A Puyallup man who won a $5.5 million settlement after he was shot 16 times in his bed by officers serving an arrest warrant on another person says he bears no ill will to police in general or the officers who shot him. “Sometimes they make mistakes.”
Dustin Theoharis doesn’t hate the police.
Despite being shot 16 times by two cops moments after they roused him from a nap in a friend’s Auburn-area house, he says he isn’t bitter and doesn’t hold a grudge.
He also doesn’t dwell on his losses — the career he loved, the steady use of his left arm, the ability to take a long hike, the simple pleasures of smiling and chatting with friends.
“It’s a tough job they have to do,” he said during an interview at the neat but modest duplex he owns in Puyallup. “Sometimes they make mistakes.”
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In Theoharis’ case, the mistake was made by a King County sheriff’s deputy and state Department of Corrections officer who said they believed he was reaching for a gun after he was awakened. They riddled his body with bullets, only to learn later that Theoharis was not armed.
He says he was reaching for his wallet.
Theoharis, who will turn 32 on Monday, agreed to speak publicly about the 2012 shooting for the first time now that the second of two lawsuits he filed in the aftermath was settled last month.
In February, the state agreed to pay Theoharis $2.5 million for the shooting after a U.S. District Court judge refused to dismiss his excessive-force claim against the Department of Corrections (DOC). The judge, while raising questions about the officers’ contradictory statements, determined the case should be brought before a jury.
King County had earlier settled with Theoharis, agreeing in 2013 to pay him $3 million after Sheriff John Urquhart personally apologized for the shooting and acknowledged it was wrong.
On Feb. 11, 2012, sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Thompson and corrections Officer Kristopher Rongen went to an Auburn-area home where Theoharis was renting a room from a friend, Cole Harrison. Thompson and Rongen were there along with several other officers to serve an arrest warrant on Harrison’s son, who had failed to check in with this DOC community corrections officer.
Theoharis was oblivious to what was happening. He was napping in a darkened back bedroom, after having not slept well the previous couple of nights.
The officers had already taken Harrison’s son into custody and were interviewing other people in the house when Thompson and Rongen entered Theoharis’ room.
“I woke up and there were two guys standing at the door,” Theoharis recalled. “They asked me for ID and I went to grab for it and that’s when I was shot.”
He was struck “everywhere,” he says. In the jaw, both upper arms, both lower arms, his wrist, his hand, his shoulder, his abdomen, both legs. He was shot 16 times without ever getting out of bed.
According to court documents, Thompson and Rongen said they were looking for weapons when they roused Theoharis. They claimed they opened fire because they believed he was reaching for a gun.
Rongen later claimed he ordered Theoharis to show his hands in a “very loud voice” and asked for identification. He alleged Theoharis quickly reached under the mattress and appeared to be pulling something.
At that point, Rongen opened fire.
Thompson, in a deposition, gave a somewhat different account, saying Rongen never asked for ID. But Thompson said he also began shooting out of fear that Theoharis was reaching for a gun.
Two other residents of the house and a detective who were a short distance away in the living room said they did not hear yelling before the shooting began.
No weapons were found in Theoharis’ room, according to police, court documents and a review of the shooting.
Theoharis remembers lying there “in a lot of pain.” The officers told him to “stop moving around because I was going to hurt myself further,” he said.
He thinks he passed out in the ambulance. He spent the next three days in and out of consciousness — mostly out — as he underwent numerous surgeries to remove the bullets from his shattered body.
He was in the hospital for six weeks and was then transferred to a skilled nursing facility, where he spent months. Although he says he never feared for his life, he did worry about the extent of his recovery.
Initially, he wasn’t able to walk at all or move much. He had nerve damage in his left arm and he had to wear a brace for a compression fracture on his spine.
The pain was intense, especially because “each bullet hole had to be packed all the time,” he said.
While he was in the hospital, Theoharis’ younger brother, a longshoreman at the Port of Tacoma, helped put him in touch with the attorneys he hired.
“With this kind of thing, you have to,” he said about the decision to file a lawsuit. His medical bills ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he says he’s unlikely to ever work again. “Stories and words get twisted and I’m not a master of the English language, so I hired one.”
He said the most disappointment he felt was when he read the two officers’ accounts of the shooting. He doesn’t want to say that they are inaccurate, but he says their versions of the shooting were “frustrating” to hear.
Theoharis refuses, however, to draw any conclusions about other police shootings. “You have to look at them case by case,” he said. “I don’t think what they did to me was intentionally malicious, but it was still a mistake.”
Theoharis loved his job as a refrigeration mechanic. He made good money, and enjoyed fixing things and tinkering with engines and machines. He can’t do it anymore.
Nor can he stand on his legs for long stretches. He can’t take an impromptu hike. He can mow his yard, but he can’t fix the lawnmower if it breaks, something he could have done easily before.
The coordination in his left arm and hand is gone. The bones inside never healed right and he will probably need more surgery on that arm and wrist, and on his right hand, he says.
He socializes less than he used to, partly because he still suffers from post-traumatic stress at times, he said, and partly because talking makes his face feel tight and achy.
“I was always smiling before. Now it hurts. It really takes it out of you at the end of the day,” he said.
To him, the $5.5 million — minus the one-third his attorneys received, and what he has paid in medical bills so far — is not a ton of money. He doesn’t feel like he’s rich or that he can afford to “throw money around.” Nor does he want to.
“If I’m careful and invest wisely, I can probably live comfortably for the rest of my life,” he said.
He did treat himself to a high-performance Nissan GTR, two large flat-screen TVs and a second game system so he and his girlfriend can play Battlefield 4 together.
Most people who know Theoharis don’t know anything about the shooting, he said.
He describes himself as the kind of person who likes to “be quiet and not bother anybody.” He’s reluctant to talk about himself even in the best of circumstances.
“I don’t run around telling people,” he said. “It’s given me stress and anxiety to deal with money and the courts, and I’m just happy to put it behind me.
“I know I was lucky, but this isn’t something I’m proud of and it’s not something I enjoyed going through.”