Suspended Spokane police Officer Jay Olsen was acquitted of first-degree assault and reckless endangerment Friday for shooting Shonto Pete in the head and firing four other bullets in Peaceful Valley on Feb. 26, 2007.
An eight-man, four-woman jury delivered its verdict in the courtroom of Spokane County Superior Court Judge Jerome Leveque.
Because the jury determined the shooting was in self-defense, Olsen’s lawyer is entitled to seek payment of his legal fees from state taxpayers. Olsen will receive all his back pay according to civil service rules, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said.
Olsen had been on unpaid layoff status since his April 2007 arrest, but following Friday’s verdict he was placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal affairs investigation.
Olsen’s friends and family, including his police sergeant brother, 40-year-old Eric Olsen, wept as the verdict was read. Pete and his family walked out.
Several law enforcement officers, including Spokane police Officer Ronald G. Tille, pumped their arms in victory after the verdict. “You’re coming home,” they said to Olsen, who was breathing hard and trembling as he hugged his friends.
Extra security was called to create a buffer between Olsen and Pete in an effort to avoid a confrontation.
“I’d hate it if Shonto Pete tried to hurt Jay. I’d like to prevent that,” said uniformed SWAT team member Terry Preuninger after he’d shaken Olsen’s hand.
Olsen refused to talk to journalists assembled in the courthouse hallway, staying in the courtroom and deferring to his attorney, Rob Cossey.
“This trial was very intense. If (Olsen) had been convicted, he’d be facing a lot of years in prison,” Cossey said.
Asked if Olsen would return to his job as a swing-shift patrol officer in the Spokane Police Department, Cossey said he doubted it.
“He committed significant violations of department policy. I don’t think he’s getting his job back,” Cossey said. Those violations included getting drunk while off-duty in a local bar with a concealed weapon strapped to his waist, and chasing Pete but not calling 911 or police dispatch during the confrontation.
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz, who had accused Olsen during the trial of trying to kill Pete, said he was surprised by the verdict. Steinmetz declined to talk to jurors afterward, as did Cossey. Jurors also refused to talk to the press.
Pete assailed the verdict.
“Apparently you can shoot someone in the head and get away with it. You can act as reckless as you want if you’re a cop. It’s totally unfair that he was acquitted,” he said.
“It would have been different if he weren’t Native American. My brother didn’t get justice,” said Pete’s sister, Crystal Craft.
“This was a cover-up,” said Pete’s mother, Diana Cote, a poet and former photojournalist from Montana. “The judge wouldn’t let them hear my son was found not guilty of stealing Olsen’s truck, and they weren’t allowed to hear that he called a lawyer” instead of law enforcement after the shooting, Cote said.
“It’s really bad for the city. … I don’t feel safe here,” Cote added. She left town immediately after the verdict.
Uniformed sheriff’s deputies escorted Olsen and his supporters out a side emergency entrance to avoid Pete and his family in the main hallway. Pete chased them down the street to Cossey’s office on North Monroe Street, exchanging words with Olsen’s attorney.
The high-profile trial had overtones of racism and disparate treatment.
Pete, 29, was shot by a white police officer who Pete testified swore at him when he asked for a ride home after the bars closed and began to follow him in a truck while Pete fled on foot. Both men were drunk, according to court testimony.
Olsen and his friend Renee Main, who’d been drinking with Olsen at Dempsey’s, a downtown bar, said that Pete stole Olsen’s truck and that they gave chase in her car. Steinmetz told the jury in his closing statements that there was no proof of that.
A Spokane jury acquitted Pete of the theft charge in October 2007.
Pete was interviewed by detectives at the hospital shortly after the shooting, when he was drunk and under the influence of morphine as doctors removed a hollow-point bullet from his scalp.
Cossey rebuffed a request by police detectives to interview Olsen the night of the shooting because Olsen was drunk. Olsen wasn’t interviewed until two days later, with Cossey by his side, after he’d consulted his police guild representative.
Shortly after he’d shot Pete, Olsen made four calls to Main, two calls to attorney Mel Champagne and one call to the police guild officer who’d be representing his interests in an officer-involved shooting investigation.
Steinmetz stressed repeatedly that Olsen never called 911, police dispatch, or any responding police officers before or after he’d shot Pete.
Olsen testified that he avoided the first officer to respond to Peaceful Valley, Sgt. Joel Fertakis, because Fertakis had given him lukewarm performance reviews and had made anti-gay remarks.
Pete criticized Olsen’s “gay card” – his statement during the trial that he’s a closeted gay man who feared retaliation in a police department hostile to homosexuals.
Pete called the revelation “pathetic.”
“I could care less if he’s gay. He still shouldn’t be able to shoot people in the head,” Pete said.
Another wild card in the trial was the controversial testimony of Marvin D. Tucker, a police dispatch supervisor who appeared for the defense team.
Tucker said he’d answered a call from the Peaceful Valley resident who called 911 after a bleeding Pete appeared on his porch asking for help. Tucker testified that the “shooting victim” told him he’d gotten shot after stealing a truck, but that he didn’t ask the victim’s name.
The 911 tape Tucker referred to was erased and never produced in legal proceedings, although detectives investigating the case had asked for all recordings of the incident.
Jeff Holy, a retired police officer and a lawyer in Cossey’s office, said he heard about Tucker’s claim after Pete’s October 2007 trial and contacted Tucker late last year.
“I couldn’t believe the dispatcher comes up now … this guy needs to be investigated,” Pete said.