The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office will not pursue charges against a bail bondsman who shot and killed a handcuffed suspect on a north Spokane street during a struggle.
A neighbor recorded a video of the violent Sept. 2 encounter that shows Christopher S. Smith, 42, attempting to grab the gun as bondsman Rodger N. Betschart, the owner of Ace’s Bail Bonds in Spokane, points it at him.
During the 60-second video, Betschart fires the gun into Smith’s torso multiple times as the two men fight near the intersection of Montgomery Avenue and Astor Street.
Smith’s family has posted the video online, set up a memorial and said he didn’t deserve to die.
Police and prosecutors said their investigation involved elements of Betschart using self-defense.
Just before the shooting, Betschart had handcuffed Smith for jumping bail on a residential burglary charge. That’s when a woman identified by Smith’s family as his girlfriend, Jennifer Aamold, pepper-sprayed Betschart.
The bondsman, who is then lying on the ground, fires his gun at the girlfriend as she runs away, the video shows. He misses.
Smith is then seen standing handcuffed above Betschart, who gets on his hands and knees. The video shows Smith apparently kicking the bondsman, who then rolls over onto his back and points his gun at Smith.
The two appear in the video, taken from about a half-block away, to be fighting for control of the gun when it goes off and strikes Smith, who then falls off of Betschart to the street. Betschart then gets up as Smith is writhing in the road. The two continue to fight until Betschart fires more bullets into Smith’s torso. Betschart took his final shot while kneeling over Smith, firing into Smith’s back as he was turning away.
Bailey Springer, who took the video and later shared it with Smith’s family and police, said on that day he heard something outside and ran to his window to observe. He saw Smith and Betschart wrestling. Springer said “the man put him in an arm-bar to put cuffs on” as Smith screamed for help.
Springer said he watched as Smith’s girlfriend came out and pepper-sprayed Betschart. At this point, Smith had both of his arms handcuffed in front of his body, he said. That’s when the video begins.
In the footage, Aamold is seen running toward the Astor Terrace apartments as a cloud of pepper spray hangs in the air. Betschart, who appears to be lying on the ground, points the gun toward her, and a shot is heard. Court documents specify that a bullet hole was also found in the front door of the apartment she lived in.
“It could’ve went differently,” Springer said of the incident. “He didn’t have to pull out his pistol.”
Court documents say Betschart attempted to use a stun gun on Smith at first, but a physical fight ensued, followed by the shooting.
A witness told police she heard Smith tell Betschart: “I am done, boss,” and “Help me, brother,” followed by two loud pops.
Other witnesses corroborated similar events.
Betschart was later detained by police, according to court records. He was wearing a duty belt with a firearm and holster, handcuff pouches a stun gun holster and a gold badge. He was also wearing a shirt that said “Bail Bond Recovery Agent” along with a dark-colored vest. Police took DNA swabs of Betschart and issued search warrants for some of his belongings, records show.
Betschart declined to make a statement to police at the time, according to search warrants.
Betschart denied wrongdoing when reached by phone and declined to answer questions. When The Spokesman-Review asked for clarification, he began yelling profanities. He also declined to comment again via email.
In Washington, bail bond agents loan money to someone who is accused of a crime in order to post bail, but it’s based on the assumption they will show up for all court appearances. If they don’t, the agent can seek them out and return them to court. These powers include forcing entry to apprehend someone without a warrant as long as they notify law enforcement with the basic information of the person and location.
Agents must also notify law enforcement if they shoot their gun while on duty, but the law doesn’t mention any guidelines determining deadly force.
The Spokane Police Department said on Monday that the Major Crimes Unit presented its investigation to the prosecutor’s office and no charges were filed.
The police department later added that investigators did not believe their findings met the threshold for probable cause to charge Betschart.
“After considering all available evidence, alongside applicable legal doctrine such as defenses, it was determined that criminal charges were not appropriate given the facts of the case,” said Julie Humphreys, a Spokane Police Department spokesperson.
Self-defense was one of the elements police considered when investigating the case, she said.
The prosecutor’s office agreed with police.
“My understanding was he was actively aggressive and attacking the bail bondsman … which falls under our self-defense statute,” said Preston McCollam, Spokane County deputy prosecutor in charge of criminal cases.
A memorial for Smith, who leaves behind four teenage children, remains on the sidewalk near the area of the shooting. A glass case with pictures of Smith on it is surrounded by mementos and candles, facing directly across the street from the Astor Terrace apartment he had just moved into.
His ex-sister in law, Breana Paaverud, said his family remains “traumatized every single day.”
She visits the memorial often to clean it up and remove leaves from the area. Recently, she discovered a letter left on the memorial by an apartment owner nearby. The owner asked if she would consider removing the tribute because they’re worried about it deterring new tenants from moving in.
“We are happy to have kept the space for you to grieve,” the letter says. “We were wondering if you would be willing to remove the memorial from this location by Sunday, November 26.”
Paaverud said she’s going to fight to keep it.
“This is all we have left of him,” she said as she pointed to the memorial.
Paaverud knew Smith since 2007. Since 2011, he was a part of her life nearly every day. When her mother figure died, Smith drove to California to provide comfort for her.
“No matter what, he could make anybody smile. He was a goofball. It could be the worst day of your life, and he’d just give you one look and you’d be happy,” Paaverud said.
“We just want justice. That’s all we want.”
Court documents show Smith was out on bail for allegedly going to an ex-girlfriend’s home, kicking in her door and taking her purse. A Spokane judge determined that it was likely Smith would not appear in court, so a bench warrant was issued on Aug. 18.
Paaverud wants someone to be held accountable for Smith’s death. And she wants to sue the Spokane Police Department.
“He didn’t deserve to lose his life,” she said.