Auburn Police patrol officer Jeff Nelson was on his way to keep the peace at a local sports bar after a televised fight the night of May 7, 2011, when he spotted a burned-out headlight on a beater of a Red Honda Civic that passed him going the other way.
Nelson said he activated his emergency lights, intent on making a traffic stop. He said he caught a glimpse of the driver of the car as they passed near the intersection of I Street Northeast and Harvey Street, briefly making eye contact. The man ducked his head, Nelson would write later. The officer noted a young woman was a passenger.
“I could see that he had yelled something out loud within the vehicle and he violently shook his head while rocking back and forth in the driver seat,” Nelson wrote. “The driver’s reaction I observed was the most disturbed, disgruntled behavior I have encountered … while working as a police officer.”
Nelson, who had been a patrolman for two years at that point in his career, made a U-turn and followed the Honda. The little red car turned and pulled over on 14th Street NE, Nelson right behind it. A check with police dispatch showed the vehicle was not stolen.
Inside the Honda, illuminated by the flashing blue and red lights from behind, 48-year-old Brian Scaman turned to his passenger, the sister of a friend, a young woman he barely knew. “It’s going to be OK,” he said, and got out of the car, a knife appearing in his hand.
Thirty-seven seconds later, Scaman was dead, a gunshot wound to the back of his head.
Scaman was the first of three people shot and killed by Nelson, 41, who in September became the first police officer in Washington charged with murder under a new law that did away with legal barriers that in the past made prosecuting cops almost impossible. He’s currently facing a murder charge in the May 31, 2019, shooting death of 26-year-old Jesse Sarey and has pleaded not guilty.
Scaman’s death received little public attention at the time and Nelson was cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting. But interviews with family members, and a review of hundreds of pages of investigative documents, diagrams and photographs compiled by Kent detectives and recently obtained by The Seattle Times, as well as six hours of testimony recorded during a 2011 inquest, give insight into what happened the night Nelson first shot and killed someone while on duty in Auburn.
‘He wasn’t going back to prison’
Scaman was strung out on drugs and desperately in trouble when Nelson pulled in behind that Honda, interviews and records show.
“I think the cop did what Brian wanted him to do,” said Scaman’s sister, Dawn Yancey, who still lives in Auburn.
Scaman, she said, was a methamphetamine user and car thief who had been to prison for possession of stolen property after a dishonorable discharge from the military. The morning of the shooting, she said, he had found out he had a new theft-related warrant for his arrest.
“He said he wasn’t going to go back to prison,” she said. “That’s why he did it.”
There’s no question that Scaman had a knife that night — a battered old Buck folding knife kept in a leather pouch on his belt. Nelson’s vehicle was equipped with a dash camera, and it shows Scaman exiting the car, the knife held at chest level.
The remainder of the altercation is audio recorded, but takes place out of the camera’s view.
Nelson said he ordered Scaman back into the vehicle, and on dispatch recordings the officer can be heard yelling “Put the knife down!” before broadcasting that shots had been fired and that the “suspect is down with a gunshot wound to the head.”
“I think that’s always bothered me,” said Yancey, the sister. “If he was attacking the officer, why was he shot in the back of the head?”
The family was stunned by the death, and didn’t have the resources to hire an attorney to represent them at the inquest or pursue a civil claim. The inquest was held over two days in November of 2011. The inquest jury unanimously found the officer was justified in his actions.
“I never understood that,” Yancey said. She and the family, she said, never had a chance to ask questions.
The issue of the wound’s location — the bullet struck Scaman behind his left ear — was a curiosity to the inquest jury, as well. Two of the six jurors asked about it.
“How was Brian shot in the back of the head if he lunged at the officer the last time?” one juror asked in a written question read by the judge.
Nelson explained that Scaman had refused to get back into the car and had moved toward him, knife extended in front of him, then walked away, moving laterally, all while repeatedly being told to drop the knife.
“He was walking away from me, looking at me over his left shoulder, then he turned and lunged at me,” Nelson said.
That happened twice, Nelson said, and neither time the officer fired, but continued to tell Scaman to drop the knife as he maneuver to keep Scaman in front of him. It was dark, he said, and Scaman had room to run.
The third time, “As he was taking steps away from me he had his head turned looking at me,” Nelson said. “He was moving his arms around his waistband, and as he prepared to turn, if he had a firearm I wasn’t going to afford him an opportunity to get a shot off on me, or in the direction of the passenger.”
“So as he made that final adjustment with his shoulders he began to rotate, so I took the shot,” Nelson said. The bullet passed through Scaman’s skull, entering behind his left ear and exiting just above the right.
“I was scared for my life,” said Nelson.
Nelson explained that his training is to not meet a lethal threat with a less-lethal force option. Moreover, he said, he was convinced Scaman was about to turn and lunge at him.
“We don’t shoot to injure, we don’t shoot to kill,” Nelson testified. “We shoot to stop the threat.”
Two other shootings
Nelson is now charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the May 31, 2019, killing of Sarey, who Nelson confronted for “disorderly conduct” after they had exchanged words near a market in the 1400 block of Auburn Way North.
Criminal charges filed in King County Superior Court and video surveillance tapes show Sarey had his back to an ice machine when Nelson shot him in the abdomen.
Prosecutors say Nelson’s .45-caliber handgun malfunctioned, so he cleared the jam and fired a second shot into Sarey’s forehead, 3.4 seconds after firing the first round.
Nelson later said in his July 2, 2019, written statement that he believed Sarey had his knife and posed a threat before firing the first shot, and that Sarey was on his knees in a “squatting fashion … ready to spring forward” despite already having been shot once when he fired again.
Nelson is free on $500,000 bond with a trial pending no sooner than early 2021, according to the court docket. Nelson’s attorney, Alan E. Harvey of Northwest Legal Advocates in Vancouver, Washington, has said that the officer will claim self-defense.
On June 10, 2017, Nelson shot and killed Isaiah Obet, a 25-year-old man who was allegedly trying to force his way into a vehicle at an intersection. While police say he was being sought in connection with a home invasion, his family said he was displaying signs of mental illness, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Auburn and Nelson by Obet’s brother.
Nelson, who has served as a canine officer for Auburn for much of his career, set his dog on Obet, who was reportedly armed with a small knife. When he decided the police dog wouldn’t reach Obet in time, Nelson said he shot Obet in the chest, knocking him to the ground as the dog attacked.
The lawsuit alleged Obet, a bullet in his chest and struggling with the dog, posed no threat to Nelson.
“Nonetheless, as Isaiah lay on the ground, Defendant Nelson walked over to Isaiah, aimed his gun at him a second time, and fired a shot directly into Isaiah’s head as he stood above him,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in July.
Nelson said Obet was trying to force his way into a car with a woman in it when he fired. For his actions that day, the department awarded Nelson its Medal of Valor for thwarting the carjacking.
Auburn settled the lawsuit for $1.25 million on Aug. 24, a week after learning that King County prosecutors intended to file criminal charges against Nelson in the Sarey death.