Documents from an internal Portland Police Bureau review into the shooting death of a man inside a Southeast Portland homeless shelter last month show John Elifritz was cutting himself with a knife, ignoring police commands and “acting like he was methed out,” in the words of one witness, in the moments before he was shot nine times by police.
Nearly 700 pages of documents from an internal Police Review Board (PRB) review released late Friday include interviews with witnesses and law enforcement officers.
An autopsy found Elifritz sustained nine gunshot wounds and that he’d sliced himself in the neck deep enough to hit muscle.
Officers’ bullets hit his left thigh, left little finger, right hand, abdomen, chest, right lung, shoulder and clavicle. “The combination of gunshot wounds to the chest was fatal,” a police summary of the autopsy indicates.
The documents state Elifritz first came into the shelter shirtless and demanding clothing. He got a jacket and left, only to return a few minutes later.
According to one witness, Elifritz was twitching and fidgeting and “acting like he was methed out.”
“[The witness] clarified that methed out meant the man was fidgety, moving quickly and twitching his body as he moved back and forth to the window like he was paranoid,” according to a law enforcement officer’s summary of a witness interview.
Another witness described Elifritz stabbing himself inside the shelter with what looked like a box cutter or a knife and saw “blood shooting out.”
“The man was cutting with his right hand/arm from around his ear section down towards his Adams apple. He then stabbed himself in the neck,” according to a witness. Videos from the shelter surveillance system show guests at the shelter scrambling for the front door.
Then, according to Officer Kenneth Fox, officers formed a “crescent” as they moved toward Elifritz.
“He started walking toward us holding the knife,” Fox said. Elifritz was “15ish feet away maybe” when he began walking toward police, Fox said. He was 7 or 8 feet away, the officer guessed, when lethal shots were fired.
Elifritz was shot and killed inside the Cityteam Ministries Portland Shelter on April 7 after police pursued him as a suspect in a carjacking. Seven Portland Police officers and one Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputy were involved in the shooting.
“We think the evidence supports that John Elifritz was in crisis, and instead of de-escalating the situation — and again consistent with the Department of Justice’s findings that the PPB has a significant issue as it relates to treating individuals in mental health crisis — I mean, nothing has changed,” said Andrew M. Stroth, the attorney representing Elifritz’s family.
“The new evidence that PPB is sharing supports our theory that it was an unjustified shooting of a man in mental health distress,” Stroth said.
Police and witnesses used various terms to describe Elifritz’s movements in the final seconds before the gunfire. Sgt. Roger Axthelm, another witness, told investigators Elifritz “charged” officers. Officer Timothy Ferguson said Elifritz moved “in pretty fast rapid motion.”
A cell phone video shot by someone inside the shelter prompted outrage in the days after the shooting because it appears to show Elifritz standing still or moving slowly when the sound of gunshots rings out. Surveillance videos released Friday by police do not contain sound. They show Elifritz, knife in hand, moving quickly toward the door and officers.
In all, eight law enforcement officers fired on Elifritz with lethal rounds. At least four of the officers involved have made news previously for on-duty incidents, including one whose work in a 2010 case was cited in the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation that found a pattern of excessive use of force by Portland Police Bureau, particularly with people suffering from mental health problems.
Portland Detective Daniel Andrew interviewed a witness who attended as 12-step meeting at the shelter that night and witnessed police shoot Elifritz.
In the report, Andrew said he asked the man, who is homeless, his overall view of what he had seen during the incident.
“’It’s unfortunate but I don’t see how it could have ended any other way,’” the man told Andrew. “’I don’t want to say the shooting was justified because a guy died, but I don’t see how they could have handled it any differently … They did what I would hope they would do to resolve the situation without lethal force with consideration for 30 other people that were in danger.’”
According to the autopsy report conducted by Dr. Cliff Nelson with the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office, Elifritz’s stab wounds incised through the skin and into the muscle. Elifritz had incisions totaling 6 inches in length, the report states.
On Tuesday night, the lawyer representing Elifritz’s wife and daughter filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Portland and the eight individual law enforcement officers involved. The lawsuit argues police killed Elifritz without legal justification and that unconstitutional policies and practices at the bureau result in unjustified officer-involved shootings of people suffering from mental health crises.
OPB’s review of nearly 600 pages from Elifritz’s Oregon Department of Corrections file revealed a long, storied history of run ins with police. Some of those run-ins have parallels to Elifritz’s modus operandi the day he was killed. They raised questions about how much of that officers knew the day they killed him and whether that factored into their response in the shelter.
By the time police fired the fatal rounds on April 7, they’d been dealing with Elifritz for hours.
Shortly after 2:30 p.m. that day, he’d called 911 from a Southeast Portland intersection, erroneously reporting that his wife and child had been murdered.
When officers responded to the call, they reported Elifritz appeared suicidal. He held a knife to his own throat, and when he eventually fled from officers, they didn’t pursue. Police have said they feared the situation would escalate if they chased Elifritz down.
Responding officers planned to refer the incident to the police bureau’s Behavioral Health Unit, which specializes in dealing with people in crisis. But there was a problem: It was Saturday, and the unit operated Tuesday through Friday.
In the hours that followed, Elifritz appeared in police reports again and again.
Roughly two hours after his 911 call, police say Elifritz pulled a woman from her Honda outside of the Maple Leaf Restaurant on Southeast Foster Road, fleeing in the vehicle.
By 7:20 p.m., he was menacing another driver in North Portland. Minutes later, he’d crashed the car near the intersection of Southeast Martin Luther King Boulevard and Stark Street.
He stopped first in the door of Cityteam Ministries, “knife in hand,” police say. He entered the shelter to grab some coats, then left, crossed the street and entered the nearby Jackson Food Store.
At 7:56 p.m., he came back to the homeless shelter, slashing his neck with a knife and menacing the congregants within. The first police officers entered the building at 7:59 p.m., according to a police timeline, though officers had amassed outside minutes before, striking the man repeatedly with less-lethal rounds.
At 8 p.m., police fired the shots that killed him.
Among the many interviewees in the nearly 700-page investigatory file is a man named Chuck Calhoun, who was in the Maple Leaf Restaurant when Elifritz walked in around 4:30 p.m. Calhoun told police Elifritz appeared in distress, asking whether it was “soup Saturday.” Soon, he “kind of bolted.”
Calhoun said he watched as Elifritz pulled a woman out of her Honda CR-V outside of the diner, then fled. But Calhoun also told police he wished things had ended differently for Elifritz.
“I know you guys felt like a policy but it would just be nice if there was a way of taking this man down without, you know …” Calhoun said, according to an interview transcript. “… I mean he’s a husband, he’s a father of a 12-year-old girl, you know?”
Conrad Wilson and Erica Morrison contributed to this story.