blood next to the bed, and an end table within reaching distance contained aluminum cans and a variety of objects, including two remote controls, according to the prosecutors’ summary.
Also found in the room were heroin, needles, spoons and a scale with heroin residue, although no criminal charges were filed against Theoharis.
Prosecutors declined in June to bring criminal charges against Thompson and Rongen, citing a lack of evidence that they had acted outside of legal boundaries.
The DOC, in an internal shooting review, found that Rongen had followed department policies.
But in a separate report, a DOC team recommended the department clarify the process for checking all areas of a residence, establishing training “so staff learns the actual process of safely sweeping a residence and engaging 3rd party individuals.”
The Sheriff’s Office, in a series of reviews, concluded the shooting was justified but found fault with the decision-making by Thompson and Rongen that led up to the confrontation, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times under public-disclosure requests.
An internal investigation found that Rongen and Thompson did not ask the owner of the house or the target of the arrest warrant “anything about the occupant of the room, if there were weapons present or if the person permanently lived at the residence.”
They also “made no plans” with the other detectives who were present and did not contact a supervisor, according to a Sept. 23 memorandum that led to a sustained finding that Thompson had not followed department policies.
“He and Officer Rongen should have slowed down and discussed the possible ‘Third Party,’ with the other Detectives to determine a safe course of action,” the memorandum said, noting that a supervisor should have been at the location.
Most pointedly, the memo concluded that the breakdowns stemmed from a “systemic problem that needs to be addressed by the Sheriff’s Office and not on the back of one Detective.”
“The current issue is a lack of training and expertise where extensive training and expertise is necessary,” the memo said. “This falls on the supervision and command staff of the Sheriff’s Office and will be addressed accordingly.”
The Sheriff’s Office also adopted temporary measures in August to address until “a number of questions” were resolved arising from its joint effort with the DOC — known as the Neighborhood Corrections Initiative (NCI) — in which Thompson alone had participated in at least 500 searches since 2007.
Among the requirements is that a threat assessment and residential-entry checklist be approved by a supervisor for all operations, including the approval of a commander when the risk involves suspected firearms or the need for a search warrant.
Deputies may assist DOC officers for their safety when investigating probation violations, but deputies are required to be aware of standards regarding searches of people, homes and property and limitations on searching “third party” residences and private areas.
A supervisor is required to be present at all operations in which an offender is suspected of having guns or previously possessing firearms, or is a confirmed gang member.
Those changes remain in place, Urquhart said in an email to The Times last week.
“All that being said, it’s a moot point because relatively soon after I was sworn in I indefinitely suspended the operation of the NCI Team out of the Burien precinct, pending a meeting between DOC and me,” Urquhart said.
Urquhart said he was concerned that Rongen, “according to what he told us,” was not allowed by DOC to participate in the Sheriff’s Office Shooting Review Board. That, Urquhart said, made him “uncomfortable” embedding a DOC officer in a sheriff’s unit without an understanding such cooperation would be provided.
Deputies will continue to assist DOC in other circumstances, he said.
DOC spokesman Chad Lewis said the department had not received formal notice of Urquhart’s directive.
But Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner and the head of the department’s community corrections division, Anmarie Aylward, plan to meet with Urquhart in the next few weeks to discuss concerns about the Neighborhood Corrections Initiative in hopes of maintaining what has been a good relationship, Lewis said.
Thompson has asked the King County Police Officers Guild to represent him in response to the findings of the internal investigation, which produced a recommendation that nondisciplinary training be provided to him and others who do the same kind of work.
Urquhart said that he has approved a tentative curriculum and that training was being scheduled.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org