When Joel Reuter bent down to aim his gun out of his window, he could have been aiming at the negotiating phone dropped by the SWAT team from above his apartment. He also could have been aiming at a SWAT sniper perched atop an adjacent building. Either way, it didn’t matter, according to Seattle Police Department officers that testified during a three day inquest that ended Friday. Reuter fired one shot and snipers shot back, and in a matter of seconds an eight hour stand-off ended in a bloody tragedy.
A seven member jury unanimously decided Friday that both SWAT snipers that fired on Reuter July 5th had reason to believe he posed an imminent threat to himself and others, following the inquest into the shooting. As is standard in all officer related shootings, the decision will be forwarded to the King County Prosecutor’s office, which will decide whether or not to file criminal charges against the officers. CHS reported on SPD’s 900-page report on the incident previously.
SWAT snipers Chad Zentner and Jeff Geohagan testified during the three day hearing that that it was concern for each other’s safety that led them to fire on Reuter. Both were posistioned at different buildings adjacent from Reuter’s Marq Condos apartment at Bellevue and Denny.
After six hours of watching Reuter become increasingly agitated, SWAT team members testified this week that they had plenty of reason to believe Reuter posed a serious threat. Officers testified Reuter repeatedly refused to end the stand-off peacefully. A video Reuter had taken of himself during the standoff was played in court — it showed him distressed, yelling threats out of his window to police. “If you take aim at me I will take aim and discharge back,” Reuter yelled with rock music blaring in the background.
“If (Reuter) looked over and saw me I would have to address that threat,” Zenter testified. “I belived him when he said he would shoot.”
With those thoughts Zentner watched through his rifle scope as Reuter kneeled down and fire a single shot in the direction of two SWAT team members across the street.
“I believe he had seen them and was taking aim. I interpreted that as their lives, people in apartment building, were in imment danger,” Zentner said. “As I was getting into position to take the shots … his gun goes off, which I immediately followed up with three shots.”
Geohagan didn’t see Reuter fire, but heard Zentner’s shots and then the confirmation over the radio that it was Zentner who had fired. Geohagan then prepared his rifle and set his sight inside Reuter’s window. Despite sustaining three shots, Geohagan testified that Reuter was still holding his gun. As he came into Geohagan’s view, the sniper said he saw Reuter “moving very determinately” towards the widow Zentner had fired into.
“I believed he was looking for my teammates,” Geohagan said, choking up slightly as he recalled firing one last fatal shot on Reuter. “My concern was to protect my teammates”
It’s rare that a sniper would get an opportunity to watch a close-up video of one of their shots fatally striking a human target, but Geohagan did. When police investigators combed Reuter’s room they found a video camera Reuter had running throughout the incident that captured, in graphic detail, all four shots he sustained.
Most of the testimony throughout the three-day informational hearing was given by officers who responded to the stand-off.
Officer David Sullivan had been out to Reuter’s apartment more than once before July 5th. As a member of SPD’s crisis intervention team, he visited Reuter earlier in the year when Reuter had stopped taking his psychiatric medications. Sullivan testified that he warned officers on July 5th of Reuter’s “extreme nature” and that Retuer posed an “imminent risk.”
“He had significant delusions and they were delusions that he acted on,” Sullivan testified.
Inquest hearings are significantly different from criminal trials. The jury is asked a series of questions about the case and their votes are tallied. Unlike criminal cases the jury does not have to reach a consensus and their decisions have no direct repercussions. The jury’s responses will be sent to the King County prosecutor’s office where they will determine whether to file criminal charges against the officers.
The hearing is also not adversarial — the prosecuting attorney acts as an informational representative for the court. Additionally, the jury is allowed to ask questions while the hearing is in progress.
Reuter’s parents attended the hearing, but declined to take part in it. Just six months after Reuter’s death, the family is already diligently at work to create something positive from their tragic loss. This week the Reuters were in Olympia to lobby the legislature to change mental health laws in the state. Following the inquest hearing, Nancy Reuter said she didn’t blame the police for her son’s death, but shortcomings in the mental health system.
Katy Ashton was friends with Reuter for two years before he died. She played on a kickball team with Reuter and said she attended the inquest hearing to make sure the circumstances leading to Reuter’s death got their due diligence.
“I wanted to really know that the police did everything they could,” she said. “I feel better now”