Jurors rule in favor of officers in Issaquah police inquest

May 23, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Issaquah Officer Brian Horn uses a map to indicate key locations Tuesday at the inquest into the death of Ronald W. Ficker in a September shootout against Horn and other officers. By Greg Farrar

NEW — 6 p.m. May 23, 2012

Jurors deliberated only 19 minutes Wednesday before determining Issaquah police officers faced a life-threatening scenario and properly used lethal force to stop a rifle-toting man on the Clark Elementary School campus last year.

In a unanimous decision, a six-member jury affirmed the actions of Cpl. Christian Muñoz and officers Laura Asbell, Brian Horn and Jesse Petersen.

The officers fatally shot Ronald W. Ficker at about 11:30 a.m. Sept. 24 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.

Ficker, 51, brandished firearms to passers-by on the circuitous journey on foot from Front Street South and Newport Way Southwest to the elementary school. Then, once on campus, Ficker shot at bystanders and officers responding to 911 calls about the incident.

Officers feared Ficker could escape from the campus into downtown Issaquah neighborhoods or nearby Tiger Mountain forest, and then harm bystanders.

The decision from the inquest jury ended the long investigation set in motion after Ficker abandoned a Kia sedan on a busy downtown Issaquah street.

The inquest is a fact-finding hearing conducted to determine the circumstances in any officer-involved shooting in the county.

Inquest jurors answer a series of questions, called interrogatories, to determine the facts in the case. Jurors answered 22 interrogatories related to the officers’ actions and Ficker’s death.

The inquest 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.)

The jury consisted of three men and three women, including a woman from Issaquah. (The officers received handshakes and congratulatory messages from jurors after the inquest concluded.)

The inquest opened Monday morning and concluded just after noon Wednesday.

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

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

Officers fanned out across downtown Issaquah after callers dialed 911 to report the abandoned Kia and Ficker.

Asbell encountered a pair of boys on the Rainier Trail near the Issaquah Skate Park.

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“‘Are you looking for the man with the gun?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,” and he said, ‘Are you the police?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘There’s a man on the trail who just’ — they said they thought they were BB guns — ‘pointed his gun at us,'” she said in Tuesday testimony.

Liberty High School cross country coach Michael Smith told the journey about the strange sequence 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. (The cross country team had just completed a practice run at the school.)

“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 in Monday testimony. “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.

(Jurors later saw the scuffed, splintered stock on the rifle as evidence.)

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.

Issaquah police arrived not long after the shot echoed across the campus. Officers yelled repeatedly to demand for Ficker to drop the firearms — a .22-caliber rifle and a .30-30 rifle.

“I was shooting whenever he would present a target,” Asbell said Tuesday.

The officers engaged Ficker from different points on the Clark Elementary campus. Horn and Asbell used portable classrooms as protective cover. Muñoz and Jesse Petersen set up on a set of concrete stairs from the high school parking lot to the elementary school campus.

“There wasn’t really time to think,” Muñoz said in Tuesday testimony. “It was just act.”

Officers said training guided the decisions made on the Clark Elementary campus.

“I was trying to address the threat. I was more concerned for the public and safety,” Horn said Tuesday in response to a question from Deputy Prosecutor Jennifer Petersen. “I think it just hit me afterwards, when I realized how close he was to trying to kill me.”

(Jennifer Petersen is not related to Jesse Petersen.)

Jurors also heard from the King County medical examiner, Dr. Richard Harruff, about the subsequent autopsy.

Ficker sustained four gunshot wounds — including a hit to the femoral artery, a major blood vessel in the upper thigh — in the shootout. Toxicology tests did not indicate the presence of alcohol or drugs in Ficker’s body.

(Harruff used a plain illustration to indicate the entrance and exit wounds, rather than graphic autopsy photos.)

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