KALAMA, Cowlitz County — The early evening hours of April 13 were filled with the kind of trouble that often crops up on a Saturday night shift for law enforcement. Dispatchers handled reports of a possible drunken driver, a woman who said her had husband assaulted her and a distraught father calling to say his son was hallucinating after taking LSD.

What appeared to be a low-key assignment fell to Deputy Sheriff Justin DeRosier: Check out a poorly parked motor home and white pickup partially blocking a narrow winding road that climbed out of the thick forests of the Kalama River canyon.

Within two minutes of his arrival, the stop turned violent.

“Shots fired, I’m hit,” DeRosier cried at 10:13 p.m. in a chilling radio transmission he repeated some 30 seconds later.

DeRosier died the next morning, the first deputy killed in the line of duty in the 165-year history of this southwest Washington county. His death has unleashed an outpouring of collective grief in the community that has included vigils and a memorial walk last Saturday in Longview.

On Wednesday, after a procession that will start in Cowlitz County, a memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. at the University of Portland’s Chiles Center, a venue big enough to accommodate the thousands expected to attend.

Slain Cowlitz County deputy called ‘extraordinary’ at funeral in Portland
A memorial of flowers and flags honors slain Deputy Justin DeRosier at the pulloff on a rural road in Cowlitz County. DeRosier  was mortally wounded after he stopped to check on a motor home parked at this spot. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)
A memorial of flowers and flags honors slain Deputy Justin DeRosier at the pulloff on a rural road in Cowlitz County. DeRosier was mortally wounded after he stopped to check on a motor home parked at this spot. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)

DeRosier’s death was the second shattering blow to state law enforcement in less than a month. On March 19, Kittitas County Deputy Sheriff Ryan Thompson, 42, was killed in an attempted traffic stop that ended in a gunbattle. His killer, Juan Manuel Flores Del Toro, a Mexican national who had overstayed his visa and was in the United States illegally, was wounded and later died in a hospital.

In Cowlitz County, the shooting of DeRosier caused anguish and tension as his suspected killer, 33-year-old Brian Butts, remained at large.

The manhunt ended less than 24 hours later. Shortly after 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, law-enforcement officers found Butts on a lonely stretch of Spencer Creek Road east of Interstate 5. Butts was wearing muddy jeans, had a black hoodie pulled over his head and carried a semi-automatic handgun, officials said.

Butts engaged in an “armed confrontation” before he was felled by Kelso police officers who “returned fire,” according to officials.

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“This was not the result we wanted to see with the suspect,” said Sheriff Brad Thurman as he met last week with reporters. “Not only have we been robbed of an exceptional father, husband and son, Justin DeRosier, we also have been robbed of finding answers of why from the suspects.”

Deep roots, different routes

Both DeRosier and Butts had roots in this Columbia River region, where tight-knit communities benefit from family-wage, blue-collar jobs in the woods, mills and ports. But these two young men had been heading in very different directions.

DeRosier was what his grandmother, former county Auditor Darlene DeRosier, called a “gentle giant.” He played football but wasn’t a standout, in part, because, she said, he didn’t like to hurt people.

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From early on, he was drawn to law enforcement. When his family was living in Hawaii where his father worked in construction, his grandmother recalls how the Sunday phone conversations would abruptly end once “Cops,” a show that followed enforcement on patrol, came on the air. “When that music started, he would just drop the phone because he wanted to watch,” Darlene DeRosier said.

Justin DeRosier, 29, was the first Cowlitz County Sheriff’s deputy to die in the line of duty. (Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office/The Columbian via AP)
Justin DeRosier, 29, was the first Cowlitz County Sheriff’s deputy to die in the line of duty. (Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office/The Columbian via AP)

DeRosier graduated in 2008 from Kelso High School, which is scheduled to close Wednesday — along with most of county government — so students can attend the memorial service in Portland. He attended Washington State University, majoring in criminal justice and interning at the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office, which offered him a  job as deputy after graduation.

DeRosier returned home to Cowlitz County in 2016 to take the deputy sheriff’s job. He married Katherine Ann Smart. Their daughter, Naomi, is 6 months old, according to an obituary published in The Daily News of Longview. At a time it has become harder to draw many young people to law enforcement, Sheriff Thurman said DeRosier was an outstanding deputy who appeared poised for a long law-enforcement career.

“He had only one speed, that was fast. He didn’t shuffle around, and had a bounce to his step,” Thurman said.

Butts was born across the Columbia River in nearby St. Helens, Oregon, and spent his youth there as well as in Cowlitz County, where his father, a welder, lived, according to family members. He left high school in 10th grade, and spent a substantial portion of his adult life in prison. His lengthy criminal record included convictions for intent to distribute methamphetamine, heroin possession, robbery, and an assault that left one victim with a broken nose and cheekbone, according to court records.

Butts was sentenced to 43 months in state prison in 2006. After his release, he again faced criminal changes, and in 2012 returned to prison with an 85-month sentence, according to Cowlitz County Superior Court records. At the time, a bail study ranked him at a risk level of “high violent.”

New details

A regional major-crimes unit based in Clark County is investigating the shootings of DeRosier and Butts. Some details have been released.

On April 13 at 9:29 p.m., DeRosier was dispatched to Fallert Road to respond to the complaint about the motor home and white truck. It appears DeRosier did not know who he would encounter. When license plates were run on the motor home after the shooting, they were traced to another person who reported giving it to Butts a year earlier.

DeRosier arrived at the Fallert Road pull out at 10:11.

Other law-enforcement officers responded to DeRosier’s radio cry of shots fired, and arrived to find the wounded deputy, who gave a description of the suspect who had fled on foot.

“To see Justin on his knees was heartbreaking. Justin was able to help us get him into my patrol car so I could bring him to the ambulance, which was waiting a distance away,” wrote Kalama Police officer Jeff Skeie in a Facebook post.

An autopsy found DeRosier died from a bullet wound to the chest.

Prosecutors have charged a Fallert Road resident, Matthew Veatch, with rendering criminal assistance to Butts, who came to his home and gave him a handgun to get rid of, according to a probable-cause sheet filed in Cowlitz County Superior Court. Veatch put the gun in his safe, and led Butts on a several-hour walk through woods to a barn that would offer a hiding spot, according to the probable cause statement.

By the next night, Butts was again on the move, spotted by a resident on Spencer Creek Road, who called in a report to dispatchers. He encountered law-enforcement officials in a spot where the road runs across a gully. One resident, who requested anonymity, said he was driving on the road when he heard shots, then a break, then two more shots from a different weapon. Coming around the bend in his vehicle, he saw shell casings on the road and what turned out to be Butts’ body.

After the shooting, other law-enforcement agencies volunteered to take patrol shifts for the grieving deputies of the Cowlitz County. Thurman said that in other sheriff’s departments that have experienced a death in the line of duty, some deputies opt to shift from patrols to jail or desk jobs.

He’s not sure how his staff will react but hopes the widespread community support will help them heal.

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“It’s a big shock. It’s rough,” Thurman told reporters. “We just don’t know how to do this. We hope we don’t have to do it again.”