MOUNT VERNON — The fate of Ernesto Rivas, the man accused of shooting Mount Vernon police Officer Michael “Mick” McClaughry in the head, is in the hands of a jury.
Closing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys took place Tuesday in the trial of Rivas, 47, from Mount Vernon. He is charged with six counts related to two incidents from Dec. 15, 2016. Included are two counts of first-degree attempted murder.
One of the key questions facing jurors is whether Rivas pulled the trigger on the gun that sent a bullet into the back of McClaughry’s head, nearly killing him and leaving him permanently blind. Skagit County prosecuting attorney Rich Weyrich called it a “callous act” that Rivas admitted to that night, while Rivas’ lawyer said it was possible one of the teenagers with Rivas at the time fired the fateful shot.
Weyrich called the evening a “night of terror” that “tested the will and the training of all these officers.”
Police were at Rivas’ home in the 800 block of North LaVenture Road investigating a separate shooting that had occurred about 5:30 p.m., Weyrich said.
As a K-9 unit narrowed in on Rivas’ home, Rivas listened to police traffic on the radio and turned on his surveillance system to monitor as officers approached his home, Weyrich said.
At 7:12 p.m., Rivas sent a message on Facebook that read, “I’m going 2 shoot it out with the cops,” Weyrich said.
At 7:27 p.m., prosecutors assert, Rivas pulled the trigger from behind a wooden door, striking McClaughry in the head. Even as officers attempted to pull the wounded McClaughry to safety, Rivas kept firing, Weyrich said.
“What is clear from the video and the sound is that there was gunfire coming from the house as they tried to rescue their fellow officer McClaughry and pull him to safety,” he said. “Ernesto Rivas fired those shots.”
At 7:44 p.m., Weyrich said, Rivas sent another Facebook message stating: “I just shot a cop.”
Rivas called 911 dispatchers moments after McClaughry was shot, and between that call and conversations with Skagit County crisis negotiators, jurors should have no doubt that Rivas was the man who pulled the trigger, Weyrich said.
“At no time did he ever deny being the shooter,” Weyrich said.
Weyrich said a statement Rivas made to Skagit County sheriff’s deputy Brad Holmes was also a testament to his guilt.
“‘Did I shoot him in the head or did I shoot him in the chest?'” Weyrich quoted Rivas as saying. “Does that sound like someone who didn’t pull the trigger?”
Jurors also heard a snippet from a recorded statement Rivas made to investigators after his arrest in which he said he “freaked out” and “strapped up, got ready to fight.”
“I had too much (expletive) in my house I wasn’t supposed to have,” Rivas said. “Guns, bulletproof vests, ammo …”
Another key question facing jurors is whether Rivas gave 16-year-old Austin Gonzales a gun that was used to shoot a man earlier that evening.
“(Gonzales) certainly wasn’t the mastermind of this whole plan,” Weyrich said of the teenager. “He’s a perfect individual to be exploited.”
Prosecutors have argued that Gonzales and that first shooting victim had a quarrel, and that the victim had taken and shared photos of Rivas talking to a deputy. Rivas’ desire for revenge coincided with Gonzales’ desire to prove himself, prosecutors asserted.
“They sent photos of the ‘Original Gangster,’ at least in their mind, snitching to the cops,” Weyrich said. “He had to pay.”
In her closing statement, defense lawyer Tammy Candler hung a family photo of Rivas and his children as well as one of Rivas smiling with Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau on election night.
On the white board, she had written one phrase: “The strongest human instinct is self-preservation.”
“Ernesto Rivas was not planning on spending his evening like this,” Candler said. “This was a normal night in the life of Ernesto Rivas when this nightmare came banging on his door.”
Throughout the trial, Rivas’ defense team has contended that Rivas did not give either Gonzales or 15-year-old Roberto Lopez Jr. the gun used in the first shooting. Instead, they argued, the boys acted of their own accord and then went to Rivas’ home in an attempt to keep the police away from Gonzales’ home next door.
“Mr. Rivas did not respond the way you or I would,” Candler said. “Mr. Rivas did not have the life you or I had.”
Born into a gang family and surrounded by violence, that was all he knew, Candler said.
Especially as officers surrounded his home, Rivas felt trapped and returned fire out of fear, she said.
“He is actively being shot at,” Candler said.
She also asserted that one of the boys could have fired the bullet that injured McClaughry. While Rivas admitting to being “involved” in the shooting, that isn’t proof he pulled the trigger, she said.
Candler called into question the credibility of Lopez, now 17, who testified earlier in the trial.
In January 2017, Lopez was sentenced to six months in a juvenile detention facility after pleading guilty to second-degree assault with a deadly weapon, with which he had been charged as an adult. That plea was contingent upon him testifying against Rivas, Candler said.
In tapes heard by jurors, Rivas can be heard saying he didn’t want to go back to prison — so, Candler asked, why would he engage in a shootout with police?
“That was an indication that this was not his plan for the evening,” she said.
The jury of 15 people was narrowed down Tuesday to 12 — four men and eight women — who are deliberating on the charges.