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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Houseboat owner, gunshot victim sue Park Service rangers in Kettle Falls incident

Two men involved in a shooting by a National Park Service ranger near Kettle Falls, Washington, in 2013 have filed a lawsuit alleging excessive force.

Michael Sublie and Casey Hartinger could seek damages up to $6 million, according to their civil lawsuit.

The two men say they weren’t drunk the night of Sept. 14, 2013, when Ranger Matthew Phillipson, responding to a noise complaint at the Kettle River Campground, fired a single shot that struck Hartinger in the side. Sublie was charged with assaulting Phillipson’s partner, Ranger Joshua Wentz, during the exchange, but the lawsuit alleges Wentz was asked politely to step off the docked houseboat.

“This lawsuit is not too different from the numerous incidents we have all seen play out across the country with law enforcement personnel reacting excessively to minor offenses,” the pair’s attorney, Michael Franklin of the Spokane-based firm Lukins & Annis, said in a statement.

Sublie was charged with a felony, and a three-day trial was held in May 2014 that ended with a hung jury. Prosecutors alleged Sublie shoved Wentz off his boat, which was beached at the campground on the Columbia River a few miles northwest of the town of Kettle Falls.

But the lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Spokane, contends Sublie complied with all commands of the two rangers. Sublie also says he asked Wentz to step off his boat to avoid tracking mud on the deck.

“Mr. Sublie told Ranger Wentz that he had been asked nicely to get off his houseboat, that he did not have permission to come onto the boat, the music was turned off, and that he should step off the houseboat,” the lawsuit reads.

The rangers had arrived at the campground after 10 p.m., which are mandated park quiet hours. The lawsuit says Wentz stumbled after initiating the contact with Sublie that led to Wentz tripping.

Sublie was pepper-sprayed, and a Taser probe struck one of the houseboat’s windows, shattering it, according to the lawsuit. Phillipson heard a pop, according to court documents filed in the criminal case, and fired once. The bullet struck Hartinger who was seated in the houseboat’s cabin, the lawsuit says. He was treated for the wound and released from a Spokane hospital a few days later.

Contrary to the statements of federal prosecutors, Hartinger and Sublie’s attorneys say medical records show that “neither one had been consuming alcohol at all,” according to a news release.

Franklin said there had been a lot of “misinformation” in the case. He said Sublie requested a blood draw to prove he wasn’t intoxicated, but it was denied by federal authorities following his arrest.

The incident sparked protests in Colville by residents who alleged federal law enforcement overreach in the area. Hartinger was never criminally charged in the incident, and Wentz and Phillipson − who were never officially named by the Park Service in connection with the shooting − were transferred away from Kettle Falls, according to the lawsuit.

Sublie was fined $100, and an excessive noise charge against him was dismissed in December after he avoided other law violations for six months. A public records request revealed federal prosecutors spent $2,292 in paperwork costs to try the case, in addition to the travel costs and salary of the assistant U.S. attorney and a special agent with the Park Service who handled the case.

A phone call to a spokeswoman for the Kettle River Campground requesting comment on the lawsuit was not returned Wednesday.

The lawsuit does not give a specific dollar amount for damages sought by Sublie and Hartinger. Hartinger and Sublie had previously filed tort claims against the federal government totaling $6 million, according to a news release from their attorneys.

No court date has been set in the case. Both cases have been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Stanley Bastian.