The mother of a 17-year-old boy shot and killed by King County Sheriff’s deputies during a misguided sting operation in 2017 said deputies “took his life, and I’m left to feel the pain” during a news conference Thursday announcing a civil-rights lawsuit against the county and four deputies. Her lawyer alleges that Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens’ death resulted from a “completely unnecessary and unlawful use of force.”
“The loss of my son is unimaginable,” said Alexis Dunlap, a King County Metro bus driver. She was joined by her ex-husband, Frank Gittens, the boy’s father and a car sales manager, who told reporters that instead of celebrating his son’s upcoming high-school graduation, “We ended up planning his funeral.”
The lawsuit alleges the sting operation that led to Dunlap-Gittens’ death on a dark Des Moines street was “unreasonable, negligent and reckless,” and that afterward the deputies involved lied to justify and cover up their mistake.
The teen was shot at least eight times the night of Jan. 27, 2017 — including a fatal shot to the back of his head — as he ran away from plainclothes deputies who had jumped out of the back of a van in an attempt to arrest a 16-year-old boy Dunlap-Gittens was with. The deputies had been told that the 16-year-old, identified in sheriff’s reports as DaJohntae Richard but called “D.R.” in the lawsuit, was a suspect in the hit-and-run death of Moises Radcliffe, the son of another police officer, two days earlier.
It turned out that neither Dunlap-Gittens nor Richard had anything to do with that crime.
The lawsuit alleges the sting operation hastily thrown together by the sheriff’s office was “recklessly supervised and unconstitutional.” It claims that statements made by the deputies who were in the van that night and another deputy who planned the operation were “both internally inconsistent and inconsistent with the physical evidence” at the shooting scene.
Named as defendants are King County, deputies Sgt. Todd Miller, Joseph Eshom and Reed Jones — all of whom fired shots that night — and Deputy Mike Garske, who planned the operation and had wrongly focused on Richard as a suspect in the Radcliffe homicide. All remain employed with the King County Sheriff’s Office.
It claims that Miller, Eshom and Jones “falsely claimed that Chance threatened them with a firearm that was found down the driveway from where he fell.”
“Defendants failed to preserve or accurately document the scene, including but not limited to the location of Chance’s body and other firearm and ballistic evidence,” according to the lawsuit, which points out that the sheriff’s office told the public that Chance had fired on the officers “despite the fact that never happened.”
The sting operation involved a trio of officers — Miller, Eshom and Jones — hiding in the back of a plain Toyota van while another female deputy pretended to be a 15-year-old prostitute who lured Richard and Dunlap-Gittens out of an apartment by promising to buy several bottles of alcohol that Richard had advertised on social media. Evidence at the scene indicates that Dunlap-Gittens was carrying as many as five bottles of vodka and brandy as he and Richard approached the van.
The deputies claimed that Chance reached for a handgun in his waistband when they jumped out of the van. However, his attorneys question how he could have done that with his hands full of liquor bottles. After being shot by officers, Chance was rushed to the hospital and died later that day. Richard ran from the scene and was arrested by a SWAT team later on an unrelated warrant.
In a written statement issued Thursday afternoon, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said that “many of the claims made in the legal complaint filed in federal court are inaccurate, and some of them are simply misleading, but we intend to try this case in the courtroom and not in the media.”
She said a jury at a coroner’s inquest found that Dunlap-Gittens raised a firearm in the direction of the deputies.
“Under our legal system, it’s easy to make allegations,” the sheriff said. “We ask that all interested people keep an open mind while this case unfolds in court.”
At least one neighborhood witness told detectives he believed he saw deputies move a gun closer to where Chance had fallen when he was shot. A handgun recovered at the scene did not have a bullet in the chamber and had not been fired, according to sheriff’s documents and testimony at a Coroner’s Inquest. It was tested for DNA, and none belonging to either boy was found. It was not tested for fingerprints, according to sheriff’s documents obtained by The Seattle Times.
“The defendant officers failed to use ordinary care to avoid unreasonably escalating the encounter to the use of deadly force,” the lawsuit alleges. A post-shooting administrative review of the incident found that the deputies violated sheriff’s policy by failing to have a written operations plan, failing to wear consistent uniforms that immediately identified them as police, and using a radio frequency that wasn’t recorded.
Documents also indicate that Garske, who came up with the arrest plan, told the arrest team that detectives had developed “forensic evidence” linking Richard to Radcliffe, the adopted son of a Seattle police officer, when no such evidence existed.
The officers were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The lawsuit alleges the sheriff’s office has failed to address issues raised as a result of the shooting.
“This is a serious case, not just for this family, but for the community,” said lawyer David Owens, who is among a cadre of prominent Seattle civil-rights attorneys representing the parents and estate. “Someone has to question that another black juvenile was killed unnecessarily.”
He said the sheriff’s office never weighed the deputy’s statements in light of physical evidence that called them into question.
“King County’s policymakers’ refusal to scrutinize the inconsistent statements of the Defendant Officers and contrast that to the physical evidence is part and parcel of the County’s continued deliberate indifference to the risks created by its inadequate training, supervision and discipline of sheriff’s deputies who use excessive force or foreseeably create situations likely to lead to great bodily harm, injury or even death,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit alleges the deputies acted intentionally, “with malice and willful indifference” to Dunlap-Gitten’s Constitutional rights. It seeks damages, including punitive damages, from the deputies involved for wrongful death, negligence and outrage.