Thursday, June 29, 2017 This Week's Paper

When is a gun not a gun? Unanswered questions remain

// Parents still seek answers as to why the case of a man forcing children to the ground at gunpoint doesn’t warrant even a police report, but allegations of them kicking leaves warrants threats of arrest. Lawmakers now want answers too.

More than a month has passed since a man forced a gathering of pre-teen girls to the ground with what they thought was a gun. Tacoma Police Department officers, after their brief investigation, concluded the man didn’t commit a crime. Other officers said kicking the man’s leaves the following day might have been, however.


The twisted story started when a handful of children, between the ages of 11 and 15, were playing tag within 50 yards of their homes at the corner of 16th Street and Ainsworth at about 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 27. A man living at the opposite corner rushed out of the home with what the children described as a long-barreled rifle. He was holding it with both hands by his hip. "Get on the f---|ing ground, get on the f---|ing ground," the children and witnesses said he yelled. Three of the girls dropped to the ground where they stood, which was across the street from the man’s house. Several minutes passed with the children lying face down on the sidewalk at gunpoint while the man cursed at them as his arms shook with his finger on the trigger. He then began backing up while still pointing the gun at the children as they remained on the ground. A flurry of 911 calls then prompted five officers to respond. Emergency dispatchers logged the call at 11:18 p.m. The first car arrived at 11:21 p.m., according to the only known record of the case. Two officers talked to the children and their parents, they then walked over to the suspect’s house and were apparently refused entry into the house to question the man. A woman inside the house apparently said the gun the man pulled on the children was “just a bb gun” and refused to answer further questions. The officers returned to the house where the victims were gathered and told the parents that no crime was committed. No arrest. No police report would even be filed. The case was closed. The investigation took 10 minutes, 911 records show. The only official report found in the case was a transcript of officer Steve Storwick’s notes to dispatchers: “Spoke with callers, who stated the male (neighbor) thought they were breaking into his car and presented a pellet gun and told them to get on the ground, when the male discovered that the subjects were teenage girls, he went back in his home. No crime, no assault. Mother of teenagers was explained situation. Mother contacted neighbor prior to our arrival.”


The story gets complicated after the children and apparently several neighbors posted handmade signs the following morning on the right-of-way outside the man’s house in an effort to get the justice they felt was denied them by police. Two officers, identified as Keith O’Rourke and Matt Verkoelen, came knocking that evening and spent twice as long investigating the posting of the signs and alleged kicking of leaves into the man’s yard than the officer who looked into the intimidation with a fire arm the previous night. “I couldn’t believe how they were treating me,” one of parents, Jamey Voorhees Carter Rivera said, noting that the officers told the children to “shut up” and not to interrupt their investigation about the placement of signs on public property. She was apparently threatened with arrest for the “leaves incident,” while there is no record of the man facing possible arrest for waving a gun at children. She was given an incident number, 12-302-0856, for the allegations about the leaves and for trespassing on his property. She denies any leaf kicking or trespassing. Tacoma Police Department spokesman Mark Fulgum put in a “chop-chop order” of clearing a media request to review the incident report, making it available in a matter of hours instead of the 15-day review period. He even hand delivered it. While there is no police report, or mention of the gun threats from the previous night, there is also no word yet if Rivera will be fined for trespassing or kicking leaves. The investigation into the leaves being kicked took officers 124 minutes to clear, according to the dispatcher’s log. The 911 caller, Danielle F. McClenahan, is apparently the woman at the alleged gunman’s home who talked to police the previous night. She said that the leaf incident was likely in retaliation, but she called it “a stick,” instead of a gun, which contradicts her previous statement that the man held a bb gun.

McClenahan told officers she “didn’t think this ‘little incident’ would become such a big deal and now she is afraid to contact them to resolve it.” She says she also found broken bottles on her doorstep, inferring the children put them there. McClenahan, however, declined to seek criminal charges against Rivera or her 15-year-old daughter, who is listed in the report in “hopes of resolving this issue civilly and without further incident.” The three-paragraph incident report, written by Verkoelen and assisted by O’Rourke, stated that they contacted Rivera about not trespassing on McClenahan’s property or face charges. Rivera was “extremely defensive and argumentative the entire time,” Verkoelen wrote, who also noted that Rivera and McClenahan were advised of their rights about seeking anti-harassment orders against each other. Rivera retorts that she believes Verkoelen and O’Rourke downplayed the gun threat and focused more of their time talking about the leaves and signs. They did, after all, spend two hours investigating the case, while Storwick only spent 10 minutes looking into the “man with a gun” call the previous night. She complained to TPD brass about how the officers accused her and belittled her daughter. Sgt. Pete Habib told her there apparently would be an investigation. “That no formal report was filed after the incident on Saturday is to me pure negligence,” parent Ashley Rivera wrote to Tacoma Police Department One Sector Commander Lt. LeRoy Standifer. “The fact none exists has allowed (the neighbor) to spin his story, telling anyone who will listen that he was holding nothing but ‘a stick’ – the story that was told to us by Officers O'Rourke and Verkoelen (who incidentally also told us they had ‘read the report’) – and contrary to his original statement that it was a pellet gun. With no formal record, we are rendered essentially powerless, and are left with the feeling that a Caucasian home owner on Hilltop can point a weapon at whomever he pleases, with no consequence.” The girls who were forced to the ground are all mixed race. One is African American and white. One is Southeast Asian, and the third is white and Korean, although the other children playing tag that night were all white. The gunman is white as is McClenahan.


Jillian Moore, a witness to one of the ongoing incidents since then, also contacted police and got a response, one of only two police records on the case known to exist. “Someone that displays the type of behavior that you described needs immediate contact with the police at a minimum,” Standifer wrote her. “When you witness these types of occurrences, please dial 911, so that officers can be dispatched to resolve issues. For your personal safety do not make contact or approach individuals acting irrationally to ‘look after them.’ If you would like to talk about this issue further do not hesitate to call my office.” Follow up emails to Standifer went unanswered, however. Attempts to interview Standifer or the other officers involved in the case have not been successful either, even after there have been reported cases of the man showing unusual behavior such as looking into the windows of his victim’s home and yelling obscenities at people from his truck before speeding off. Parents and neighbors aren’t the only one seeking answers. Police Chief Don Ramsdell said the department’s “Blue System” of internal affairs is now looking into the situation in hopes of getting some community resolution. The department had first denied there was an internal investigation.

“There is obviously a neighborhood dispute here,” he said. “We don’t want to let things fester. It’s an unfortunate situation. We are open and ready to get this resolved.” As to the specifics of the lack of a police report for the original “man with a gun” call, Ramsdell said “I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there. We have to rely on the officers at the scene to make that decision. They have to make that decision with the best information they have at the time.” The “leaf kicking” report partnered with the dispatch log, however, does create a fuller picture of the events during that weekend, he said. Councilmember Marty Campbell, who is the co-chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee, wants answers as well. He and City Manager T.C. Broadnax will meet to make sure policies and procedures were followed. The WTH moment for Campbell was reading about police officers being turned away at the door because the suspect apparently didn’t want to talk to them. “It’s at that point, when I look at it and go, in my mind, there should have been a discussion with the suspect,” he said. Several attempts were also made to contact the man, who is relatively well known in Tacoma. The Tacoma Weekly is not identifying him because he has not been charged with a crime and is not listed as ever talking to police. However, he is no stranger to the legal system. A background search of public records suggests the 37-year-old man has faced 15 different driving, domestic violence and malicious mischief charges dating back to 2007 and involving incidents in Tacoma, Spokane, Lakewood, Pierce and Whitman counties. The most recent local cases were domestic violence and threatening bodily harm in 2009. Those Tacoma Municipal Court charges were dismissed with prejudice, which means they will not be refilled. A 2012 case involves a failure to file a change of address with the Department of Licensing.