February 28, 2012 in City

Prosecutors say officer was justified

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A Colville police officer was justified when he shot and killed a 21-year-old car-prowling suspect who investigators say was armed with a stolen gun last November, prosecutors have concluded.

Officer Dan Spring feared for his life when Sean Bergstrasser grabbed a stolen gun in a motel room Nov. 12, and his use of deadly force to stop the threat posed by Bergstrasser was legal, Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen and Deputy Prosecutor Mathew Enzler concluded.

Andy Hydorn, president of the Colville Chamber of Commerce and owner of Benny’s Colville Inn, was in the motel room and watched Spring fire six shots at Bergstrasser after Bergstrasser picked up a firearm and pointed it toward the officer “as if to fire the weapon,” according to a report released Monday by the Stevens County Prosecutor’s Office.

Bergstrasser stole the gun from Hydorn’s pickup earlier that day, investigators say.

“A reasonable officer in the same position as Officer Spring would have believed that Sean Bergstrasser presented a threat of serious physical harm to himself and/or Mr. Hydorn,” according to the report.

Spring was investigating reports that Bergstrasser, a transient from Wasco, Calif., had paid for a room at the inn, 915 S. Main St., with 50-cent pieces stolen from Hydorn’s truck, which was parked in the front lot of the hotel, when he fatally shot the suspect.

Bergstrasser’s family said reports that he was armed with a firearm are difficult to believe.

“He’s shoplifted, but he’s never used a weapon of any kind to threaten anyone,” said his father, Mark Bergstrasser, of Wasco.

But Hydorn and Spring told investigators that Sean Bergstrasser grabbed a .40-caliber Ruger pistol off a hotel bed with both hands after it fell from a backpack he’d emptied onto the bed, then continued to struggle after he was shot.

Hydorn and Spring say Bergstrasser invited them to enter his second floor room after Spring responded to a vehicle-prowling report at the hotel about 11:35 p.m. Nov. 12, according to the report.

Hydorn did not return a phone call from The Spokesman-Review seeking comment.

Bergstrasser had pleaded guilty Nov. 1 to possession of stolen property after being arrested on suspicion of car prowling.

Investigators assigned to Spokane County’s multiagency critical incident team, which investigates officer-involved shootings, said friends and acquaintances of Bergstrasser said he was acting “out of his normal character” for weeks up to his death, but prosecutors say the reasons for his behavior “remain speculative and without sufficient basis to draw any legal conclusions.”

Mark Bergstrasser said what they’ve learned since their son’s death has left them with more questions than answers. His medical reports show he had HIV and hepatitis C. His family has no idea where or when he contracted the viruses, or whether he even knew he had them. They also question claims that he’d been acting out of character. Mark Bergstrasser talked to his son the night before he died.

“He wasn’t downbeat at all,” Bergstrasser said. “He was telling me he was staying at a hotel, he was warm and everything was good.”

Sean Bergstrasser denied prowling vehicles when confronted by Hydorn and Spring. He gave them permission to search his room for items stolen from Hydorn’s truck and agreed to open the backpack after Hydorn retrieved it from the bathroom. Bergstrasser and Hydorn were standing next to each other just outside the bathroom, near the bed, when the gun fell on the bed and Spring told Bergstrasser to back away.

“Bergstrasser looked at Spring, then looked at the firearm, then reached for the firearm,” according to the report from prosecutors. “Bergstrasser picked up the pistol with both hands and brought the gun up towards Officer Spring as if to fire the weapon.”

Prosecutors said Bergstrasser’s actions were “reasonably construed as threatening serious physical harm,” according to the report. Prosecutors said Spring “had no other reasonable choice” than to shoot Bergstrasser.

Hydorn fled the room after Spring fired six rounds at Bergstrasser, who fell backward into the bathtub. Spring said Bergstrasser tried to get up despite commands to stay down. Spring said he didn’t know where the stolen pistol was at the time, and he radioed for help as he pinned Bergstrasser down. Hydorn said he feared Spring was in danger, so he came back in the room and saw him holding Bergstrasser in the bathtub. Hydorn told investigators the gun was in the bathroom sink, with the hammer cocked back. He said the gun was not cocked when he saw Bergstrasser dump it onto the bed.

Mark Bergstrasser questions how his son, who is left-handed, could have placed the gun in the sink on the right side of the room after being shot and falling into the bathtub.

Bergstrasser, who graduated from Wasco High School in 2008, moved to Washington last year to be close to his brother, who was stationed with the Army at Fort Lewis. He joined a job corps program that brought him to Eastern Washington, but he was kicked out and moved to the Colville area and was living what his father described as a transient lifestyle.


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