A family has filed a $3.5 million claim over a 2013 police killing in Fife, where a family argument escalated into a police siege that ended with an explosion and a fatal sniper shot that authorities contend was necessary to protect a child.
There was a moment when it looked like the May 2013 standoff between Leonard Thomas and the Pierce County Metro SWAT team was going to have a good ending.
Thomas, 30, drunk and despondent over the sudden death of a childhood friend, had been holed up for hours with his 4-year-old son after his mother called Fife police following an argument. A police negotiator had finally convinced Thomas to let the child go home with his grandmother for the night — which is what Thomas and his mother had fought about in the first place.
Once the child was safe, the negotiator and a SWAT commander figured officers would just let Thomas sleep off a bad night and come back later to deal with a misdemeanor domestic-violence allegation stemming from a tussle over his mother’s cellphone while she was talking to 911, according to police reports.
That isn’t what happened.
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As a skittish Thomas led the boy onto the front porch to send him down the sidewalk to the child’s waiting grandmother, members of a SWAT assault team used explosives to blow open a back door, forcing their way in and killing the family dog with a burst of gunfire. Thomas — who was unarmed — reportedly lunged for his son, and he was fatally shot by a police sniper as he held the boy.
The assault-team leader, Lakewood police Officer Mike Wiley, announced the shooting over a SWAT frequency: “We have jackpot.”
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist concluded the shooting was lawful and determined the SWAT sniper “did what was necessary to protect a child.”
However, Thomas’ parents, Fred and Annalesa Thomas, along with a guardian representing Thomas’ now 6-year-old son, in January filed a $3.5 million claim against the Metro SWAT team and its member agencies, partly for “intangible injuries like the emotional distress caused by witnessing the killing of a son and father.” Such claims usually precede a wrongful-death or federal civil-rights lawsuit.
The family’s Seattle lawyers, David Whedbee and Tim Ford, call the incident a “damning story of overreaction and incompetence, and the use of unnecessary military-style force against an American citizen.”
They say the incident was tragically avoidable and that the arrival of the SWAT team — which surrounded the home and parked an armored-personnel carrier on Thomas’s front lawn — escalated a minor domestic argument into a siege.
They also say it is emblematic of the type of police militarization that has alarmed the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and caught the attention of Congress and the White House following the use by police of military-style assault vehicles and heavily armed, camouflage-clad officers in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.
“Like the troubling trend across the country, the police here resorted to military tactics and killed an unarmed man who had done nothing but suffer a bout of despair,” Whedbee said. “He hadn’t harmed anybody and just wanted to be left alone in his home.”
Lakewood police Assistant Chief Mike Zaro, who was in charge of the SWAT operation that night, declined to discuss the incident because of the family’s claim, except to say that Thomas “could have obeyed us at any time and chose not to.”
However, the family’s claim and a review of the reports, documents, transcripts and court records by The Seattle Times raise questions about the accuracy of key information given to officers at the scene regarding Thomas’ criminal history and the threat he posed to police.
Annalesa Thomas took a call from her son around 9:30 p.m. on May 23, 2013, and immediately became worried, according to police reports, interviews and court records. Leonard Thomas, who lived with his son in a house owned by his parents, was upset over the recent, sudden death of a longtime friend and wanted his mother to come and get the boy.
When she arrived at the two-story home on a dead-end road in Fife, Leonard Thomas was outside with his estranged wife, Kimberly. His mother said Thomas was tearful and argumentative, and resisted her suggestion he and the boy come home with her.
When she decided it would be best to just leave with the boy, Thomas resisted and they argued. Annalesa said she slapped Thomas to try to calm him down, and then called police.
While she was on the phone with a 911 operator, Annalesa said Thomas “grabbed her wrist and took the phone.” Several officers responded and decided there was probable cause to arrest Thomas for fourth-degree domestic-violence assault, a gross misdemeanor, for interfering with the 911 call.
Meantime, Thomas and his son had retreated into the house.
Fife police Lt. Scott Green, who was in charge of the scene before SWAT arrived, told detectives later that the department was familiar with Thomas from prior contacts. He said there was an officer-safety advisory in a state crime computer, warning that Thomas suffered from mental-health problems — Thomas was bipolar — and was reported to carry a handgun. That information was repeatedly broadcast to officers and the SWAT team.
Officers were also told the advisory said he had in the past threatened “suicide by cop” and that Fife police considered him “uncooperative.”
A post-shooting review could not confirm the suicide-by-cop information or identify its source. And police did not attempt to authenticate information that Thomas had been seeking a gun or was known to carry one, according to a review of the documents.
Thomas spoke with two negotiators that night. The first, Milton police Sgt. Nils Luckman, said Thomas’s mood was erratic — cordial one moment, angry the next — and he seemed intoxicated and said he was off his medications. Thomas insisted he had not committed a crime and demanded police get off his property.
Luckman told investigators Thomas repeatedly said he was unarmed and that the boy was fine. Luckman said that while Thomas was hostile toward police, he never threatened officers or the child.
Thomas told one officer through an open window that he had a pistol, but none was ever seen or found.
Fife Police Chief Brad Blackburn decided to call out SWAT because he was concerned about the well-being of the child, he told detectives afterward.
SWAT negotiator Lakewood Sgt. Mark Eakes took over just before midnight. By then, the house was being surrounded by heavily armed officers and two snipers were watching Thomas inside the home through their rifle scopes, according to the reports.
Like Luckman, Eakes told investigators Thomas never threatened officers or said he intended to hurt the child. However, according to a review of reports, dispatch transcripts and interviews, the information was never broadcast to SWAT team members.
Eventually, Thomas agreed he would send the boy out, but repeatedly said he wanted his mother to come to the door to get him. Eakes told him that would not possibly happen, explaining later that he did not want to introduce another “hostage” or allow Thomas to “lure” Annalesa close enough to where he could hurt her.
Other SWAT members expressed similar concerns. Wiley, the SWAT assault-team leader, told investigators that he believed Thomas was “trying to make a showcase of he’s building the courage to kill this kid.”
Brian Markert, a Lakewood police officer and SWAT sniper, said the 6-foot-8 Thomas crouched behind the child several times and used him as a “human shield.”
Thomas led the child onto the porch around 2:30 a.m., putting a small bag and a car seat on the porch. But he was balky, and when police wouldn’t send his mother up the sidewalk, he pulled the boy back inside.
While Eakes continued to try to talk him out again, Zaro, the Lakewood assistant chief and SWAT commander, approved a “contingency plan” to use explosives to breach a back door and then flood the house with an assault team, making it impossible for Thomas to return inside once he was on the porch.
At just before 2:45 a.m., Thomas and the boy appeared on the porch again.
Zaro told the snipers and the team that Thomas was not to be allowed to take the child back inside a second time. Markert and the others took it to be a “Delta Order,” meaning they were cleared to use deadly force at the next opportunity, according statements by Wiley, Markert and other team members.
Zaro started a five-second countdown for the entry team as Thomas stood on the porch with the child. Inside, Baxter, the family dog, was barking wildly, according to the reports.
The blast was followed by a burst of gunfire as Wiley shot Thomas’ dog and the team forced its way in. Across the street, Markert, who had set up his precision rifle on a trailer, saw Thomas grab his son.
“The manner in which the suspect grabbed the hostage in a headlock or chokehold type manner caused me to believe that he was already harming the hostage … I selected an aim point on the exposed right side of the suspect torso” and fired a single round from his .308-caliber bolt-action rifle, Markert wrote in a 15-page statement to investigators obtained by The Seattle Times.
The bullet struck Thomas in the pelvis and exited his buttocks. He was handcuffed after officers pulled the child from his arms — one officer said he had to use hammer blows with his fist to get Thomas to let go of the boy. Thomas bled to death, according to officials.
According to the documents, an “intel dump” broadcast to the SWAT team during the hourslong standoff indicated Thomas had a 2008 conviction for a drive-by shooting and a residential burglary on his record, which would have put a violent, armed felony just five years in his past.
However, Pierce County Superior Court records show the conviction was in 2000 and is the only felony on Thomas’ adult record. The burglary was a juvenile conviction more than 20 years old.
A review of Pierce County Superior Court records turned up a 2011 petition for a protection order by a former girlfriend, who wrote that Thomas called her on the telephone and had told her he was going to get a gun and kill himself or have police kill him because of his failing marriage.
The woman never saw a weapon and the petition was dismissed without a protective order being issued, according to the docket.
Ford and Whedbee, the family’s lawyers, believe all of these issues and more — including the fact that another unarmed African-American man was killed by police — played into the tragic outcome.
But it was the militarylike response to a routine domestic-violence dispute that shocked Ford most.
He referenced statements by SWAT commander Zaro and a profane, military jargon-laced 56-page statement by Wiley, the assault-team leader, where he refers to the team members as “operators” — the term used for members of elite military special-forces units — and described Thomas’ death as “a frickin’ million-dollar shot.”
“It reads like some kind of crazed soliloquy out of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ or ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ” Ford said.