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Federal officers won’t be charged for killing Portland anti-fascist supporter, prosecutor states

Police deputized as U.S. Marshals who shot and killed a self-described anti-fascist wanted for the murder of a far-right supporter in downtown Portland last summer won’t face criminal charges, a Washington state prosecutor has decided.

Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim found that the police officers who used deadly force against Michael Forest Reinoehl were “justified under Washington State law,”

“As such, no criminal charges will be filed against the involved officers by this office,” Tunheim wrote in a memo dated Monday, in which he laid out his decision and legal analysis.

Reinoehl was killed near Lacey, Washington, on Sept. 3, 2020, outside an apartment complex.

In an interview Tuesday, Tunheim said even though he deemed the officer’s deadly force was justified, there were aspects of the shooting that he found problematic. Officers experienced what he said were radio communications issues that should’ve been anticipated, or planned for, as they were debating whether to move in on Reinoehl. The task force also didn’t notifying local law enforcement about the operation, Tunheim said.

“You’re essentially in a residential area, it’s an admittedly high risk approach and high risk arrest, and just the way it unfolded I could see where the community would be really concerned and not really understand what was going on,” Tunheim told OPB. “I do think that law enforcement could look back at this and say there’s probably things about this we could improve and do better, let’s learn from this.”

The four members of the federal task force who fired their weapons at Reinoehl included Jacob Whitehurst with the Washington Department of Corrections, deputies James Oleole and Craig Gocha with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, and Lakewood police officer Michael Merrill. U.S. Marshals Service officer Ryan Kimmel was present as the shots were fired, but there’s no evidence that he fired his gun.

Hours before he was killed, Reinoehl had been charged in the Aug. 29, 2020, slaying of Aaron Jay Danielson, a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer. The killing drew national attention, in part because it came near the end of a summer of widespread racial justice protests in Portland that had become increasingly political, with far-right groups counter-protesting in support of law enforcement. The subsequent manhunt was cheered on by then-President Donald Trump, who called on police to arrest Danielson’s killer. “Do your job, and do it fast,” Trump tweeted, an hour before Reinoehl was killed.

Tunheim’s 24 page review was based on an investigation conducted by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, which included photos, witness statements and crime lab reports. The officers involved did not provide recorded interviews, but submitted written statements, Tunheim noted in the document. He also said Kimmel did not provide any statements, despite numerous requests.

“I don’t want to speak for the investigators, but I think there was some frustration on their part and I thought it was fair to convey that,” Tunheim told OPB. “At the end of the day, I maybe could have pushed that issue even more, but decided I had sufficient information without that statement.”

None of the law enforcement agencies agreed to an interview. James Stossel, a spokesperson for the U.S. Marshals Service, declined to comment Tuesday on Tunheim’s memo and its conclusions. Stossel directed questions about the U.S. Marshals-run operation to the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the shooting and provided its findings to Tunheim.

Task force members were briefed hours before the shooting, where they were shown Reinoehl’s picture as well as social media posts that indicated Reinohel thought he was “at war with the police,” Tunheim noted in his memo. “He was described at the briefing as a high threat to law enforcement officers.”

From the officer’s statements made to investigators, it’s clear the situation unfolded quickly, as Reinoehl was walking from an apartment to his car. Once inside the vehicle, the team moved in.

“When Reinoehl apparently realizes he is being confronted by police and appears to grab for something out of the sight of the officers, there was no reasonable alternative but to use deadly force,” Tunheim wrote in his memo. “If Reinoehl had produced a gun, he could have opened fire on the officers …”

It’s not clear whether Reinoehl fired at police. A .380-caliber handgun was found in his pocket. Task force officers told investigators they saw Reinoehl appearing to reach for his pocket.

“A later examination would reveal that the clip of the handgun clip was fully loaded and there was no round in the chamber,” Tunheim wrote. A .380-caliber spent round was found in the backseat of Reinoehl’s vehicle. While a crime lab analyst determined it came from Reinoehl’s gun, it’s not clear “when it was fired or how it came to be in the location it was found,” Tunheim wrote.

The .380 handgun found in Reinoehl’s pocket was later found to be the same gun used to kill Danielson in Portland days earlier.

In his memo, Tunheim wrote that was concerned about how the Sept. 3, 2020, arrest attempt operation unfolded, as task force members struggled with radio issues that made it difficult for them to clearly communicate with one another. Tunheim wrote it created confusion during “the critical tactical decision to attempt an arrest” because the team’s leader could not communicate with the other members of the task force.

“In fact, the recorded radio traffic captured a debate among the members where some officers felt they should move in and at least one other expressed concern they were too far away and should wait,” Tunheim wrote. “It appears the decision to proceed with attempting an arrest was actually made by the two officers who simply decided to move in.”

He questioned the decision to continue with the operation without first finding a way to communicate and said radio communication problems were a “predictable issue” that should have included a contingency plan. He said he was “surprised” it was not better address during the planning phases of the operation.

“The evidence suggests that Deputy Oleole and Officer Merrill ultimately made the decision to move in to make the arrest, and the other officers followed when they heard the announcement on the radio,” Tunheim wrote.

The prosecutor also noted in his memo that he was unable to resolve conflicting reports about whether or not the task force member activated their vehicles’ emergency lights as the officers moved in on Reinoehl. But Tunheim wrote that wasn’t a factor in determining whether force was justified.

Reinoehl’s family has hired attorneys and is exploring a possible civil lawsuit.

“It’s disappointing but not surprising,” said Braden Pence, an attorney representing Reinoehl’s family, referring to Tunheim’s report. “The family is continuing to review their options for a possible civil suit.”

Lakewood Police Lt. Chris Lawler said in a statement “we appreciate the thoroughness of the Thurston County Prosecutor” and the investigators.

Jacque Coe, with the Washington Department of Corrections, said the agency’s thoughts are with the officers involved and grateful none of the officers were injured.

“While it is always unfortunate to lose a life due to an officer-involved shooting, the Washington State Department of Corrections is proud of its role in assisting local law enforcement in apprehending dangerous suspects,” Coe wrote.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Michael Forest Reinoehl.
Screenshot obtained by OPB/ProPublica /
Michael Forest Reinoehl.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting