Inquest ordered in Issaquah police shooting

January 3, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Jury is assigned to fact-finding mission in death of gunman

The search for more information about a lethal September shootout on the Clark Elementary School campus is due to deepen soon, as a court inquest into the officer-involved incident opens.

Ronald W. Ficker, 51, died in a firefight against Issaquah police officers on the school campus. The gun battle ended a meandering midday journey across downtown Issaquah after the rifle-toting Ficker brandished guns at passers-by.

In a decision expected since the Sept. 24 shootout, King County Executive Dow Constantine on Dec. 27 ordered the inquest — a standard procedure in officer-involved shootings. The order directs King County District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde to assign a judge to set a date and conduct the inquest.

Linde did not set a date before county offices closed for the New Year’s holiday.

The inquest is a fact-finding hearing conducted before a six-member jury. Such a panel is called to determine the circumstances in any officer-involved shooting in King County.

What to know

King County recent police inquests

King County officials said inquests into officer-involved shootings provide transparency into law enforcement actions for the public. No inquest conducted in the county has led to the filing of criminal charges against a police officer involved in a deadly shooting.

In recent months, County Executive Dow Constantine has ordered several inquests — a routine procedure outlined in the King County Code.

  • In late November, Constantine ordered a probe into the Oct. 23 police shooting of a 46-year-old homicide suspect in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood.
  • In September, the county ordered a court inquest into the July 21 fatal shooting of a 29-year-old Federal Way man by a Federal Way officer.
  • In August, Constantine ordered another inquest jury to examine the April 17 shooting death of a Burien man by a King County Sheriff’s Office deputy.
  • In June, the executive called for a probe into the fatal May 7 shooting of a 48-year-old Auburn man by Auburn police.
  • In May, Constantine ordered another inquest into the May 4 shooting of a 58-year-old Kent man by Kent police.

Issaquah officers involved in Sept. 24 shooting

The court inquest into the Clark Elementary School shootout is focused on the actions of six Issaquah police officers.

  • Officer Laura Asbell has served on the Issaquah police force for four years.
  • Officer Brian Horn has been a police officer for 17 years, and served on the force for 14 years, plus three years as a reserve officer for the department.
  • Officer Jesse Petersen has served as a police officer for nine years, including five years on the local force.
  • Officer Tom Griffith has been a police officer for 25 years, including four years as a reserve officer for the department and 21 years as a full-fledged officer.
  • Cpl. Christian Munoz has been a police officer for 11 years, including a decade on the local force.
  • Sgt. Chris Wilson has served in the Issaquah Police Department for 13 years.

Inquest jurors answer a series of questions, called interrogatories, to determine the facts in the case. The jury does not, however, determine whether a person or agency is civilly or criminally liable for the incident.

Prosecutor Dan Satterberg recommended the investigation after the King County Prosecutor’s Office reviewed the King County Sheriff’s Office investigation into the incident. The sheriff’s office conducted the probe because the shootout involved Issaquah officers.

The inquest is expected to include statements from the officers involved in the shooting — Laura Asbell, Tom Griffith, Brian Horn, Christian Munoz and Jesse Petersen. The commander at the shooting scene, Sgt. Chris Wilson, is also expected to offer input.

Following the incident, Issaquah Police Chief Paul Ayers put Asbell, Griffith, Horn, Munoz and Peterson on paid administrative leave, per standard procedure. The officers returned to duty in the weeks after the incident.

“It’s a tragic situation and everyone realizes that, but I also think the officers responded the way we would want them to and the way they were trained,” Ayers said. “The resolution to this incident — while tragic — was still an outcome that was a benefit to the citizens.”

In the inquest, attorneys from the Washington Cities Insurance Association — a statewide organization to provide liability and property protection to Issaquah and other member cities — plan to serve as counsel for the city. In addition, attorneys for the Issaquah Police Officers’ Association represent the involved officers during the inquest.

Besides the involved officers, officials could request information from investigators and witnesses.

The process could last several days at a county courthouse. Inquest juries usually conduct the process at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle.

Inquest is later chapter in strange incident

Constantine’s inquest order came months after the gunman told others, “Something big is going to happen” in the days leading to the shootout.

The day before the incident, Ficker rented a Kia sedan at a Seattle rental car counter, drove more than 450 miles and, just after 11 a.m. Sept. 24, abandoned the car at a downtown Issaquah intersection and set off to Clark Elementary.

Calls to 911 flooded city and county dispatchers, as law enforcement officers from the region raced to the school.

Issaquah officers encountered Ficker on campus. The gunman fired at least 11 shots at police. Officers returned fire and shot Ficker at a distance greater than the length of a football field.

Meanwhile, on the nearby Issaquah High School campus nearby, coaches, parents and young athletes huddled beneath metal bleachers during the shootout.

Though the incident ended less than 60 minutes after Ficker abandoned the Kia, the subsequent investigation caused Issaquah to grind to a near-standstill for hours, as police collected evidence from the car and the shooting scene on the Clark campus.

The shootout ended a series of strange interactions between Issaquah police and Ficker.

Just before midnight Sept. 15, he stopped at Issaquah City Hall and asked for assistance from a police officer. The man carried a handgun, and told the responding officer a strange tale about saving the planet.

(Ficker lived in unincorporated Maple Valley just south of Issaquah.)

Issaquah police encountered Ficker again at 9:39 a.m. Sept. 24, alongside the stalled Kia on Interstate 90 near the Issaquah Highlands exit. Police came upon the rented sedan parked unoccupied along the interstate. Ficker, carrying a gas can, approached the vehicle as a police officer examined the car.

The car then ran out of gas again just after 11 a.m. at Front Street South at Newport Way Southwest near the Julius Boehm Pool. Then, he abandoned the vehicle and set off to Clark Elementary.

In the days after the shootout, Issaquah residents and people trapped beneath the Issaquah High School bleachers praised police for a quick response to the gunman.

“They did respond to a pretty horrific incident and handled it well,” Ayers said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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