The Pierce County SWAT civil-rights trial gets ready to go to jury after the police sniper who shot Leonard Thomas while he reached for his son said the man was assaulting the child.
The Pierce County Metro SWAT sniper who shot and killed Leonard Thomas said the 6-foot-8 man grabbed his 4-year-old son in a stranglehold and was heading back into a house filled with smoke and a police assault team when he fired his rifle.
Sgt. Brian Markert said there was “nothing protective about the way he (Thomas) grabbed his son,” and fearing the child was in imminent danger, decided to shoot Thomas from 90 feet away with a .308-caliber precision rifle.
The 30-year-old father — who was unarmed, intoxicated and had bipolar disorder — bled to death as officers punched him and pulled the boy from his arms as the child called for his “daddy,” according to testimony in a civil-rights and wrongful death civil trial in U.S. District Court.
The case is actually two lawsuits being tried together, one filed by Thomas’ parents and surviving son and the other by his estate. The lawsuits allege a militarized response to a misdemeanor domestic-violence dispute, miscommunication and questionable tactics resulted in Thomas being killed for trying to protect his child.
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Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday.
The defense rested its case after two days of testimony and scathing cross-examination of Markert, much of it focusing on a 15-page statement — drafted with the help of his attorney — that he provided to investigators 11 days after the May 23, 2013, shooting.
In it, Markert said he believed he was justified in shooting when Thomas grabbed the boy by the neck with both arms and jerked him off the ground. Thomas’ action, he said, constituted felony assault, and he fired to protect the child.
The sergeant acknowledged, however, that Thomas reached for the boy only after the incident commander, Lakewood Chief Mike Zaro, ordered a surprise assault on the rear of the home, where a team of SWAT operators blew down a back door with explosives, shot and killed the family dog, and swarmed into the house.
The assault was ordered after Thomas agreed to let the child go, according to testimony.
An amateur video of portions of the assault, shot by a neighbor, contains sounds of the explosion, the crack of the sniper’s rifle and the gunshots that killed the dog. Fred and Annalesa Thomas, Leonard Thomas’ parents, have been in court every day. She moaned and wept in her husband’s arms as the video was played Thursday.
Just before ordering the assault, Zaro had radioed that the team was not to allow Thomas to take the boy back into the home, an order that confused some of the SWAT members, who wondered if he was issuing a “delta” kill order.
Both of those orders, Markert said, amped up his concern over the safety of the child, but he insisted he shot because Thomas was choking the boy, not because of Zaro’s order.
That order and Zaro’s overall command that night have been questioned by a former Los Angeles Police Department SWAT instructor.
“It was very fast, very violent, almost like striking out at something,” Markert said.
But Jack Connelly, the attorney for the estate, suggested Markert had made that story up to justify killing Thomas, because he knew Zaro’s order was not legally sufficient to justify the shot.
“That is not correct, no,” Markert responded.
Connelly and the plaintiff’s lawyer Tim Ford grilled Markert about why he used the term “hostage” 113 times in his report, when that word was uttered by officers and negotiators just once during the entire night of the standoff, according to police-dispatch tapes.
There were 29 officers at the scene, but Markert’s report was the first to state Thomas had choked or tried to strangle the boy, Ford said, asking the sergeant why he didn’t tell anyone else or ask to have medics examine the child.
Markert said he had told two people that night: his lawyer and his wife.
He did not tell investigators until June 11, when he turned in his report after consulting his attorney.
Markert also acknowledged Zaro sent him a timeline and other information about the standoff via private email while he was writing his report. Ford suggested Markert used it to come up with the strangulation story because the order not to let the child back into the house — absent any threat to the child — would not justify the use of deadly force.