Police radio problems led to chaotic scene when officers killed Portland activist

By Conrad Wilson (OPB), Ryan Haas (OPB) and Troy Brynelson (OPB)
April 7, 2021 1:29 p.m.

Officers involved in the Sept. 3 shooting of a Portland activist described a tense atmosphere and a chaotic scene caused by communication problems, according to investigation documents newly released Tuesday.

In reports written after the shooting, the officers said they were warned by their superiors that Michael Forest Reinoehl, 48, was armed, and a friend had allegedly told police Reinoehl would not be “taken alive.”

A man in a zippered blue jacket and knit hat looks into the camera.

Michael Reinoehl said he acted to defend another person when he shot and killed Aaron “Jay” Danielson at a pro-Trump rally in Portland.

Screenshot obtained by OPB/ProPublica

Several task force members said they experienced problems with their radios that made it difficult to coordinate in the moments leading up to the shooting.

None of the officer reports released Tuesday by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the killing, describe Reinoehl firing or pointing a weapon at officers before he was shot and killed, though investigators have previously told the public he did. Several officers did report seeing Reinoehl reaching for his waist as he was being shot. Investigators recovered a handgun from his pants pocket.

The statements released Tuesday, some of which are not dated, are the first time officers with the Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force have shared their version of what occurred. Officers were not equipped with body cameras.

The task force was assembled on Sept. 3 by U.S. Marshal Ryan Kimmel, who had received a tip from law enforcement in Oregon that Reinoehl was hiding at an apartment in Lacey, Washington. It was made up of officers from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, the Washington Department of Corrections and the Lakewood Police Department.

Reinoehl was a wanted fugitive in the shooting death of Aaron “Jay” Danielson, 39, following a pro-Trump vehicle rally in Portland on Aug. 29. A judge signed an arrest warrant for Reinoehl a few hours before his death.

During one task force briefing, hours before they attempted to apprehend Reinoehl, members of the team saw a PowerPoint presentation that noted Reinoehl had several firearms and that he “thinks he is at war with the police,” records show.

After a summer of racial justice protests and political violence, Reinoehl’s killing of Danielson garnered national attention. Reinoehl had described himself on social media as an antifascist and had taken to showing up at protests to, as he described it, provide security.

Officers on the fugitive task force were keenly aware of the political strife, they told investigators. Several noted Reinoehl had described himself as “100% Antifa.” And some of the officers who shot and killed Reinoehl told investigators they blamed antifa for violence.

“Antifa is known for its violence and hatred towards police,” wrote Michael Merrill, a city of Lakewood police officer who drove one of the two cars that first confronted Reinoehl. “We were aware of ongoing riots in various cities, including Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, where violence and demonstrations against police were being conducted in the name of Antifa.”

Protests at the time were largely focused on racism in policing, and excessive force used by police officers.

At one of two briefings on Sept. 3 task force members attended, officers were told Reinoehl was armed with a handgun, an AR-22 rifle and a shotgun. After the shooting, police recovered a rifle with the serial number removed and a .380 caliber handgun from Reinoehl’s vehicle and pocket, respectively.

“The person providing the information claimed Reinoehl had stated that he would not (be) ‘taken alive,’” said Jared Whitehurst, a Washington state corrections officer on the task force.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Erik Clarkson gathered the task force that afternoon and went over a plan to arrest Reinoehl. Officers at that meeting reported they had hoped to capture him when he was not in a vehicle.

The apartment in Lacey, Washington where police say Michael Forest Reinoehl stayed before he killed by police.

The apartment in Lacey, Washington where police say Michael Forest Reinoehl stayed before he killed by police.

Conrad Wilson / OPB

Around 6 p.m., deputies positioned themselves in various unmarked vehicles around the area of the apartment complex in Lacey, where an FBI agent on the scene had said Reinoehl was staying.

In their statements, officers said that radio issues quickly hampered their ability to communicate.

“Almost immediately it became apparent that our communications were not effective,” said Pierce County Det. Jesse Hotz. “The communications were broken and unreadable between the mobile arrest team and the deputies and other agents in the area of this operation.”

Merrill said his Lakewood Police Department radio did not work on the frequency chosen by the task force, so they decided to use Pierce County Deputy James Oleole’s.

In their reports, both Merrill and Oleole said they struggled to get reception on the radio to communicate with others on the task force.

Around 6:40 p.m., the officers reported seeing three people outside the apartment where they believed Reinoehl was staying. A short time later, they said they saw another person exit the building that fit the description of Reinoehl.

Several officers wrote in their reports that they observed Reinoehl exit the apartment and walk toward his car, a silver Volkswagen Jetta wagon, carrying black bags.

Whitehurst told investigators he believed the bags were used to carry firearms.

“As the subject got to his vehicle, he opened the driver’s side door and got into the driver’s seat,” Oleole wrote in his report. “I again advised everyone on the radio what was occurring and advised them this would be a good time to take the car and the subject.”

Oleole said his radio troubles continued and he did not hear a response from the other officers.

Clarkson told investigators he was parked down the street where he couldn’t see the apartment or officers. He reported hearing Oleole over the radio.

“I put over the radio to let (Reinoehl) drive if no one was close enough to interdict him,” Clarkson told investigators in a written statement. “The radio transmissions were not clear due to equipment issues but I heard what I believed to be notification that they were moving on the suspect.”


Dispatch records show Clarkson sent his call over the radio at 6:52 p.m.

Unable to hear a response over their radio, Oleole and Merrill made the decision to block Reinoehl’s vehicle.

“Oleole and Merrill accelerated their vehicle and I followed,” Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Craig Gocha told investigators. “There were no lights and sirens activated that I noticed or heard.”

Oleole said as they sped to block the front of Reinoehl’s vehicle, he could not see Reinoehl’s hands. Oleole had his rifle drawn and opened the door as the vehicle closed in on Reinoehl. Oleole said he loudly yelled “police” out the ajar door, as he readied his weapon in the still-moving SUV. Gocha said he also yelled, “Police, stop or I’ll shoot” as he was getting out of his vehicle.

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.

Oleole said he believed Reinoehl was reaching for something in the car, so he shot.

“I fired my rifle through the front windshield of our vehicle towards Reinoehl…I did not see any reaction to the gunshots while he was sitting in the car and I continued to fire several shots at the suspect through the windshield,” he wrote in his report.

Officer James Oleole shot rounds through the passenger side windshield of an unmarked police vehicle during the confrontation with Michael Reinoehl near Olympia, Washington on Sept. 3, 2020.

Officer James Oleole shot rounds through the passenger side windshield of an unmarked police vehicle during the confrontation with Michael Reinoehl near Olympia, Washington on Sept. 3, 2020.

Thurston County Sheriff's Office

In the moment he parked the vehicle, Merrill said he also saw Reinoehl reaching inside his car and thought he saw an object in his hand, possibly a firearm.

“I momentarily looked down to put the SUV into park when I began hearing multiple gunshots,” Merrill wrote. “I was almost simultaneously struck in the face with shards of glass from the windshield of my car … I thought we were being shot at and I needed to get out of the vehicle.”

Merrill said he quickly realized Oleole was firing his rifle at Reinoehl through the front windshield. Merrill also drew his rifle as he exited the Ford Escape they were driving. He then began shooting too.

Clarkson told investigators he heard “what sounded like Deputy Oleole over the radio say ‘shots fired.’ We all immediately converged on the location.” Dispatch records show the call from Oleole came at 6:53 p.m. — a minute and 20 seconds after Clarkson had told his team to let Reinoehl go if they weren’t in a position to arrest him.

Oleole said he saw Reinoehl stumble out of his car after the shooting started and begin reaching toward his waist as he moved toward the back of the car. Oleole said he heard more gunfire from other officers, and he was “afraid that this suspect was trying to retrieve a weapon.”

“I continued firing until Reinoehl fell to the ground face down with both of his hands under his body,” Oleole wrote. “I stopped firing … It was now obvious that Reinoehl was hit from the gunfire as there was blood coming from his body and on the ground, but we did not know if he was still awake and ready to fight.”

Gocha was also shooting at Reinoehl both when he was inside the Jetta, and when he exited the vehicle.

“He continued his movements, and I continued firing,” Gocha wrote. He also said he had to perform a “full emergency reload” during the shooting.

Whitehurst said he turned on his police lights and heard “clear” commands from officers identifying themselves and telling Reinoehl to show his hands.

“Though my vehicle window was up, I clearly heard (task force) members loudly yell ‘Police, police, show me your hands!’” Whitehurst wrote in his report.

A police presentation released Tuesday, April 6, 2021 shows where law enforcement bullets struck a neighboring apartment as officers shot and killed Michael Reinoehl on Sept. 3, 2020 in Lacey, Washington.

A police presentation released Tuesday, April 6, 2021 shows where law enforcement bullets struck a neighboring apartment as officers shot and killed Michael Reinoehl on Sept. 3, 2020 in Lacey, Washington.

Thurston County Sheriff's Office

After the initial round of gunfire from Oleole and Gocha, Whitehurst said he stopped and stepped out of his vehicle. He drew his handgun. Then he saw Reinoehl exit his own car and start heading east.

“When Reinoehl was about even with the rear bumper of the Chevrolet pickup (parked behind Reinoehl’s Jetta), he fell down in the street,” Whitehurst told investigators. “When he fell, Reinoehl had his right hand in his right front pants pocket. It appeared he had a cell phone in his left hand and he was bleeding.”

Whitehurst told investigators he yelled “stay down” to Reinoehl, but Reinoehl allegedly stood up and faced him with his right hand still near his pocket.

“Fearing for my life, and the lives of my partners and civilians in the area, I raised my duty weapon to Reinoehl and fired two times,” Whitehurst said. “As I fired, I heard other gunshots over my right shoulder.”

The task force fired 40 shots in total. Gocha shot 18 times from his handgun, Oleole fired 13 or 14 shots from his rifle, Merrill fired six or seven rounds from a rifle, and Whitehurst shot twice from his handgun, documents state. Medical officials recovered three bullets that hit Reinoehl, two from Gocha and one from Merrill. Investigators said five bullets in total hit Reinoehl. Photos released Tuesday also show some of the police bullets hit nearby vehicles, went through backyard fences to homes, and one bullet went through the wall of a neighboring apartment.

A police presentation released Tuesday, April 6, 2021 shows where law enforcement bullets struck a neighboring apartment as officers shot and killed Michael Reinoehl on Sept. 3, 2020 in Lacey, Washington.

A police presentation released Tuesday, April 6, 2021 shows where law enforcement bullets struck a neighboring apartment as officers shot and killed Michael Reinoehl on Sept. 3, 2020 in Lacey, Washington.

Thurston County Sheriff's Office

The lead investigator in the case said last week that they believe Reinoehl fired a single shot from the handgun he was carrying, and then put the weapon back in his pocket before police killed him. Investigators recovered a bullet casing from the floor of Reinoehl’s vehicle that matched the handgun he was carrying when he died. Attorneys for Reinoehl’s family told OPB the investigator accounts “strain credulity,” and Tuesday’s statements from officers on scene and two witnesses do not corroborate the assertion that Reinoehl shot.

An 84-page document that appears to be a presentation of Thurston County’s investigation cites two members of the public who said they believed Reinoehl fired a weapon. However, it’s not clear from that presentation whether the witnesses knew Oleole was firing through the windshield of his own police vehicle.

The documents released Tuesday still do not provide the specific evidence law enforcement relied upon to publicly state on Sept. 17 — roughly two weeks after the shooting — that “Mr. Reinoehl pointed the handgun that he had in his possession at the officers at the time of the shooting.” No officer statements say Reinoehl pointed a weapon, and investigators have not released statements from two witnesses who said they believe Reinoehl shot first.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy John Munson said he was in a vehicle parked around the corner from the shooting, and arrived on the scene within seconds of hearing over his radio that shots had been fired. He said he was unclear how the shooting happened.

“As I was coming up, I noticed several citizens off to my right — they appeared to be coming out of the apartments toward us so I pointed my rifle in the direction of the people I saw in the area for a split second,” Munson wrote. “I didn’t know if any of them were involved or not.”

Several officers described police administering first aid to Reinoehl after he was shot, though it had no effect. Reinoehl also had at least one bullet wound to the head, according to one officer’s report. Dispatch records show Munson called for medical aid at 6:56 p.m.

The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office said it will continue to release documents in the case as it processes the investigation records for public release. The Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said it will determine by the end of May whether the shooting was justified.


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