The three Clark County officers who shot Kevin Peterson Jr. recalled a chaotic scene to investigators in the moments before they killed the 21-year-old.
A marriage and friendship linking independent investigators to the agencies involved played a role and slowed early efforts.
And detectives have tried to execute search warrants for cloud storage in an effort to retrieve cellphone footage of Peterson shortly before his death.
Those are some of the revelations now public after independent investigators in Cowlitz County completed the investigation into Peterson’s death.
On Friday, the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office released 484 pages of the investigation to OPB, through a public records request. Attorneys for Peterson’s family are already raising questions about officers’ statements in the documents.
Those documents — which are only an installment of the entire investigation — include previously unreported details from officers and reveal some of the investigation’s inner workings.
In the weeks since Peterson’s Oct. 29 death in a botched drug sting just north of Vancouver, details of the investigation have been released in slow-drip fashion. Contradictions early on have also frustrated many in the public’s sense that the investigation is as independent as advertised.
The next step is for the case to be criminally reviewed to determine if the shooting was justified. The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will review.
Robert Anderson, the first of the three officers who shot Peterson, was among the officers who initiated contact with Peterson during the sting, the documents show.
According to the investigation, Anderson rode in one of the vehicles that first parked behind Peterson’s car as a regional drug task force, acting on a tip from a criminal informant, waited to arrest him for selling Xanax in a budget hotel parking lot.
When Peterson arrived at the hotel, Anderson and another officer blocked his dark blue Mercedes-Benz. The officers turned on their lights and approached the car. The other officer yelled for Peterson to show his hands, the documents stated, then said “he is reaching for something.”
Anderson told investigators he “remembered hearing the urgency in (the other officer’s) voice,” investigators said. “Det. Anderson stated he believed the suspect was reaching for a weapon.”
Peterson fled. He carried a .40 caliber Glock registered to a cousin. He ran around the hotel property, along a tree line, past a car lot and into the parking lot of a shuttered U.S. Bank building.
Anderson, meanwhile, got back in his vehicle, documents show. He pulled around to the bank parking lot and encountered Peterson as he walked south. Anderson told investigators that he called out to Peterson: “Don’t move, show me your hands.”
“Anderson indicated the suspect had every opportunity to get rid of the gun but didn’t,” investigators said. “Det. Anderson said he gave repeated verbal commands to the suspect, ‘drop the gun, drop the gun or I’ll shoot.’”
Det. Jeremy Brown and Deputy Jon Feller, the other two officers who shot, arrived soon after. Brown said Peterson carried a cellphone and told investigators it appeared Peterson was “livestreaming” the officers.
Feller recalled Peterson holding one hand up to his left ear and holding a gun in his right hand, the documents show. All three officers report telling Peterson to drop the gun.
Peterson eventually turned around — heading north. Video of the incident previously released by police shows Peterson running away from officers. Anderson told investigators that “it appeared to him the suspect was not going to give up and he was going to shoot it out with the police.”
Anderson said he was “concerned the suspect was going to run north into the containment officers on the other side of the bank and shoot one of them.”
Ultimately, Anderson fired his weapon. Neither Brown nor Feller knew exactly where the shooting was coming from at first, investigators said.
“Det. Brown said after a few moments he starts hearing shots to the South (right) of him but wasn’t sure where they were coming from,” investigators said. “He said he noticed the suspect continued to travel north and nothing seemed to be affecting him.”
Likewise, Feller “could hear gunshots to his right but didn’t know who was shooting,” investigators said.
Feller also appears to have fired his gun as Peterson ran north away from the officers’ direction, investigators wrote. Feller’s statements about those key moments appeared to be contradicted by footage investigators released on Nov. 25.
The footage at the U.S. Bank building shows Peterson running northbound, never turning until he collapses to the ground. Feller described a different scene to investigators.
“Deputy Feller said as the suspect was running northbound, he did not respond to verbal commands. (He) said the suspect turned to face him and pointed the gun directly at him,” investigators said. “… Deputy Feller discharged his weapon firing at the suspect. He said the suspect turned away from him and started walking North again before sitting down. (Feller) said the suspect laid on his back.”
Lara Herrmann, of Herrmann Law Group which represents the family, specifically doubted Feller’s account.
“Deputy Feller claims Kevin turned around while he was running away and pointed a gun at him, but the video we’ve seen shows that to be a lie,” Herrmann said. “Just like when the Sheriff claimed Kevin fired at officers. Not true.”
In the initial hours after the shooting, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins told the public Peterson had shot at officers. Investigators later said there was no evidence Peterson’s pistol was fired.
Footage shows Peterson fell to the ground as he was running. He then sat back up and extended his arm, which investigators said was when he pointed a gun. According to investigators, Brown said Peterson “blatantly, quickly points the gun at me.”
Officers reportedly fired 34 shots in the total encounter, investigators said, four of which struck Peterson. Preliminary reports in the documents say bullets hit Peterson twice in the upper right chest, once in the upper left arm and one bullet went through his neck.
Officers then restrained Peterson before administering first aid, police told investigators. Responding police could hear a female crying on Peterson’s phone, documents show, but the screen was dark.
Then a deputy turned off the phone and took it as evidence.
Doubting the official narrative
The accounts come as sparse audio and video footage of the incident have been made public.
Neither the Clark County Sheriff’s Office nor the Vancouver Police Department, the two most prominent agencies in the regional drug task force, utilize body cameras or dashboard cameras.
Adding to tensions over the police account is the disputed account that Peterson shot a gun.
Investigators say, Anderson, the officer who first shot at Peterson, radioed immediately after the incident that Peterson “got off two shots in our direction” during the shooting — a claim later debunked by independent investigators.
Anderson told investigators he “saw the suspect pointing his weapon in the direction of Det. Brown while simultaneously hearing a ‘pop’ leading him to believe the suspect was shooting,” the documents show.
The seemingly incorrect information was also relayed by drug task force supervisor, Sgt. Bill Sofianos, who said he told Peterson’s parents at the scene that night their son had fired a gun at deputies.
An attorney for Peterson’s family told OPB they believe there may be more footage that hasn’t been released. Mark Lindquist said the family has requested more camera footage from both investigators and from U.S. Bank.
Olivia Selto, the mother of Peterson’s child, was reportedly the person whom Peterson called and was on the phone with during the fatal encounter, documents show. The documents say investigators asked for any video she may have, but she hasn’t given that video to police. Investigators have tried to get the footage anyway.
“With Peterson’s girlfriend not cooperating and Peterson’s iPhone 11 being locked, I directed Det. McNeal to author search warrants for their iCloud accounts, as data from the devices, could be backed up to iCloud,” investigators wrote.
Early perceived conflicts
The independent investigation also struggled with conflicts of interest at the outset. A Camas Police Department captain initially led the investigation but is married to a Clark County Sheriff’s Office sergeant.
A Battle Ground Police Department Detective also had “a prior work and personal relationship with someone from the involved agency,” the documents show.
According to conflict-of-interest statements obtained by OPB, the Camas police captain answered “no” when asked at the start of the investigation if she had a romantic relationship with any involved person in this investigation, their family member or a close acquaintance.
Likewise, the Battle Ground detective answered “no” when asked if he had an identifiable work-related relationship with any involved person in this investigation, their family member or a close acquaintance.
Neither relationship involved deputies who shot Peterson. According to Troy Brightbill, of the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office, neither officer considered those relationships a conflict. Records show the forms were approved by a community member tasked with being the non-law enforcement representative in the case.
Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik still asked the investigation to be led by law enforcement agencies in Cowlitz County to remove any perceived conflict of interest.
“It was a discussion with commanders,” Golik told OPB at the time. “Basically a discussion that, in my opinion — my continuing opinion on these — is the more independence the better.”
Brightbill said it wouldn’t be easy, documents show.
“I noted the challenges presented by changing the team commander and lead investigator on the fifth day of a major investigation,” he wrote. “But agreed to assist at the request of (Cowlitz County Sheriff Brad Thurman).”
By Nov. 2, no one had scheduled interviews with the three officers who shot at Peterson, Brightbill said. One deputy had intended to use a guild attorney later switched to a different lawyer, stalling the interview process until investigators could get a response from the deputy’s new attorney.
Brown was interviewed Nov. 5, Anderson Nov. 6 and Feller on Nov. 9 — 11 days after the shooting.
Early in the investigation, Brightbill told a Clark County prosecutor that he “expressed the importance of getting these interviews done as soon as possible.” He echoed that in an email on Nov. 25 to OPB.
“I’ll have to refer you to the deputies’ attorneys regarding the delay in scheduling interviews,” he said. “We wanted those interviews to occur sooner, but those were the earliest dates they were available.”