TACOMA — Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer sparked a massive police response in late January after confronting a Black man driving near his home, telling a 911 dispatcher the man “threatened to kill me” — an allegation he retracted upon questioning by Tacoma police.

The man was a newspaper carrier on his regular route.

The 24-year-old carrier, Sedrick Altheimer, said the early morning encounter on Jan. 27 left him afraid for his life and angry at Troyer — who was driving an unmarked, personal SUV and didn’t identify himself as law enforcement.

Troyer, who is white, said he did not racially profile Altheimer. He said he began following the carrier because he saw a driver he believed was behaving suspiciously in his neighborhood in Tacoma’s West End. “There is nothing to do with him being Black,” Troyer told The Seattle Times.

The newly elected sheriff expressed surprise Tacoma police had written an incident report about the encounter, noting Altheimer was not arrested. “I thought they solved it that night,” he said.

Troyer’s call to a 911 dispatcher, which came in shortly after 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, spurred an urgent countywide alert that sent more than 40 officers from multiple agencies rushing toward the scene, public records show. Most were called off after Tacoma police arrived.

Troyer is a 35-year veteran of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, who for years served as the agency’s public face and media spokesperson before being elected sheriff in November.

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His statements about what happened that night contain some inconsistencies, at times contradicting his recorded call to an emergency dispatcher and diverging sharply on key points from what Altheimer says happened.

Early on Jan. 27, Altheimer was working his regular delivery route in his Geo Prizm in Tacoma’s West End, when, he said, he noticed a big, white SUV following him.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Dept. spokesman Detective Ed Troyer answers questions during a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, in Tacoma, Wash. Troyer was talking about the case of Juliette Parker, who pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of assault and attempted kidnapping in Pierce County Superior Court, and is accused of posing as a baby photographer in a plot to steal an infant. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Audio: Pierce County sheriff repeatedly claimed man he mistook for a prowler ‘threatened to kill me’

“I’m throwing papers out the window, left and right, both windows are down … and I see this SUV hit the block,” Altheimer said. He said he didn’t know it was the county sheriff behind the wheel of the unmarked Chevy Tahoe.

The two passed each other and the SUV then turned around to follow him, Altheimer said. He said the SUV tracked him as he stopped at houses — as he does six nights a week — delivering newspapers, including The News Tribune, Wall Street Journal and The Seattle Times.

“I continue what I’m doing, because, you know, I’m working. I’m not doing any harm to the neighborhood. I work here every night,” Altheimer said, adding that he has been followed on his route before.

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Troyer later told police he’d been at home when he heard a noise and went to investigate, according to the Tacoma police incident report.

Irritated that the SUV kept tracking him, Altheimer placed a newspaper in a plastic cylinder at a home, he said, then he walked over to the SUV to ask why he was being followed. He said he thought Troyer looked familiar but didn’t recognize him as the county’s top law-enforcement officer.

“So I asked him, ‘Who are you?’” Altheimer said. He said Troyer didn’t identify himself, but asked what he was doing in the neighborhood and “called me all types of names,” accusing him of being “a porch pirate,” slang for someone who steals packages from porches.

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Altheimer said he asked whether he was being targeted as a Black man driving an older car. He said he didn’t disclose he was a newspaper carrier because, he said, he felt it was not the stranger’s business to know. He says Troyer responded that he is not racist and said that his wife is Black.

“I said if you had a problem and you feel like you’re so in danger, then you should just call the police unit and bring him out here. So then he makes a comment, he’s like ‘Oh, I got four cars on the way,’” Altheimer recalled Troyer saying. “I’m like, congratulations.”

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Not once did Troyer identify himself as a law enforcement officer, Altheimer said. The Tacoma incident report said Altheimer “knew who Troyer was.” But Altheimer said he only recognized Troyer’s name after a Tacoma officer told him the county sheriff was driving the SUV.

“That’s the crazy thing. I never did threaten him. I was just asking questions, like ‘Are you a cop?’” he said.

In an interview, Troyer denied having any such conversation with Altheimer. “I didn’t even know he was Black until he was out of the car and the cops came. I never talked to him. I never talked to the guy,” he said.

“I couldn’t even tell you that he looked all that Black,” Troyer said.

He also denied saying his wife is Black. (She is Pacific Islander.) He added that in his neighborhood, “I am the only white man within five houses, and I have a Black grandson that lives with me.”

The final confrontation occurred, Altheimer said, after he returned to his car and drove off, only to be followed by Troyer again. At that point, he said, he wheeled his car around, leaving the two men facing each other at North 27th Street and Deidra Circle. Altheimer said he and Troyer flashed their lights at each other. At that point, Altheimer snapped photos of Troyer’s SUV.

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This photo by Sedrick Altheimer the night of his confrontation with Ed Troyer shows Troyer’s SUV and a copy of the News Tribune newspaper on Sedrick’s dashboard. (Sedrick Altheimer)
This photo by Sedrick Altheimer the night of his confrontation with Ed Troyer shows Troyer’s SUV and a copy of the News Tribune newspaper on Sedrick’s dashboard. (Sedrick Altheimer)

Amid the standoff, Troyer called 911 dispatchers, saying Altheimer “was making threats to kill him,” according to an incident report by Tacoma police Officer Chad Lawless, who responded to the call.

Audio of Troyer’s call, released to The Seattle Times after a public-records request, reveals him asking for help, with sometimes conflicting statements.

“Hey, it’s Troyer,” his call begins. “I’m at 27th and Deidra in Tacoma, in North End, about two blocks from my house, and I caught someone in my driveway who just threatened to kill me and I’ve blocked him in, he’s here right now.”

Later in the 911 call, Troyer said the other driver had him blocked in. He described Altheimer’s 1995 Geo Prizm as “beat-up” and “homeless-looking.” He also said on the call the car had gone up his driveway, but later said there was no room in the driveway.

On the call, Troyer said, “I’m trying to be polite to him, but he says I’m a racist and wants to kill me.”

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Troyer’s call for help was dispatched “at the highest priority” and was broadcast to all law enforcement agencies in the South Sound, according to the incident report. In all, 42 units from multiple agencies, including sheriff’s deputies and state troopers, initially responded, according to a dispatcher’s recorded conversation about the call with an officer later that day.

“I didn’t expect that big of a response,” Troyer said during an interview.

The dispatcher told the officer that Troyer previously had prompted an “officer needs Help” help call. There’s only one other type of call that warrants a higher emergency response: that for a lahar, a catastrophic mudslide that could be triggered if Mount Rainier erupted.

When police arrived in the neighborhood, they found Altheimer seated in his car in the middle of the street, facing Troyer, who was in his Tahoe about 50 feet away, according to the police report.

Altheimer said he was upset and shouted at officers, “I’m a Black man in a white neighborhood” and “commented on the number of officers who had arrived at the scene,” according to the police report.

In an interview, Altheimer said he was both angry and frightened by the sudden rush of police cars from multiple directions, and was careful to keep his hands in sight. One of the officers had drawn a gun, he said.

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“They definitely scared me. I was really shocked,” Altheimer said.

“I’m yelling ‘what are you guys here for? What am I doing wrong? You guys are trying to arrest a paper carrier!’” Altheimer said. “These police officers just wasted a gallon of gas speeding over here — for what? I’m giving the people the news and I’m going home. I’ve got five kids.”

At the officers’ command, Altheimer got out of his car and was frisked for weapons. He explained he was a newspaper carrier and said he gave police permission to search his car. The back seat of his car was filled with newspapers, the police report noted.

Troyer told Lawless, the Tacoma officer, he’d been at home asleep when he heard something outside, and saw someone driving in and out of driveways in the area, according to the incident report. He got in his car and “attempted to make contact,” the report states.

When Lawless asked Troyer whether he’d been threatened, as his call to dispatchers repeatedly had claimed, the sheriff “advised that [Altheimer] never threatened him” and said he had seen no weapons. Still, Troyer said, he was sure that Altheimer “wanted to fight,” according to the report.

In an interview, Troyer said Altheimer “was yelling and screaming — I couldn’t even tell what he was saying.”

He said after police arrived, “I was wanting to ramp it down” and “I wasn’t about to get him in trouble or make a bigger deal out of it.”

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After conferring with Troyer and a Tacoma police sergeant, Lawless released Altheimer.

“All he had to do is calmly say, ‘Hey, I am delivering newspapers,'” Troyer said.

Altheimer said he’d told family members about the run-in and had wanted to file a complaint of some kind, but was not sure about how to go about it. His mother, Rynnita Williams, who also delivers newspapers, confirmed her son had been upset and immediately told her about the incident.

“I felt he was being harassed. For all those cops to come up,” she said.

Neither Altheimer nor Williams sought out media attention, but they were willing to share the story after being contacted by The Seattle Times last week.

While Troyer does not get a newspaper delivered to his home, some of his neighbors do. So the next two nights after the incident, Altheimer said he jokingly tossed a copy of The News Tribune on the sheriff’s driveway.

“He didn’t subscribe, but I wanted him to. I said, hey, come join my business, so you know I’m a trustworthy man of your neighborhood,” Altheimer said.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.