It is a bizarre real-life whodunit involving an officer’s missing semi-automatic rifle and a two-time felon in Burien that adds up to a strange, unsolved tale.
Exactly how a Burien police officer’s AR-15 rifle ended up in the apartment of a two-time felon — as alleged in court documents — remains a mystery, even after nearly a year of investigation.
What is clear is that police records, emergency-dispatch audio, witness accounts and charging documents that outline the rifle’s journey make for a strange tale.
It all began with the ranting of a troubled man one night in November 2015, which sparked a police chase that set the chaotic events in motion. An officer’s simple but potentially disastrous mistake during that chase sent the semi-automatic rifle flying from the trunk of his patrol SUV and clattering to the roadway.
By the time police realized their error, the firearm had seemingly vanished into the night.
Most Read Local Stories
- Northern lights may grace the skies tonight. Here are the best times to see them in Seattle.
- Coronavirus daily news updates, May 12: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world
- Fire crews battle blazes at Issaquah's Village West, Snohomish car repair shop
- Coast Guard could triple base size on Seattle waterfront as U.S. ramps up Arctic presence
- When can 12- to 15-year-olds get Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine in Washington state? Here's what we know
Then, after nearly five months, police say the rifle would be discovered, along with other weapons, drugs and counterfeit money, after a gunshot was fired into the ceiling of a Burien apartment. The man who lived there — a two-time felon barred from possessing firearms — was charged last week with unlawful possession of a firearm.
But how the gun ended up in the apartment is still unknown.
• • •
Burien police Officer Samuel “Pete” Copeland was walking toward a Redbox kiosk outside a Burien Walgreens just after 9 p.m. Nov. 24, 2015, when a man in a blue Volvo drove by, flipped him off and yelled, “Killer! You’re a (expletive) killer,” according to police reports and recordings of dispatch calls.
Copeland gave the man a wave, then returned to select a film.
Moments later, the driver was back, screaming profanities again. He sped off, ignoring a stoplight.
“Based on his behavior and then running the red light I was concerned about what the driver was up to. He was clearly seeking me out … ” Copeland later wrote in his report.
As they neared Ambaum Boulevard Southwest, Copeland flipped his emergency lights on. The driver blew through a stop sign.
“I have a guy who’s not stopping for me. He just drove through the parking lot twice yelling ‘killer’ at me and he’s running red lights,” Copeland radioed to dispatch. “He’s taking off. I dunno if this is worth it?”
Copeland relayed the Volvo’s plate, and learned the driver was wanted on a felony warrant for telephone harassment.
“He’s been very aggressive toward law enforcement in the past,” Copeland was warned over the radio.
King County sheriff’s deputies raced to the scene.
Deputy Alexander Hawley drove up to the Volvo and tried a maneuver that entails bumping the rear fender to force the vehicle into a spin.
The Volvo began to rotate, but the driver was able to pull out of it.
Copeland and Hawley then pounced at the same time, trying to ram the Volvo, but only managed to slam into one another, leaving their fenders mangled.
The Volvo took off, glancing off a third police vehicle blocking the roadway. The driver sped through another red light.
Sgt. Jake Zimnisky, who was monitoring the chase over the radio, ordered the officers to end the chase. It had lasted all of 1 minute and 40 seconds, according to a police pursuit work sheet. The Volvo was gone.
• • •
Note: Teela Thomas initially misstated the location of the incident.
“Nine-one-one, what are you reporting?” the dispatcher asked, fielding a citizen’s call as the pursuit was wrapping up.
On her way home from the grocery store, Teela Thomas had become tangled in the sirens and excitement of the chase.
She’d watched as a pair of officers stopped their patrol SUV in front of her on Ambaum Boulevard Southwest and Southwest 136th Street, just across from an AM-PM gas station. Thomas saw them fumble around in the trunk and then drive off.
“I was just calling to let you guys know … something was falling out of their trunk,” she told the dispatcher. “It looks like a police gun.”
Police radios crackled to life with the dispatcher’s voice.
“A passer-by says … something flew out of somebody’s trunk, a long plastic case of some sort …”
“Yeah … that’s my rifle,” said Officer David Hutchinson, with some tension in his voice. “We’re going to swing down there and grab that like now.”
During the chase, Hutchinson and Deputy Matthew Koceski, who was in training, had staked out the intersection to set up spike strips. But then they learned the chase wasn’t heading their way.
Hutchinson and Koceski gathered their gear and headed north toward the action. In their haste, the cord of a duty bag become entangled with the trunk’s latch. Twice, the trunk popped open.
That’s apparently when the rifle fell out.
When they heard the message from dispatch, they hurried back to the AM-PM.
All they found were chips of the semi-automatic rifle’s case.
The King County Sheriff’s Office, which provides police services for Burien on contract, would issue a news release asking for the public’s help finding the Bushmaster XM15-E2S, serial No. BFI650769.
It wouldn’t be a tip that would lead police to the rifle, but a gunshot.
• • •
It sounded like the elevator had fallen and crashed at the bottom of its shaft, Luis Chabolla remembers.
“Five feet under us,” he said, recalling the events of last April 21 in an interview. “Like the building was about to fall down loud.”
Then, he heard muffled voices arguing in the apartment of his downstairs neighbors. “And we heard somebody run out,” he said.
No one answered when a sheriff’s deputy rapped on the door of Steven Gonzales’ Burien apartment, where neighbors believed the gunshot had been fired, according to police reports.
Deputy Joshua Lamothe called Gonzales.
Gonzales, now 27, told Lamothe he was at work and no one should be in his apartment, according to incident reports. He didn’t want police in there, either.
They went in anyway on a welfare check after Lamothe got a key from Gonzales’ landlord. No one was in the apartment, but they found a bullet hole in the ceiling and a Winchester rifle beneath the bed.
The bullet apparently became lodged between the ceiling and the floor above, just beneath where Chabolla’s children rode their bikes up and down his apartment’s hallway.
Detectives left and obtained a warrant to search Gonzales’ apartment.
Police photos taken during the search show a messy and sparsely furnished room that resembled a college dormitory. Stuffed animals hung from the bedroom walls and a PlayStation controller lay on the floor.
On the bed, next to a plate of half-eaten pizza slices, were eight rounds of ammunition, the photos show.
And in a plastic chest, detectives found two “almost complete” rifles along with gun parts and accessories. The serial number on one of the rifles matched Officer Hutchinson’s missing AR-15.
On a bookshelf, detectives found glass smoking pipes, ammunition magazines and a wad of curled-up counterfeit money, some of which had not been cut out from the paper it was printed on.
Detectives ultimately seized five guns, body armor, pills, ammunition, magazines, a red-dot sight, a laptop, a cellphone, a notebook and a small amount of methamphetamine, among other items, according to case files.
Gonzales has two prior felony convictions, which bar him from possessing firearms, according to court records.
He cleared out of his apartment quietly, the building’s manager said. “I found keys in the drop box and that was it,” she said.
No working phone number could be found for him. When contacted on Facebook, he initially agreed to meet a reporter, but then stopped answering messages.
The case lingered into this year as the sheriff’s office processed evidence and pursued leads. Sheriff’s spokeswoman Sgt. Cindi West said the case took “quite a bit of investigation” for a detective stretched thin.
On March 14, about 16 months since the rifle disappeared, the King County Prosecutor’s Office charged Gonzales with first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm, a felony, and on a felony drug charge.
• • •
The Volvo driver who led police on the chase turned himself in a day later. He was charged with eluding police, but the charge was dropped as part of plea agreement to the felony harassment charges.
“He’s got some major league mental-health issues,” said Douglass Hiatt, an attorney who has represented him in the past. “This guy was driving crazy and acting crazy and essentially trying to commit suicide by cop or something … I think they handled it really well.”
The sheriff’s office agreed, deeming the pursuit “within policy,” according to department memos.
Hutchinson, the officer who lost his rifle during the chase, was given a written reprimand.
Hutchinson’s AR-15 — purchased by the city of Burien for $765 in 2009 — remains in evidence, minus several pieces.
As for Gonzales, he failed to show up for his arraignment on Monday. A judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest.