About a month after Porter Feller took his own life, his mother received a letter sent to him from an insurance company.
State Farm wanted insurance information from Feller regarding a car crash he was involved in on May 29, 2018, in Seattle. Renée Thomas called the company to tell them her son had died less than a week after the collision.
What she learned during that call changed everything.
She would eventually discover that in the days before her 40-year-old son’s suicide, a Seattle police officer searching for him as a hit-and-run suspect falsely claimed Feller had potentially killed a woman.
The officer thought the ruse would help find Feller. But the fateful chain of events ended in tragic circumstances.
It would take another 18 months for details to emerge. Ultimately, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) would retrain its officers and the Medical Examiner would change its ruling on the manner of Feller’s death.
Even then, the human toll on those who knew and loved Feller remained hidden. They continue to be devastated by his death and the realization that they were unwittingly pulled into the officer’s lie.
On Friday, SPD issued a statement, saying it was wrong for the officer to use the ruse, and he had been disciplined. But it said drawing conclusions about the reasons for Feller’s death would be speculative.
In the weeks before Thomas received the insurance letter, she had heard about the collision from her son’s friends: They said he’d fled the scene, and they told her of the police officer’s allegation that Feller struck a woman, who was in critical condition.
Feller couldn’t recall hitting anyone, his friends told Thomas, but he began to worry he might have hurt a pedestrian. He grew despondent. Five days after the crash, Feller deliberately injected himself with a fatal mix of drugs.
When Thomas called State Farm, she asked what they knew about the collision.
“The agent described a fender bender with no reported injuries,” Thomas said in a recent interview with The Seattle Times. “Porter had been stopped at an intersection and rolled back into a car that rolled back into another car.”
Thomas said she was relieved he didn’t hurt anybody.
“But then I was immediately just furious because, you know, he never would have checked out for a fender bender,” she said.
In a Jan. 10 article, The Times revealed that a Seattle police internal investigation concluded the officer’s ruse violated department policies. His false statement that Feller had potentially killed someone “shocked the conscience,” a department official overseeing the internal investigation wrote in a summary report.
But the report didn’t name Feller or the officer. Nor did it tell the full picture of her son’s life.
Thomas, after reading the story, contacted The Times. She provided her son’s name and talked about his life. She said she wanted to see the officer exposed.
“Trying to do the grown-up thing”
Porter Dean Feller grew up in Spokane, moved to Tacoma in his 20s for a few years and then to Seattle, Thomas said.
“He was a very interesting fellow” who led a “complicated” life, she said.
He blew glass, worked with leather and appeared as a performance artist at parties and festivals, including as a clown, she said.
For the past 14 years, Thomas said, he’d attended the annual Burning Man event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. There, tens of thousands of people gather in the nine days leading up to Labor Day to create a temporary metropolis “dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance.”
He also was arrested multiple times, often for crimes such as theft and residential burglary when he was younger and, more recently, driving under the influence, according to court records and his mother. He was an occasional heroin user, Thomas said.
When he turned 40, he appeared ready to “get serious about stuff,” his mother said. He got certified in E-bike mechanics and found a job at a Seattle shop, she said.
“He was trying to do the grown-up thing, and it was a little struggle to begin with,” Thomas said. He had difficulty finding his own place to live because he lacked an income history, she said. He was living with a roommate in Green Lake when he died.
Thomas believes her son suffered from untreated depression, although he had never been diagnosed with the mood disorder that runs in the family.
The police officer’s fabrication coincided with a low point in Feller’s life, she said.
“You think about it, here he’s thinking he killed somebody,” she said. Or, at best, he faced prison for seriously injuring someone, she added.
His longtime friend Maggie Parks said Feller shouldn’t be viewed as a sad figure but rather as someone “colorful, exciting and loud.”
She recalled the time he held an umbrella over a DJ’s head during an after-hours party at an old warehouse in South Seattle as rain poured through a leaky roof.
As puddles formed on the dance floor, Feller danced and smiled and chatted, Parks said in an interview with The Times.
“He knew everybody, and he had a wealth of friends,” she said.
Feller had previously talked about suicide, Parks said. But he hadn’t sunk to the low point he was experiencing when the officer told “the lie,” she said.
“It’s a lie, but it’s fun”
On May 29, 2018, Feller, while stopped in traffic on East Madison Street on Capitol Hill, accidentally shifted his 1990s model Mitsubishi Eclipse into reverse. His car pushed the BMW behind him into an Acura, causing minor damage.
Feller drove away. The BMW driver snapped a photo of his license plate and told police that Feller’s eyes appeared to be “glazey.”
Police traced Feller’s license plate to a West Seattle address, where Seattle police Officer Matthew Kerby and his partner were sent, according to records obtained from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) under a public-disclosure request.
Both officers were aware no one had been injured and that the alleged crime was a misdemeanor, the records show.
Kerby took the lead in handling the call.
He had only been with department since 2016, joining it when he was 29 years old. But he already had a serious blot on his record. Just weeks before the crash, on April 30, he had been suspended for two days without pay, stemming from an internal investigation of his conduct during a “suspicious circumstances” call outside a closed store.
Kerby and a second officer had grabbed the arms of man dressed in all black, wearing gloves, a ski hat and carrying a backpack. When the man pulled away, Kerby told him, “I’ll tase the (expletive) out of you” and “I will (expletive) kill you, get the (expletive) down,” according to a disciplinary report that concluded Kerby “intensified the situation instead of calming it.” That led to Kerby punching the man in the face with a closed fist, the report said.
Responding to the hit-and-run call, Kerby and his partner initially had trouble finding the car’s registered address among a cluster of town houses. Police dash-cam and body-cam videos show them walking through the area, bantering about the surroundings. Kerby commented that he would put a barbecue pit and mood lighting in one yard they passed.
Throughout, they appear relaxed. His partner laughed when Kerby, in a muffled conversation, told her he planned to use a ruse when they locate Feller.
“It’s a lie, but it’s fun,” he said. No elaboration can be clearly heard.
When they found the address, Maggie Parks came to the door.
Parks told the officers Feller wasn’t there, body-cam video shows. She explained that she lived in the town house but allowed Feller, who lived in different places, to register his car to her address.
Parks quickly agreed to provide Feller’s phone number. As she sat searching her cellphone on the bottom step of a stairway inside her home, Kerby, standing outside, casually mentioned that Feller had been involved in a hit-and-run in which a woman had been left in critical condition.
“Goddamn it. When did that happen?” Parks asked.
Kerby replied the woman “might not survive.”
Upset by what she heard, Parks looked up and showed that one of her hands was shaking.
After the officers left, she reached Feller by phone. She told him what Kerby had said, according to the SPD’s summary report of its internal investigation. Feller didn’t recall being in an accident and didn’t appear concerned, Parks said.
Parks told The Times she immediately called Feller because she wanted to find him an attorney before he was arrested or questioned by the police. She said she didn’t want him to evade police, and knew he would have to deal with the matter. But in light of the serious nature of the allegation, he needed representation, she said.
The next day, as they discussed the need to find an attorney, Feller continued to say he couldn’t recall an accident, according to the summary report.
He then acknowledged he had been involved in a minor collision, Parks told the SPD. While he still didn’t believe anyone had been injured, he grew increasingly concerned he might have struck a pedestrian without realizing it and even killed someone, she said.
Parks told The Times she advised Feller to not drive and to stay with friends while she searched official websites that list 911 calls and map police incidents. She looked for any reference to a hit-and-run collision near where the crash occurred. She also checked for news stories. Finding nothing, she said, she worried that police might be keeping the investigation under wraps to avoid giving away what they knew.
At the same time, another friend read Feller the “riot act,” according to the SPD’s report. The friend warned Feller he could go to prison for a long time.
The friend recalled that on the last occasion they saw each other, Feller was crying. Later, the friend found a bag on a shelf of his garage, containing money, personal effects and a note from Feller that read, “If you don’t see me, keep this stuff,” the report said.
By June 2, Feller had become increasingly worried about the hit-and-run, believing he might have killed someone, his roommate, Amy Marderosian, recalled when interviewed during the internal investigation. He couldn’t remember the incident and was “freaking out,” Marderosian told investigators.
During a conversation that day, Feller asked her if it was normal to think about suicide, she said.
In an interview with the The Times, Marderosian said she gave Feller a hug before he went to bed.
The next morning, on June 3, she found him dead in his room. Feller had left her a pile of cash and a note. “You keep this,” the note read.
The King County Medical Examiner’s Office initially ruled the death an accident, caused by a fatal combination of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. The Medical Examiner changed the finding in January, classifying Feller’s death as a suicide, after The Times raised questions about the initial ruling.
“Worse than violence”
Haunted by what happened, Parks told The Times she wondered if she might have misunderstood what Kerby told her. Maybe she had spread bad information.
She wore a hat to Feller’s memorial service to obscure her face and didn’t talk to anyone.
“I didn’t want to be recognized,” she told The Times.
Not long after, the letter from State Farm arrived and Parks learned from Feller’s mother, Renée Thomas, that the crash had only been a fender bender. Parks wanted to be sure of what Officer Kerby had told her, so she filed a public-disclosure request with the SPD for video of the hit-and-run investigation.
But Parks put off watching it, afraid she might hear something that contradicted her recollection.
When she finally watched, she was horrified. She said she also realized just how potent deception can be.
“It’s worse than violence,” she said.
To be made a vehicle for Kerby’s ruse, to be exploited, to be forced to carry the burden of Feller’s death was nothing short of “sinister and unnecessary,” Parks said.
On March 12, Parks filed a formal complaint with the Seattle Police Department.
“I did it for Porter,” Parks said of her efforts. “He suffered.”
“Shocked the conscience”
The Police Department’s Office of Police Accountability conducted the investigation.
Kerby’s partner told the OPA she was surprised when Kerby told Parks that a woman had been critically injured. She momentarily thought she had misread the information they received when they were sent to the address. But when she queried Kerby as they walked away, he told her he had used a ruse, she said.
Kerby told the OPA he lied because he didn’t have time to wait around for information. He said Parks was “impeding the investigation,” although the department video and his partner contradicted his version. He said he was unaware if there were injuries in the hit-and-run and, although he read the call information, he couldn’t remember what it said.
In addition, Kerby insisted there was an ongoing threat to public safety, although the internal-investigation records show he didn’t write a report, try to find Feller or even pass Feller’s phone number to another officer.
While it was regrettable Feller took his own life, Kerby told the OPA he wasn’t responsible.
Andrew Myerberg, the OPA’s civilian director, found that Kerby acted unprofessionally and abused his discretion.
It was foreseeable, Myerberg wrote, that the ruse would cause “significant distress” to Feller and others who became aware of the allegation.
Falsely stating Feller had possibly killed someone “shocked the conscience,” failed to meet community expectations and likely contributed to Feller’s suicide, Myerberg wrote.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best sustained the policy violations. But Best, in her disciplinary report, wrote that it would be “speculative” to link the ruse to Feller’s death.
Best suspended Kerby for six days without pay, choosing the lower end of a 5- to 15-day range recommended by department officials.
On Dec. 18, the OPA closed the case, posting the summary report on its website.
“A 5-minute conversation”
Renée Thomas believes Kerby got a “slap on the wrist,” particularly because, in her view, he showed no remorse and took no responsibility for her son’s death, in his statements to the OPA.
Additionally, Kerby lied when he said Parks was uncooperative, Thomas told The Times.
“Knowing those things about him makes me kind of think he should lose his job,” she said.
Efforts to reach Kerby for comment were unsuccessful.
Best has declined to discuss her disciplinary decision, and Friday’s statement did not explain it.
“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the individual who took his own life,” the statement said. “While unquestionably tragic, it would be highly speculative to assume any reasons for his decision.”
Thomas said she is pleased the case generated a recommendation that Seattle officers receive training on the proper and improper use of ruses in criminal investigations.
In 2019, the department provided such training to all sergeants, officers and detectives.
But no one from the Police Department has apologized or reached out to her, Thomas said.
What she wants, she said, is “a 5-minute conversation” with Kerby.
Her question: “Tell me why?”
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.