The estate of a man shot and killed by a U.S. Marshals task force Sept. 3, 2020 is suing over his death, alleging the officers had no plan to arrest him without using deadly force.
Officers killed Michael Forest Reinoehl while attempting to arrest him in front of an apartment complex in Lacey, Washington, just outside of Olympia. Reinoehl, a self-described anti-fascist who had spent the summer of 2020 providing security for racial justice protesters in Portland, had been on the run for five days after he shot and killed far-right activist Aaron “Jay” Danielson in downtown Portland.
The warrant for his arrest had been issued hours before he was killed.
Reinoehl’s death sparked immediate controversy, both for its political context — then U.S. Attorney General William Barr said locating him was an “unmistakable demonstration that the United States will be governed by law, not violent mobs” — and because of the appearance of possible police negligence.
Official statements at the time claimed, alternatively, that Reinoehl had pointed a firearm at a deputy U.S. Marshal. Another claimed Reinoehl was in the process of pulling a firearm from his pocket when he was shot. Soon after the shooting, civilian witnesses told OPB and ProPublica the officers gave no warning, didn’t announce themselves, and rushed at Reinoehl in unmarked vehicles with no flashing lights.
Reinoehl has two children, Deaven Reinoehl, who was 18 when his father was killed, and a minor, identified in the lawsuit only as L.L.R.
The federal civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday names the United States, Washington state, Pierce County and the city of Lakewood. It also names the four officers who fired 40 rounds during the failed arrest attempt: Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputies James Oleole and Craig Gocha, Lakewood Police officer Michael Merrill and Washington State Department of Corrections Officer Jacob Whitehurst.
The four officers were federally deputized members of the U.S. Marshals Violent Offender Task Force based out of Tacoma. The lawsuit claims the planning and execution of the attempted arrest was sloppy from the start and points to flawed information provided to task force members during a briefing on the search for Reinoehl.
“Information provided during the briefing included the inaccurate, misleading, incomplete, and/or out of context information, such as the claim that Reinoehl considered himself to be at ‘war’ with police,” the complaint reads.
The complaint alleges that briefing left out critical context about Reinoehl’s state of mind. The briefing didn’t mention Reinoehl had received death threats from the far right, that he had claimed self defense in the Danielson shooting or that Danielson also had a gun when Reinoehl shot and killed him.
The briefing also failed to include a plan for how task force members planned to arrest Reinoehl and a comprehensive plan for how they would communicate with each other. That omission proved critical as officers experienced radio problems in the moments before shooting Reinoehl. The lawsuit says that should have been predictable, since they were about 30 miles from Tacoma in Thurston County but operating on Pierce County radio frequencies. Instead, the communications plan slide in the briefing lists only “???” for primary and alternate communications channels.
“Radio communications between the individual defendants were delayed, poor-quality, garbled, hampered by static, and/or otherwise inadequate and unreliable for purposes of communicating during the attempt to ‘take’ Reinoehl,” the lawsuit says, citing the Thurston County investigation into the shooting.
Pierce County, Lakewood Police, the Washington State Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshals Service all declined to comment on pending litigation.
The task force located Reinoehl based off a tip. After 45 minutes staking out the apartment where he was believed to be, Reinoehl walked outside and approached his Jetta parked out front.
The officers, split up among three cars, began issuing contradictory instructions over the garbled radio.
“At that point, the chain of command governing the individual Defendants, if there ever was any, broke down,” the complaint says.
One officer wanted to wait to arrest Reinoehl at a traffic stop. Based on records obtained by OPB, Oleole and Merrill made the decision to move in as Reinoehl reached his Jetta. According to the lawsuit, Oleole and Merrill accelerated toward the Jetta followed soon after by Gocha in a different car.
Oleole fired six rounds through his vehicle’s windshield at Reinoehl. Witnesses said the vehicles had no emergency lights on. The complaint says the witnesses thought they were caught in a road rage incident or gang shooting. Reinoehl, who believed his home had recently been shot at by far-right extremists, had no way of knowing who was firing at him on the street, the lawsuit claims.
One witness described the officers to OPB as “buff white men dressed in khakis and ballistic vests and armed with rifles,” and said they looked more like right-wing militia than law enforcement officers.
Attorneys representing the family said the officers claimed in their statements that Reinoehl’s “facial expression” demonstrated he knew they were police rather than right-wing vigilantes.
According to the Thurston County investigator who managed the case, Oleole, Merrill, Gocha and Whitehurst fired 40 rounds, hitting Reinoehl five times. Other police rounds hit nearby vehicles, went through backyard fences to homes, and one went through the wall of a neighboring apartment.
Investigators found a .380 -caliber casing inside Reinoehl’s car but investigators were never able to find a round or determine if he had fired his handgun. According to the investigation into the shooting, Reinoehl had a loaded .380 pistol in his right front pocket when he was killed.
The lawsuit says Reinoehl never pulled the pistol from his pocket and there was no round in the chamber, suggesting he never fired it. Thurston County investigators insist Reinoehl likely pulled the firearm from his pocket, fired one round, then put it back in his pocket in the span of about 15 seconds, while being fatally shot.
Reinoehl’s death, and Danielson’s before it, became political lightning rods in national politics as then-President Donald Trump was attempting to leverage anti-police sentiment in Portland to buttress his flagging poll numbers.
The night Reinoehl was killed, Trump took to Twitter to demand Portland police arrest the “cold blooded killer” of Jay Danielson. “Do your job, and do it fast,” he tweeted. A week later, Trump called the killing “retribution.”
In their written statements to investigators, the officers were aware of the political context and expressed bias against “antifa.”
“Antifa is known for its violence and hatred towards police,” Merrill wrote. “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.”
In a press release Tuesday, attorneys for the estate said that after killing Reinoehl, the involved officers were not segregated and had over 10 days to confer before any of them gave a statement.
U.S. Deputy Marshal Ryan Kimmel — who had received the tip about Reinoehl’s whereabouts and assembled the task force Sept. 3 — did not give a statement to Thurston County investigators despite multiple requests.
The lawsuit claims the officers violated Reinoehl’s Fourth Amendment rights protecting against unreasonable seizure. It claims the United States and Kimmel were negligent in failing to adequately plan and control the failed operation. By failing to de-escalate, firing from vehicles, failing to adopt standard of care policies and actively obstructing an investigation, the U.S. Marshals breached the standard of care reasonable law enforcement officers are required to use when arresting citizens, the complaint says.
The estate is asking for compensation for Reinoehl’s pre-death pain and suffering, the violation of his civil rights and emotional damages inflicted on his children.