A team of law enforcement officers working off a tip was surveilling a neighborhood east of Olympia shortly before 7 p.m. on Sept. 3 when they saw a thin, middle-aged man exit an apartment.
He wore a cap and an orange shirt, and had a distinctive black fist tattooed to his neck, helping the members of the U.S. Marshal-led Pacific Northwest Violent Offenders Task Force identify him as Michael Reinoehl, a man suspected of killing a right-wing activist in late August in downtown Portland.
The officers’ preferred plan was to take Reinoehl into custody while he was outside. After he quickly got into a silver Volkswagen Jetta, task force members wrestled with what to do next in radio communications plagued by transmission problems.
Pierce County sheriff’s Deputy James Oleole decided to pin the Jetta in and block Reinoehl’s escape. Soon after, Oleole and other officers opened fire on a suspect they say ignored their commands and repeatedly reached for a weapon.
“I could not see where his hands were but he was making a movement with his arms that based on my training and experience is consistent with the moves that someone makes when they are attempting to grab a gun they have on their person,” Oleole later attested in a written statement, in which he described firing a salvo through the front windshield of his Ford Escape.
These and other details about the task force’s deadly confrontation with Reinoehl are contained in first-person accounts, witness statements and other records obtained by The Seattle Times through public records request. The newly-released records provide the most detailed account yet of officers’ lethal shooting of the left-wing activist who once described himself as “100 percent antifa” and was on the run for allegedly shooting and killing Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a pro-Trump protester in Portland.
Collectively, the investigation records describe a chaotic confrontation marred by officers’ radio communications breakdowns and split-second interpretations of the fugitive’s movements, resulting in a flurry of gunfire as children played nearby.
Officers unloaded 40 rounds, at least five of which struck and killed Reinoehl. Others ripped into a nearby apartment unit, at least one of them penetrating an interior wall. Stray bullets also struck four civilian vehicles, according to photo evidence included in the files.
The shooting became political fodder. Following Reinoehl’s death, then-President Donald Trump declared in a Fox News interview: “This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. Marshals killed him.”
“And I’ll tell you something — that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have a crime like this,” Trump added.
Trump’s comments increased scrutiny of whether the task force officers had justly shot Reinoehl. The records shed new light on a lingering, key question that’s been disputed in conflicting witness accounts: Did Reinoehl fire at officers?
Two witnesses cited in a law enforcement summary of the shooting released last week told investigators they believed Reinoehl initiated the gunfire. But one of them, Chad Smith, said on repeat questioning from law enforcement that he did not see Reinoehl shoot or pull a gun. He later told VICE it happened so quickly it was hard to tell what happened.
The multiagency investigation report into Reinoehl’s shooting, headed by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, concluded based on ballistics tests that a spent shell casing found in the Jetta was fired by Reinoehl’s pistol. The report doesn’t say when it was fired, however.
In their official statements, none of the officers involved in the shooting reported seeing Reinoehl shooting at them during a close-proximity firefight that was over within three minutes after Reinoehl got into the Jetta.
The officers stated their decision to use lethal force was justified by Reinoehl’s conduct, which included disobeying their verbal commands and repeatedly trying to reach into his right pants pocket, where a pistol was later found. They also later found a rifle in his car.
By the accounts of the officers — who converged on Reinoehl’s Jetta in unmarked vehicles — they shouted warnings and commands at Reinoehl before the shooting. But some civilian witnesses disputed that, giving statements they didn’t hear the officers speak before or during the incident.
In one statement, Garrett Louis, who served as a combat medic in the Army, estimated he was 40 to 50 yards away on his back porch when the shooting erupted. He gathered his two young sons close to him, later saying he heard “not a word” before the gunshot.
“I understand this is where it starts to sound unbelievable,” Louis told an investigator.
The task force assembled to arrest Reinoehl drew officers from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, the Washington Department of Corrections, the Lakewood Police Department and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Before heading to the Tanglewilde Townhome Apartments, where Reinoehl was believed to be staying with friends in a first-floor unit, task force members held a briefing about the fugitive. The discussion contained plenty to put them on edge: They were told the 48-year-old homicide suspect was armed and dangerous, that he held contempt toward cops and that he’d made statements on social media saying he wouldn’t go down without a fight.
The officers expected a long night of surveillance, bringing food and clothes with them to last 24 hours. But if any member of the team believed that they had an opportunity to arrest Reinoehl, they were authorized to make the decision to move, according to the officers’ statements.
At 6:51 p.m. Reinoehl left the apartment, put something in a trash can and got into the Jetta while the task force was still in surveillance mode. The officers, standing by in unmarked vehicles, had to quickly decide whether they could still make a move to detain Reinoehl now that he was inside the vehicle.
Pierce County sheriff’s Deputy Craig Gocha, watched through binoculars from a Chevrolet Traverse parked nearby, and observed Reinoehl carrying what he believed was a “black rifle-style case.” He also radioed to task force members about “a black holster on each side of his body.”
“Req to let him go, out of position,” Pierce County sheriff’s Sgt. Erik Clarkson, who acted as a team leader, said in one radio communication included in a log. Clarkson later clarified in his formal statement that he’d meant for the team to let Reinoehl drive if no one was close enough to stop him.
At the same time, Oleole, who was positioned closer to the Jetta, was making his own assessment. He concluded it was “a very good time” to make the arrest since allowing Reinoehl to drive off would put him in the public streets where he might harm people, according to his after-action statement.
Oleole attempted to contact Clarkson to advise him about what was happening, but the radio communications with his teammates was terrible.
“I could not hear a response,” he said later.
Rush of gunfire
Less than 90 seconds after Reinoehl got into the Jetta, the communications records picked up a call of “shots fired.”
Oleole had moved ahead with the pin, along with officers from several other vehicles with whom he had been able to communicate the plan.
After his partner drove their surveillance SUV in front of the Jetta, Oleole, armed with a rifle, opened his passenger door. He recalled being “close enough to see the white in the suspect’s eyes,” and that he yelled “police” as he exited the vehicle.
In his statement, Oleole said Reinoehl made movements with his arms that Oleole interpreted as grabbing for a gun. Then, Oleole got back inside the car and fired repeatedly through its front window at Reinoehl.
The driver of Oleole’s car, Lakewood police Officer Michael Merrill, later told investigators that he saw Reinoehl raise an object in his hand that “I thought was a firearm,” though he did not say he witnessed Reinoehl firing a weapon.
Then his vehicle windshield cracked and splintered from bullets.
“I almost simultaneously realized Oleole was firing his rifle at Reinoehl,” Merrill stated later.
Moments later, Reinoehl exited the Jetta, and took off running.
Reinoehl took fire from Gocha , who had used his car to block the Jetta at an angle off the front passenger side. After the pin, Gocha left his vehicle and would shoot 18 rounds, the most of any officer. Two of them struck Reinoehl.
Gocha, in his statement, said Reinoehl would not respond to his commands.
To the north, another officer, state Corrections Officer Jacob Whitehurst, climbed out of an unmarked Dodge Charger with his gun drawn. Whitehurst later recalled he yelled, “Police — stay down,” about three times.
Reinoehl, who was then about 20 feet away, didn’t comply, stumbled, got up and faced Whitehurst, according to the officer’s statement.
Reinoehl lifted his shirt and started to yank something from his right front pants pocket, Whitehurst said.
“I raised my duty weapon to Reinoehl and fired two times. As I fired, I heard other gun shots over my right shoulder,” Whitehurst said.
Reinoehl collapsed face down on the pavement. Officers approached, grouping behind one team member carrying a ballistic shield. They found Reinoehl’s hand around the pistol in the right front pocket, according to Whitehurst.
Officers removed his hand, leaving the gun in his pocket. They handcuffed the suspect and attempted to resuscitate him, Whitehurst said.
Reinoehl did not respond.