Witnesses at police inquest describe strange scenes from school shootout

May 22, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

NEW — 8 a.m. May 22, 2012

Just after 11 on a September morning, as Ronald W. Ficker meandered on a fateful trek from a downtown Issaquah intersection to Clark Elementary School, Leslie Olerich stared down the barrel of Ficker’s rifle.

“He looked right at us, looked down the barrel and he smiled,” Olerich said Monday at a court hearing about the Sept. 24 incident.

Issaquah police fatally shot Ficker, 51, after the rural Maple Valley man abandoned a rental car at a downtown intersection and, carrying rifles and ammunition, set off in the direction of school campuses and, along the way, brandished firearms to passers-by.

Olerich testified Monday at a King County-led inquest into the actions of police officers involved in the shootout — Laura Asbell, Brian Horn, Christian Muñoz and Jesse Petersen.

The sound of gunfire echoed across the Issaquah High School parking lot as Olerich departed a youth football game at the school.

“My wife said, ‘That sounded like a gunshot,’ and I said, ‘Well, it was probably just a firecracker or a backfire,’ and we just proceeded to walk to our car,” he said.

Moments later, the Kent residents encountered the rifle-toting Ficker in the high school parking lot. The gunman pointed a rifle at the Oleriches’ vehicle.

“Boy, if he’d have just had a twitch in his trigger finger, we were done — but he just smiled at us with a huge smile,” Olerich continued.

Instead, Ficker continued a fateful trek to the adjacent Clark Elementary campus.

In King County, a prosecutor-led 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 the county.

The jury is comprised of three men and three women, including a woman from Issaquah.

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.

No inquest conducted in the county has led to the filing of criminal charges against a police officer involved in a deadly shooting.

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“This is not a trial,” King County District Court Judge David Steiner said from the bench. “The purpose of this inquest is to provide a public airing of the facts and circumstances surrounding the death of Ronald William Ficker.”

The jury is tasked to answer 22 interrogatories related to the officers’ actions and Ficker’s death.

The inquest opened on a rain-soaked morning at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle.

In the inquest, the King County Prosecutor’s Office acts as a neutral party and facilitates the process, and separate attorneys represent the city and the involved officers.

Deputy Prosecutor Jennifer Petersen led the witness questioning Monday.

No attorney for the Ficker family or family members attended the inquest Monday. The family does not plan to pursue a civil lawsuit against the Issaquah Police Department.

In addition to Olerich, jurors listened to James Hoel, a motorist caught in the traffic jam after Ficker’s silver Kia sedan ran out of gasoline on Front Street South near Julius Boehm Pool.

“When I came up even with him, I realized that he was holding a rifle in his left hand and a box of something in his right hand, and he was continuing to search in the trunk,” Hoel said. “At this point, I was still under the impression that we had a disabled vehicle situation. I said, ‘Do you need a hand? Do you want me to help push you around the corner?’ And his response was — I don’t know if it was verbatim — he said something to the order of, ‘No, thanks. I’m fine. It’s OK.'”

Hoel later called police to report the odd incident.

Jurors also heard from Liberty High School cross country coach Michael Smith, Karen Chucka — a mother of cross country team members — and Dave Montalvo, a King County deputy among the initial responders to the shooting. (Montalvo also serves as the school resource officer at Liberty High School.)

The cross country team reached the school after a practice run along a Tiger Mountain trail.

Overall, attorneys plan to question 14 witnesses, including the Issaquah officers, King County Sheriff’s Office investigators and Dr. Richard Harruff, the county medical examiner.

The inquest could conclude as early as Tuesday afternoon.

Throughout the hearing Monday, the involved officers sat stoically on a hard bench in the front row of Courtroom W-842 as witnesses described the lead-up to the shootout and the police response to the Clark Elementary campus.

Though the investigation into Ficker’s death stretched into the weeks preceding the shootout, the inquest is focused on a slim slice of time from Sept. 24, a balmy Saturday morning in Issaquah.

Using testimony, poster-sized maps of downtown Issaquah and printed handouts, Petersen and witnesses re-created the moments after Ficker arrived on the school campuses.

Smith and Chucka described a strange scene as Ficker reached the Clark Elementary parking lot and attempted to use a rifle butt to break the window on a driver’s education car parked on campus.

“I basically got up and ran towards him and just yelled, ‘Hey! What are you doing?’ and proceeded towards him and made it about halfway,” Smith said. “He looked up and said, ‘Back off,” and at that point, I said, ‘Fine, you’re a tough guy.’ I ran back and told one of the parents to call 911.”

Ficker soon lost interest in the driver’s ed car and headed elsewhere on the campus. Smith followed, and reported the movements to a 911 dispatch via cellphone. Ficker reached a backhoe parked in a field behind the school and started slamming a rifle butt against the instrument panel.

Then, the gunman fired at Smith — and missed.

“I saw the flash and I heard the sound, and I thought, ‘This is getting serious,'” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Chucka urged people to flee from the area near the school and drove others to safety.

The shooting intensified as Montalvo arrived in a patrol cruiser. The deputy sprung from the vehicle and used the door for cover.

“Then, all of the sudden, we heard more pops and we actually saw ricocheting bullets on the ground, and I was like, ‘Oh, we are so out of here!’ and hysterically drove my children away from the site,” Chucka said.

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