Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is frustrated and caught off-guard by the public reaction to the decision to allow Deputy Brian Hirzel to leave for vacation just hours after he shot and killed a Spokane Valley pastor late last month.
Knezovich acknowledges that everything with his department ultimately is his responsibility. But he believes he’s been unfairly portrayed in the decision to allow Hirzel to leave town before explaining the encounter that resulted in the death of 74-year-old Wayne Scott Creach.
Hirzel “was already on vacation when I found out he was on vacation,” Knezovich said. “How do I un-ring that bell? I could have said bring him back in. But I would have just countermanded everything that the (investigative) team had done. That was not my role in the investigation. My role was to stay out of it and not influence it.”
Hirzel told investigators he fired on Creach after the older man refused an order to get on the ground, and instead reached for his gun in the waistband of his pants. The interview that revealed those details didn’t come until Friday, after Hirzel returned from Las Vegas, more than a week after the shooting.
Knezovich said he spent the day after the Aug. 25 shooting traveling to Spokane from Philadelphia. The next morning, Aug. 27, he received an in-depth briefing about the shooting at Creach’s nursery business, at 14208 E. Fourth Ave.
At the briefing, Knezovich said he first learned that a team in charge of the investigation had allowed Hirzel to leave the day after the shooting to visit his mother in Montana.
The team included troopers from the Washington State Patrol, midlevel sheriff’s office supervisors and detectives from the Spokane Police Department – who are heading up the probe as part of an agreement between local law enforcement officials to avoid investigating officers from their own agencies.
Later that same day, Knezovich publicly offered condolences to the Creach family and vowed that the shooting would receive a complete investigation.
“Even at that time, (investigators) were talking about getting the interview done before (Hirzel) went on his second leg of the vacation,” he said.
Then on Aug. 30, Spokane Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe responded to a question about when Hirzel would be interviewed by saying that he had not been made available by the sheriff’s office.
Knezovich only then discovered the investigative team allowed Hirzel to travel on to Las Vegas before providing the interview.
Asked if he has since spoken to his midlevel managers about that call, Knezovich replied: “It’s safe to say that decision won’t be made again any time soon.”
Knezovich wouldn’t name those responsible. “It was a group decision. I don’t know who all was in play. I’d hate to mention the wrong person and ruin a career. I’m not into that.”
Alan Creach, son of the slain pastor, said much has been said about the decision to allow Hirzel to go on vacation. But he wants to know what kind of person would continue with vacation plans after such a traumatic event.
“I think we need to look at the mentality of a man who could do that and then go to Las Vegas on top of it,” Creach said. “To me, after something as grave as that, I couldn’t have taken that vacation. I would have thought that will reflect poorly on everybody, including myself. I have just taken from this family and for me to do that would be heartless and cruel.”
Knezovich was reluctant to comment on Hirzel’s decision to continue with his vacation.
“The decision was made and it’s a decision that he is going to have to deal with. When you go through something traumatic, sometimes you are not thinking as clearly,” he said. “Going to visit your mom, I have no issues with that part. As a matter of fact, you would probably want to go visit your mom.”
And the Las Vegas leg of the trip? “Again, that was Brian’s decision. I don’t want to judge it one way or another.”
Knezovich acknowledged that the decision by others in his office hasn’t helped his reputation.
“Let’s face it, being at the top, the buck stops here,” he said. “I hope that people understand that … I regret that the decision was made the way it was. I’m happy the truth is coming out about that. I wasn’t just a sheriff who was, carte blanche, letting (Hirzel) go on vacation because that’s not what happened.”