Attorneys for the parents of 36-year-old Jeremy Dowell filed a federal lawsuit Monday, alleging that his killing by Lynnwood police Officer Zachary Yates was unjustified even though investigators concluded Yates had acted reasonably during the Jan. 30, 2017, incident.
When a team of Snohomish County investigators found that a Lynnwood police officer had acted reasonably when he shot and killed a knife-wielding man on Highway 99 last year, it looked like an open-and-shut case.
Detectives found that 36-year-old Jeremy Dowell came at Officer Zachary Yates with the knife, minutes after Dowell had frightened people at a carpet store, made a reference to the Islamic State and darted into busy traffic.
The Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team, commonly known as SMART, investigated the Jan. 30, 2017, shooting and concluded that it fell within legal standards.
But since then, 12 witnesses contacted by an attorney for Dowell’s parents have signed sworn declarations challenging the official version in stark and sharply critical language. Although no one disputed that Dowell was carrying a knife, six people who said they saw the initial confrontation said Dowell never directly threatened Yates.
Ten of the witnesses said Yates continued to fire shots at a helpless, stumbling or severely injured Dowell. Five said some rounds were fired while Dowell was on the ground.
Some of the witnesses also complained that they weren’t contacted by detectives after giving statements at the scene.
The witnesses’ declarations, coming from people from various walks of life, are striking in their number and consistency. Half the witnesses described the shooting as a murder.
“What I saw was so deeply disturbing that the memories haunt me to this day,” Nadeem Pasha said in a declaration. He called the shooting “completely unwarranted.”
The witness statements are contained in a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed Monday by attorneys Ed Budge and Erik Heipt on behalf of Dowell’s mother, Suzette Dowell, and stepfather, Robert Dowell, accusing Yates of “outrageous and reprehensible use of deadly force.”
The suit, which names Yates individually and not the city of Lynnwood, alleges he “quickly jumped out of his patrol vehicle, pursued Mr. Dowell on foot, and almost immediately began shooting him.”
It further alleges that the SMART team — made up of investigators from various county law-enforcement agencies and the Washington State Patrol — conducted a biased investigation, deliberately steering the outcome to clear Yates of any wrongdoing.
The purpose behind SMART is to ensure public trust, by carrying out professional investigations and keeping departments from conducting investigations of their own officer-involved shootings.
Based on SMART’s findings, prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against Yates.
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe, when shown a sample of the declarations by The Seattle Times last week, said he would review the case.
The Times, in an independent examination of hundreds of pages of official documents, found that investigators failed to follow up with some witnesses, provided a misleading summary of witness accounts by brushing aside critical statements and concocted false information about autopsy results in an attempt to discredit one witness.
The lawsuit is unusual in that it does not name the Lynnwood Police Department as a defendant, but sues Yates as an individual. Yates’ attorney didn’t respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Shari Ireton, a spokeswoman for the SMART team, declined to comment Monday, saying she couldn’t discuss pending litigation.
Warning: Graphic content
9:30 a.m., Jan. 30, 2017
The incident began when Dowell, who had mental-health issues, walked into Western Carpet Center at 19222 Highway 99 about 9:30 a.m., where he reportedly accused the owner and an employee of wanting to kill him. The owner called 911, saying Dowell had been hostile and referred to ISIS, the extremist Islamic military group, before leaving the business.
Yates, who heard the information broadcast on the police radio, responded to the call. On him he carried his .40-caliber service pistol, a backup handgun hidden in his vest, two knives, including one tucked into a boot, and three extra magazines each holding 14 rounds of ammunition.
“I recognized ISIS to be a terrorist group that is known for creating terror and specifically attacking innocent civilians in unconventional ways and in particular to commit ‘Lone Wolf’ attacks,” Yates, who had joined the department about three years earlier, later wrote in a statement on the shooting.
In his previous job as a security police officer at a tightly guarded federal laboratory in Idaho, Yates had been trained to respond to terrorist threats, active shooters and lone-wolf attacks.
In the statement, Yates said that from his patrol car he saw Dowell bolt across Highway 99 toward a Costco parking lot. Yates followed Dowell, radioing other officers that no crime had occurred to that point. Moments later, he informed other officers that Dowell had reached into a backpack he was carrying.
When Dowell darted back across Highway 99, another officer who had responded to the scene, Jacob Hubby, advised officers that they needed to detain him.
Yates, in his statement, said he stopped his car and began chasing Dowell, coming within a few feet of him before deciding to end the chase when he saw Dowell was carrying a “large fixed blade knife” in his right hand.
But as he stopped, Yates said, Dowell abruptly turned toward him, forcing Yates to backpedal.
“I became fixated on the blade and observed the blade to move quickly as if the male was making slashing or cutting motions,” Yates wrote in the statement, acknowledging that he wasn’t sure if Dowell was pumping his arms while running or making deliberate movements.
In light of the earlier disturbance call and the reference to ISIS, Yates said, he felt he and the public were in danger because of Dowell’s irrational behavior.
Yates said he recalled ordering Dowell to drop the knife, along with other officers. Hubby and a third officer, Lindsay Pool, had also closed in on Dowell.
When Dowell ignored the orders, Yates said he fired once, thinking Dowell would fall.
But Dowell continued to proceed toward him after being shot two more times, Yates wrote.
Yates said he feared Dowell was moving toward Hubby, before Dowell dropped to the ground and attempted to get back up and come toward him again.
“I remember feeling a sense of panic as I knew I had fired several rounds and the rounds that I fired did not appear to have the intended effect of stopping him,” Yates wrote.
Dowell fell to his “knees/feet” but continued to ignore commands to drop the knife, Yates said, adding he feared Dowell would become mobile again in the middle of the busiest street in Lynnwood, posing a danger to himself and bystanders.
“I fired several more rounds center mass,” Yates wrote, knocking Dowell slowly to the ground and on his stomach.
Hubby moved in and began performing CPR on Dowell, who soon died, while Pool secured the knife.
In all, Yates had fired 10 shots, causing multiple injuries.
Investigators later interviewed Yates, who repeated the account in detail.
Lynnwood police don’t use patrol-car or body cameras, and the only known video of the incident, shot on a cellphone by an unidentified bystander, caught only an obscured glimpse of the shooting.
Hubby, in an interview with investigators, said he made the decision to detain Dowell for Dowell’s safety.
He said as got out of his car, he heard Yates giving orders to Dowell and then heard a shot. He said he saw Dowell, with a knife in his right hand, “going toward” Yates.
Yates fired multiple times with pauses between, Hubby said, but Dowell “just kept coming.”
“ … it was very evident to me that this guy intended to use that knife, uh, on Officer Yates, based on the fact that uh, there’s already been rounds discharged, um, Officer Yates has already used deadly force on this subject, and he … is adamant about continuing. And continuing. And continuing.”
Hubby said he “got the sense” that Yates was “kind of backing up” between shots.
Hubby told investigators he was ready to fire his pistol, but didn’t because Yates was controlling the “cadence” of the shooting.
Pool, in her interview, said as she got out of her car she saw the first shot, prompting her to pull her gun and begin giving verbal commands to Dowell to put down the knife and put his hands out.
She told investigators she saw Yates walking backward with his gun out, and Dowell advancing toward Yates.
Though Yates “continuously” fired shots, Pool said, Dowell “stumbled around, kept holding onto the knife” and didn’t obey commands to drop the knife.
Pool wasn’t asked during the interview why she didn’t fire — a glaring omission. She was contacted days later to specifically answer that question. She said Dowell was “locked in” on Yates and that she didn’t feel threatened.
‘He … was down’
Witnesses at the scene immediately began raising questions.
Rachel Hodson, 22, who was working at Associated Glass, provided a written statement that day in which she said she heard two shots, then saw a police officer pointing a gun at a man.
“The officer then shot the man two more times,” Hodson wrote. “He was stumbling around and then he was on the ground. The officer shot him several more times after he was on the ground. I do not feel … it was necessary for a man to die today.”
In a recorded statement the same day, Hodson said: “Yeah; when he was on the ground he … they were still sh … the guy was shooting him when like … like there is no better way to say it, like, ‘You kick him when he’s down.’ He … was down.”
In her declaration obtained by Budge, the Dowell family attorney, Hodson said, “Based on my firsthand observations, I believe the officer murdered the young man that morning.”
She said she gave investigators her address and phone number at the scene but was never contacted for a follow-up interview.
In an interview with The Times, Hodson reiterated her observations, saying, “The whole event is frozen in my memory.”
Steven Long, 60, who provided a brief written statement to police at the scene, told The Times a detective called and left a message with him a week later. Long said he called back twice and left messages, and was surprised when no one called him back.
At the time of the shooting, Long was working for a nearby U-Haul dealer and was driving on Highway 99.
When traffic came to a standstill, Long wrote in his declaration, he saw a police officer quickly exit his patrol car with his gun drawn.
As the officer approached Dowell, “the young man’s hands were down to his sides,” Long said.
“He was not doing anything threatening or aggressive,” Long added. “There was considerable distance between the officer and the young man. Traffic was completely stopped, and there was nothing preventing the officer from backing up if he felt it was necessary to do so.”
Dowell didn’t charge at the officer or advance, Long stated.
“He was just standing there when, suddenly, the officer began shooting him,” Long said.
When Dowell went to the ground, he appeared to be trying to get up but wasn’t lunging or making aggressive moves, according to Long.
“He was badly injured and defenseless, and the officer kept shooting him again and again,” Long stated. “The man was lying face down on the ground, practically motionless, when the last two shots were fired.”
Investigators did arrange to meet one witness, Robert Cox, who had loudly accused police of murdering Dowell shortly after the shooting. He was interviewed Feb. 1.
Among Cox’s claims was that Yates had fired three final shots as Dowell was face down.
In a tense exchange during the interview, Snohomish County sheriff’s Detective Ted Betts, referring to the autopsy on Dowell, asked Cox, “Um, what would you say if you were told that this man wasn’t shot in the back at all?”
“I would be amazed,” Cox responded, according to a transcript of the interview.
“OK, so could you be wrong?” Betts said.
“I could be wrong,” Cox said. “Most definitely. But I would be amazed.”
At one point, Betts suggested that if Cox were wrong about those shots, he might also be wrong about other things.
A copy of the autopsy report shows that, among Dowell’s multiple wounds, he suffered an entry wound to the left buttock and lumbar back.
Nadeem Pasha, a small-business owner, wrote in his declaration that he met with investigators Feb. 3 and told them Dowell wasn’t a threat to anyone. “However, they seemed uninterested in learning the details of why I felt deadly force was not justified,” he stated. “The entire interview lasted only about 20 minutes.”
Investigators logged the statements from witnesses who questioned the shooting, as well as those whose recollections fit Yates’ account. One woman reported Dowell got up after being shot, and a man said Dowell waved the knife and approached officers, ignoring commands to drop it and put his hands in the air, and wasn’t on the ground when shots were fired.
In their summary, however, the SMART team wrote that witness statements in this report are “consistent with the statements” of the involved officers, physical evidence and the “totality of the investigation process.”
“Of concern for some of the citizen witnesses was at one point Dowell is obviously injured and down on his knees or face down on the roadway and further shots are discharged by the Officer,” their report said.
“These concerns are addressed,” the report said, in the statements of officers Yates, Hubby and Pool.
The report noted that, based on interviews with Dowell’s family, he likely suffered from “officially undiagnosed mental illnesses,” including delusions of governmental surveillance, suicidal tendencies and unstable behavior when having an episode.
‘I miss him so much’
Suzette and Robert Dowell say they decided to bring the suit to obtain justice and help prevent other families from going through the pain they have.
They recall Dowell as an avid outdoorsman and an artist who liked to paint.
Once a week, they visit a permanent memorial to their son erected near the site of the shooting.
“I miss him so much,” Suzette Dowell said Saturday, one day before Mother’s Day.