Crash video from ‘Cops’ captured Spokane sheriff’s chase that spurred investigations and county settlement
Sat., Aug. 31, 2019
Austen Sullivan could write a book on his interactions with police.
The 24-year-old has about a dozen misdemeanor charges on his record, and two felonies – both from 2013, when he was 18.
He’s dealt with officers in times of drug-fueled crisis. And in quieter moments, such as driving without a license or speeding. Some officers know him by name. Others can tell you his address.
But nothing could have prepared him for a balmy August night in 2017, when a patrol cruiser driven by a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy clipped the back tire of his bicycle while he rode through a Spokane Valley neighborhood. The contact made the bike crash and sent Sullivan to the pavement, his head hitting hard.
When he awoke about a minute later, after being knocked unconscious, one of the first things he heard from deputies was the case against him, according to video taken that night by a “Cops” TV show camera crew. The Spokesman-Review obtained a copy through a public records request.
Deputies Thomas Wakem, Spencer Rassier and Sam Turner told Sullivan they spotted him weaving his bike in and out of both lanes of traffic on Barker Road near Jackson Drive, just north of the Spokane River.
And when Turner, in the lead car, turned on his emergency lights, Sullivan didn’t stop, the deputies said. Instead, he pedaled faster.
Maybe that’s true, Sullivan said he thought at the time. But the next part of Turner’s account never quite sat right.
“Why didn’t you just stop?” Turner asked Sullivan, who by this point was sitting on the hood of Turner’s patrol car, his head scraped and bleeding. “You stopped when you hit the ground. And you hit my car.”
Sullivan didn’t think he hit anyone’s car. He believed the opposite was true, and set out to prove it.
After the incident, he hired attorney Patrick Fannin and collected a copy of the “Cops” recording. Had the camera crew not been there, no video evidence of the encounter would exist. Deputy patrol vehicles are not outfitted with dashboard cameras, and deputies do not wear body cameras.
The video is the only photographic evidence captured that night.
“My understanding is it looked like the cop hit him,” Fannin said. “It’s what I considered a ‘million-dollar case.’ ”
Around the same time, an internal affairs investigation was started against Turner after Lt. Jay McNall of the sheriff’s office watched the video. The investigation alleged Turner lied in reports, lied to supervisors and used excessive force.
Rassier and Wakem were not subjects of internal affairs investigations, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said.
In May of this year Fannin and Sullivan accepted a payout from Spokane County Risk Management in exchange for agreeing not to file a lawsuit.
Sullivan said it was a hard decision: take the money, or try to clear his name. He wasn’t convinced a jury would take his side.
“It’s not as much as I wanted, but I took it,” Sullivan said. “They wanted to keep it under wraps. And I wasn’t trying to make a big stink out of it.”
‘I was trying to get off Barker’
It was about 10:40 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, and Sullivan, then 22, was pedaling his bike back to his grandmother’s house after buying cigarettes at a corner store.
Having been released from prison about two years earlier and still on parole, he wasn’t supposed to be drinking. And yet, he had several beers with his family earlier that night, he said. If his parole officer found out, it could mean going back to jail.
As he was about to turn east from Barker Road onto Jackson Drive, he said he noticed the distinct flash of red and blue behind him. Then he heard a car engine kick into gear and the quick “whoop” of a siren before it quickly cut out.
Not knowing what was going on, he said he started to turn off the street to get out of the way.
That’s about when Deputy Turner’s cruiser took a slight left turn, corrected back toward the right and collided with Sullivan’s back tire, throwing the bike out from under him to the right, the video appears to show.
The “Cops” video cameras begin rolling at the the tail end of the pursuit, just as the line of three patrol cars turn left onto Jackson Drive. About five seconds later, Sullivan is on the ground after connecting with Turner’s patrol car.
The three deputies rush from their cars, handguns drawn and yelling at Sullivan to “Get ‘em up now!” then to “Roll over!” Sullivan is unconscious.
Deputies Rassier and Turner immediately begin moving him to get his arms behind his back, which is when Rassier says, “Oh, he’s out.” As Turner stays with Sullivan, doing what’s called a “sternum rub” and lightly slapping him on the face to get him to wake up, Rassier moves the bicycle out of the way.
After a few moments, Sullivan begins to make moaning noises. About 30 seconds later, Turner asks Deputy Wakem to retrieve paper towels from his trunk, likely in an attempt to stop Sullivan’s left eyebrow from bleeding.
Turner asks Sullivan how much he had to drink.
“Nine beers,” Sullivan says, slurring his words. He then keeps repeating nonsensical words as he rests in Turner’s lap.
About two minutes into the video, Turner walks Sullivan to the hood of his patrol car. Sullivan said it was about then that he started to remember what happened.
Wakem and Rassier start to question Sullivan, about why he didn’t stop.
“You were taking off,” Rassier says. “I was watching it.”
Then Wakem tells him they “lit him up” on Barker, meaning they flashed their lights, and he didn’t stop. Rassier appears to make fun of Sullivan, saying “your little feet were pumping” while he mimes riding a bicycle.
Sullivan, meanwhile, is slurring his words. He notices a camera crew and says “get that camera out of my face.”
A few seconds later, Turner can be heard talking to another deputy about how Sullivan wouldn’t stop.
“So I gun up to get next to him,” he says. “Boom. Poof. (Expletive) hit my car, fell down and hit his head.”
Deputies Wakem and Rassier relay similar stories to Sullivan as they await paramedics. Wakem then makes small talk with Sullivan, reminiscing about an earlier encounter he and other deputies had with him.
Five minutes after the crash, and three minutes after Sullivan is seated on the hood, Turner tells Sullivan he’s under arrest for obstruction. After Sullivan waives his right to an attorney, Turner asks him why he didn’t stop.
Sullivan’s response isn’t clear on the video.
“You got up off the seat and you tried to pedal away from me,” Turner says.
“I was trying to get off Barker,” Sullivan responds.
“Why didn’t you just stop?” asks Turner. “There’s no traffic out there.”
“No you didn’t,” says Turner. “You stopped once you hit the ground. And you hit my car.”
“I did not hit your car,” Sullivan says.
“I came up next to you and you hit,” Turner says. “Right into me.”
“OK, I’m sorry,” Sullivan replies.
After medics spend 10 minutes checking Sullivan, he is loaded into the back of a cruiser and drivento the Spokane County Jail, where he is booked on suspicion of failing to obey an officer and obstructing an officer.
He pleaded guilty in April.
“I ended up taking a plea bargain on it,” Sullivan said. “ I didn’t trust the public defender to fight that thing.”
Investigation shows no fault, no violations
Eleven days after Sullivan’s arrest, Sgt. Tim Hines received a phone call from Lt. McNall, who was reviewing the incident. He said video taken by the camera crew seemed to contradict Turner’s account.
“I watched the beginning portion of the video numerous times and concluded it does appear that Deputy Turner’s patrol car swerved to the right and contacted Sullivan’s bicycle with the right front fender/pit bar before turning back to the left slightly before coming to a stop,” Hines wrote after being forwarded a copy of the video. “It appears the rear tire of the bicycle was pushed to the right causing the bicycle and rider to fall to the ground.”
Hines wrote that he reviewed Turner’s incident report, which said Turner pulled up to the left side of Sullivan’s bicycle in an attempt to “narrow his avenues of escape.”
At that moment, Turner reported that Sullivan “swerved to his left and rode his bicycle into the front right quarter panel of his patrol car causing him to fall to the ground.”
“Based on what I saw in the video and read in the incident reports, I shared Lt. McNall’s concern that the video evidence does appear to contradict Deputy Turner’s version of events,” Hines wrote.
Hines then contacted Sheriff Knezovich, who upon watching the video several times instructed Capt. John Nowels to initiate a criminal investigation. Nowels is now the department’s undersheriff.
The next day, Nowels met with Spokane police personnel, including Major Eric Olson, Sgt. Zach Stormen, Det. Cory Turman and Lt. Steve Wohl. They watched the video and started the criminal investigation.
Turner was put on paid leave.
Pictures, included in the trove of documents released by the sheriff’s office, show distinct tire marks on the patrol vehicle’s right front bumper where the bike’s rear tire collided.
Turman interviewed Sullivan, who said he couldn’t remember much from that night, other than waking up to the TV cameras in his face. When he was treated at the hospital, he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.16, according to records.
Turman asked Sullivan if he ran from the deputy’s emergency lights because he knew he wasn’t supposed to be drinking.
Sullivan said he wasn’t doing anything wrong when the patrol cars began following him . He then tells the detective he may have started to turn left to go home.
“Okay,” Turman says, according to the transcript. “So, you feel you were getting ready to turn left to go home?”
“Um, yeah,” Sullivan responds.
“Okay. Where did you think the police car was when you were getting to turn left?” asks Turman.
“I’m not sure,” Sullivan says. “I was just … it was behind me though, so …”
Police hired Jarrod Carter of Origin Forensics LLC, a collision reconstruction company, to analyze the video. Carter, in his findings delivered to investigators in a January 2018 letter, concluded the video was ambiguous.
He found fault rested with both parties.
“The video footage can be interpreted to indicate that Deputy Turner intended to impact the cyclist in order to stop the pursuit,” Carter wrote. “However, the video can also be interpreted to show that Deputy Turner was attempting to cutoff the cyclist’s escape but was so close that he was unable to react quickly enough to prevent a collision when the cyclist terminated a right steer.”
In his analysis, Carter watched the video frame by frame, his report indicates. He writes that 0.2 seconds before impact, Turner started to dial back his right steer input. And 0.5 seconds before impact, he started breaking and was “reacting in a very rapid fashion to the actions of the cyclist, Mr. Sullivan.”
“The cyclist, Mr. Sullivan, is first observed steering right, and then straightening out right before the impact,” Carter concludes.
An investigative report filed in February of 2018 says Spokane police findings were forwarded to the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office in January for review.
On Jan. 31, Deputy Prosecutor Mark Cipolla responded, saying his office was declining to prosecute.
“Based up on the statements made by the cyclist, the deputies and the accident reconstructionist it would [appear] the cyclist was at fault in this matter,” Cipolla wrote. “The deputies were acting within the purview of their jobs in attempting to stop the cyclist.”
When asked whether there was any concern the deputies may have lied, Knezovich said the case came down to competing narratives: from what they saw, Sullivan swerved into Turner’s car, not the other way around.
“The reports were based on their perception,” Knezovich said. “As you can see from the evidence, it’s all based on perspective.”
Knezovich reiterated that Turner’s mistake that night was being too close to Sullivan. Had he stayed farther back, which is what policy dictates he should have done, there wouldn’t have been a collision, said the sheriff.
“Anything split second, he wouldn’t be able to respond to that,” Knezovich said. “That’s why we’re here.”
Threat of a lawsuit derails
Sullivan said he wasn’t allowed to view the video before pleading guilty in April.
“If we had the video, then I would have gone to trial,” he said recently.
Sullivan had medical bills totaling $17,974. His list of injuries included cuts, scrapes and bruises to his face and shoulder. When he tried to return to work on Oct. 26, 2017, he had pain in his wrist, leading to a diagnosis of tendonitis.
Fannin said he was contacted immediately by a representative of the county’s Risk Management division, who relayed that the county was unwilling to budge from a $25,000 settlement.
“She had lots of talking points, but primarily, that the videotaped interview following the accident, there was discussion he was in violation of parole,” Fannin said, noting that the county would contend Sullivan was drunk and had reason to flee.
Fannin said the county referenced Carter’s analysis of the incident, saying it showed Sullivan was at fault. Fannin said he was never provided a copy of that analysis and has still not seen the full report.
Jared Webley, spokesman for the county, confirmed the settlement of $25,000 closed on May 22 of this year. Because it was under $50,000, it meant Risk Management could make the payout without consulting the county commissioners.
“Risk Management made the decision to settle this with the least amount of risk for the county,” Webley said. “They just made that decision to settle it.”
Now that the threat of litigation has passed, the case is likely to be scheduled for review by the sheriff’s office Citizen’s Advisory/Review Board, a panel of community members tasked with reviewing internal complaints and providing a list of suggestions to the sheriff.
Members could review the case as early as September.
While Sullivan said his goal was to expose the video to the world – he even contacted multiple media organizations shortly after the video was obtained by his lawyer – he also needed the money.
Fannin said Sullivan “changed his mind a gazillion times” before finally settling.
“It comes down to, do you want to go through a protracted litigation with no guarantees, or get out with the money?” Fannin said. “It was a very difficult decision for him.”
‘They’re supposed to be there to protect you’
Since that balmy night, Sullivan’s life has taken a sharp turn.
When he was 17, he was accused of raping his 15-year-old girlfriend the year before and of assaulting another girl. He’s now a registered sex offender for life, with a first-strike offense on his record.
Today, he has a loving girlfriend. And a child. A steady job. He said he no longer uses drugs.
Though his focus has shifted to his family, Sullivan acknowledges that night two years ago is never far from his mind. It’s led to lasting scars on his face and a grudge against law enforcement and authority.
“It doesn’t really change anything,” said Sullivan. “This just made me more wary against cops. They’re supposed to be there to protect you. When they’re in the wrong, they should be able to face up to it. And that’s not the case.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.