William “Billy” Langfitt was a considerate man who was down on his luck in the weeks before he was fatally shot by a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy.
His grandfather died, leaving him and his close-knit family devastated. He was suspended and eventually fired from his construction job. His girlfriend broke up with him.
Langfitt, 28, did not have a history of mental-health problems and had not been diagnosed with any disorders, but loved ones said he began suffering from panic attacks and acting erratically.
He died March 16, 2018, the night before he was heading to see his parents in Portland and seek help at a mental-health facility.
Langfitt, who also had no criminal history, was in high spirits earlier in the night, prompting his recent ex-girlfriend to text Langfitt’s mother that he seemed to be doing well.
Not long afterward, deputy Colby Edwards shot and killed Langfitt as he ran toward the deputy and got inside a patrol car.
Langfitt’s family has filed a $25 million wrongful death claim against the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department as a precursor to a lawsuit.
The News Tribune gained access to 272 pages of police reports, officer and witness statements to piece together what happened the night Langfitt died.
Apparent panic attack
That night, his ex-girlfriend, Naomi Powers, was supposed to sleep over so she could drive him to Portland the next morning. They played with Langfitt’s roommate’s three children, then settled in to watch a movie.
Langfitt started hitting his chest and called for his roommate, apparently having a panic attack.
His roommate took him outside for some air in hopes of calming him down. Then they sat on the couch together, and Langfitt used hand gestures to communicate because he appeared unable to get words out.
“And like looking into his eyes, it was almost like he wasn’t like in there,” his roommate later told sheriff’s investigators.
Within minutes, Langfitt fixated on a candle and insisted they needed a fire extinguisher to put it out.
“I knew he was, he was gone. He was mentally, just wasn’t there again,” Powers, 43, told investigators. “It was hallucinating or paranoia of some sort.”
As Langfitt’s behavior became more erratic, Powers decided to take him to her house in an effort to keep him away from the children sleeping upstairs.
When their vehicle neared 252nd Street East and Mountain Highway East, Powers said Langfitt grabbed the steering wheel, causing the SUV to swerve, and began honking the horn saying things like, “They’re right here.”
Powers put the vehicle in park and tried to calm him down, but Langfitt allegedly began ripping his clothes and trying to crawl out the passenger window.
He fell to the ground, pounding on the vehicle and ranting about his grandfather. He appeared panicked when he couldn’t find a photograph of his grandfather, although he still clutched a letter about his grandfather he had pulled off a bulletin board when they left his home.
At some point, Langfitt shoved his ex-girlfriend to the ground, though she believes it wasn’t intentional.
Powers stood outside her vehicle and called 911, telling dispatchers her friend was suffering a mental-health emergency and she needed help.
A passerby spotted Powers on the phone and Langfitt lying beneath the vehicle, so she stopped to offer help.
“I put my window down to see if everything was OK with them, and she said, ‘He’s OK, he’s OK,’” the woman told investigators. “But then it, he jumped up and ran behind his car, and lunged at my car, and he was screaming, ‘They’re scarin’ me, they’re scarin’ me.’ And she was tellin’ him, ‘Leave her alone, leave her alone,’ ‘cause he was chargin’ at my car.”
Dispatchers told Powers to get inside her vehicle, lock the door and wait for deputies.
She did as she was told but drove behind Langfitt as he continued moving down the street.
When dispatchers asked if Langfitt had a weapon, Powers told them he had a folding knife, but she’d already taken it away from him.
‘I yelled get back’
Edwards was responding to the scene — it was his second call on shift — when he heard the man (Langfitt) was trying to break into other people’s vehicles.
He slowed down as he approached the area and spotted Powers’ SUV with its flashers on.
It was lightly raining.
The deputy turned on his spotlight to better see, and he got his first look at Langfitt.
Edwards later described him as wearing a white shirt and shorts with “kind of straggly lookin’ hair.”
Trying to get out of traffic, the deputy started to turn his patrol car around.
“I start to make my turn and in the middle of my turn he, he looks over at me and immediately starts a full sprint straight towards my car,” Edwards told investigators in a March 17, 2018, interview.
Edwards put his vehicle in park and hurriedly tried to get out of the car to address Langfitt.
He struggled with his seat belt, and by the time he stepped out of the patrol car, Langfitt was near the front of the vehicle.
Langfitt was moving so quickly that Edwards began backpedaling to create some distance.
He left his patrol car running with the keys in the ignition, and the driver’s door open.
“And while I’m running backwards I drew my gun out and told him to get back. I believe I yelled get back or get down, or both, multiple times,” Edwards said.
They made eye contact.
“He looked right at me or was staring right at me,” Edwards told investigators. “He had a 1,000 yard stare, and he, he did not look like he was there. Mentally. He was, looked like he was somewhere else.”
The deputy said Langfitt got inside the patrol car and started to close the door.
In her interview, Powers said it appeared Langfitt dived into the patrol car. His family’s attorney said Langfitt fell into the vehicle after being shot in the back.
“So I knew at that point well two things, my rifle, or my rifle’s in the rack above his head, and then also with his current mental state, just with what I saw, with his eyes and the way he was acting, based on what I saw and the, the RP had, or the reporting party had stated, I knew if he got behind a vehicle he was gonna hurt somebody,” Edwards said. “So at that point I, that’s when I started firing.”
The deputy fired at least 10 shots as he moved toward the front of the patrol car to face Langfitt.
Edwards said he could see Langfitt moving slightly after he shot him and could see him clutching something in his right hand.
It was the letter about his grandfather.
Edwards started to solicit help from a man in a truck behind him to help provide medical aid to Langfitt, but that’s when backup arrived.
That witness later told investigators he expected the deputy to shoot Langfitt earlier in the encounter.
“Between his hands and his clothes and everything goin’ on, you couldn’t see what the heck he was doing. But it looked like he was coming at the sheriff, and he got a knife, something,” he said in an interview. “I couldn’t tell what the hell he had in his hands. But I looked back at the sheriff, expecting him to shoot. He didn’t shoot, and the guy keeps comin’, and the guy keeps comin’.”
Langfitt was pronounced dead at the scene.
Reform sought by family
In November 2018, eight months after Langfitt died, former Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist ruled the shooting justified and said the incident highlighted the need for more mental-health services.
Prosecutors said Edwards had a reasonable fear because of Langfitt’s “irrational, erratic and aggressive behavior directed at Deputy Edwards.”
“Follow up investigation revealed that Langfitt had recently begun experiencing mental health issues,” according to a news release from the Prosecutor’s Office. “He was acting paranoid, was hallucinating, and having fits of extreme rage.”
It was the deputy’s second fatal shooting in less than a year.
He also was found justified in the April 14, 2017, death of a suspected carjacker who crashed a stolen vehicle in Frederickson and emerged from the burning wreckage holding a gun. Edwards was one of five deputies who fired at that person.
Edwards, 29, joined the department in November 2015. Although he was placed on administrative leave after both shootings, he has been returned to duty.
After Langfitt’s death, his family and friends held a news conference pleading with the Sheriff’s Department to offer better training for deputies responding to mental-health emergencies.
“I just think it’s a sad case of just … not getting to him in time. Mental-healthwise I think (Langfitt) was pushed to the limit with his job,” Powers told investigators after the incident.
His father, Bill Langfitt, said he didn’t have a history of anxiety or mental-health problems but had been acting differently shortly before his death.
Langfitt was speaking to his parents daily and mostly staying home.
“Billy was really an amazing young man,” his father said. “He believed in standing up for what’s right, and standing up for people who were less fortunate.”
He recalled a time Langfitt met a homeless man at a gas station and brought him with him so he could feed and clothe him. In the morning, he gave the stranger a ride and a backpack full of extra clothing and food.
Langfitt worked as a carpenter and loved video games and archery.
“He had such a great smile,” Bill Langfitt said. “He had a great, loving personality.”
His father and Powers said Langfitt had tremendous respect for law enforcement and may have been running toward the patrol car looking for a safe space.
They filed a claim in an attempt to bring about reform, they said. The family wants more mental-health and de-escalation training, law-enforcement officers to use body and dashboard cameras and more transparency in officer-involved shootings.
“The handling of mental health, anxiety, breakdowns, whatever you want to call these things — those things need to be addressed,” Bill Langfitt said. “There needs to be additional training to recognize these situations. The drawing of the gun needs to be the last resort, not the first resort.”