Attorneys for the family of a self-proclaimed anti-fascist protester who was gunned down by a federal task force outside Olympia last fall say the facts of the case as put forth by investigators “absolutely strain credulity.”
“The narrative that police are putting out just doesn’t make any sense,” said Fred Langer, a Seattle personal injury lawyer hired by the surviving family of Michael Forest Reinoehl, who was shot and killed on Sept. 3 by a U.S. Marshals task force.
Investigators haven’t released their full report, but on Wednesday the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office announced it had completed its review of the shooting, and turned it over to prosecutors for a final ruling on whether the killing was justified.
The sheriff’s office put out a two-page summary of findings that said, based on officer and witness statements, Reinoehl was reaching for a firearm in his possession. The sheriff’s office said Reinoehl “initiated” an exchange of gunfire with police, though investigators were not able to recover a bullet to confirm Reinoehl fired his weapon. Law enforcement recovered Reinoehl’s loaded .380 caliber handgun inside his right pants pocket, as well as a .380 shell casing from that same weapon in the backseat of his car.
When pressed Wednesday to clarify how the gun ended up in Reinoehl’s pocket after he allegedly shot it, investigators explained their theory was that he put the gun away as police were shooting at him.
“He was in his vehicle when he initially engaged and had made it out of his vehicle before he came to rest, but all within a matter of seconds,” said Lt. Cameron Simper, who managed the investigation for the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office.
The officers involved in the shooting were not wearing body cameras.
In an October investigation by OPB and ProPublica, several witnesses said they didn’t hear police identify themselves as they pulled up quickly in unmarked vehicles. Separately, The New York Times spoke to 21 people near the scene who did not hear the officers identify themselves or give commands before police opened fire.
“There was no ‘drop your weapon’ or ‘freeze’ or ‘police’ — no warning at all,” Garrett Louis, who witnessed part of the shooting, told OPB and ProPublica in October.
Yet Thurston County investigators said in their summary that “witness statements indicate that the Officers were readily identifiable based on their badges, vests and markings.” According to the sheriff’s office report, task force members said Reinoehl “failed to comply with instructions to surrender.”
“If they had said ‘hands up, surrender, we’re the police,’ I have every reason to believe my client would’ve done that,” said Lager, the family’s attorney.
Reinoehl, a 48-year-old Portlander, was wanted at the time of his death for the murder of Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a 39-year old, far-right demonstrator. The gun found on Reinoehl’s body matched the one used in Danielson’s slaying, investigators confirmed.
Both shootings garnered national attention during a remarkably tense week across the Northwest. Former President Donald Trump encouraged law enforcement to go after Reinoehl, whose killing was celebrated by then-Attorney General Bill Barr. Danielson’s slaying was a rare example of a killing by the member of the far left. The escalation of political violence culminated after a summer of racial justice protests in Portland that included a heavy response from police, federal authorities and later far right groups such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer.
The four officers who killed Reinoehl fired 40 rounds, said Simper, who oversaw the investigation.
“We were not able to find the actual round from (Reinoehl’s pistol) to definitively say, ‘absolutely’ that he fired from that car,” Simper told OPB earlier this week. “Based on our investigation, based on the witness statements, the casing in the car and officers’ statements, it is highly likely.”
Langer challenged Simper’s characterization as implausible.
“There is not one .380 caliber round found anywhere outside the car,” Langer said. “Not one.”
He added: “What could prove their case and make their position very strong, is if they could come up with a .380 (bullet) that matched his gun outside the car vehicle, and they have found none.”
Langer said there’s also no forensic evidence to suggest Reinoehl fired that day.
According to Simper, the passenger side window of Reinoehl’s VW was shot out. But he said detectives weren’t able to determine whether it was from incoming fire from police or an outgoing round from Reinoehl.
“To believe the police, my client would’ve had to be in his car, fired a shot … put his gun in his pocket and run away,” Langer said. “This is a case that cries out for investigation. What we have is police acting as judge, jury and executioner, all in one nanosecond.”
Five days after the shooting, Nate Dinguss, a witness, put out a statement stating officers never attempted to apprehend Reinoehl and didn’t make any commands before firing. Rather, he said, Reinoehl was walking to his car “chewing on a gummy worm” and carrying a cellphone when two vehicles pulled up “and began firing.” Dinguss said he never saw a gun or Reinoehl reach for anything, and that Reinoehl never got into his vehicle.
What Dinguss failed to mention in his statement was that Reinoehl had been staying with him. He has repeatedly declined OPB’s requests for an interview. Dinguss also declined to talk with Thurston County investigators, Simper said.
Last fall, Reinoehl’s son, Deaven Reinoehl, told OPB and ProPublica he was in regular communication with his father in the days between the shooting in Portland and his death outside an apartment complex in Lacey, Washington.
“He didn’t know where he was going,” Deaven Reinoehl saidl. “He had people helping him find these safe houses or whatever. That’s why he was in Lacey, but I don’t know anything about, like, those people or anything.”
Langer, who is representing the younger Reinoehl and other family members, said he’s looking forward to reading Thurston County’s full investigation and conducting his own review of the evidence. Based on the findings, he said, the family could pursue a wrongful death lawsuit.
On Friday, the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney’s office concluded it has the legal authority to review the investigation for any possible criminal charges. A spokeswoman for the agency said they expect to complete their review before the end of May.