Officers feared Issaquah gunman could escape, shoot bystanders
May 23, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
NEW — 8 a.m. May 23, 2012
Police involved in a shootout at Clark Elementary School feared the gunman could escape from the campus and shoot bystanders in surrounding neighborhoods, and resorted to lethal force to eliminate the threat, officers involved in the shooting testified at a court hearing Tuesday.
Police fatally shot Ronald W. Ficker, 51, in late September 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. Moments later, at about 11:30 a.m. Sept. 24, Ficker shot at bystanders and police officers on the Clark Elementary campus.
The tense moments after Ficker reached the school grounds formed the basis for the Tuesday testimony at a King County-led inquest into the actions of officers involved in the shootout — Laura Asbell, Brian Horn, Christian Muñoz and Jesse Petersen.
“I thought he was going to kill people,” Asbell said, as the officers answered questions about the incident for a six-member jury.
The officers intended to contain Ficker on the Clark Elementary campus, in order to prevent the rifle-toting gunman from escaping into downtown Issaquah neighborhoods or nearby Tiger Mountain forest.
In emotional testimony, Muñoz recalled a group of children in the Issaquah High School parking lot as officers attempted to establish a security perimeter around the adjacent Clark Elementary campus.
“I looked around, and I see a group of kids — about 10, 15 of them — in the parking lot and I said, ‘Police! Just get out of here!'” he said. “I wanted to let them know that they needed to get out of there fast. Well, one girl in particular, she just stood there. She was just in shock. I just told her to run, and she finally ran.”
Muñoz’s eyes welled up as Deputy Prosecutor Jennifer Petersen asked about the hectic scene.
“I thought they were going to get shot,” Muñoz said.
The inquest is a fact-finding hearing conducted 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.
The jury is tasked to answer 22 interrogatories related to the officers’ actions and Ficker’s death.
No inquest conducted in the county has led to the filing of criminal charges against a police officer involved in a deadly shooting.
The inquest opened Monday and is expected to conclude Wednesday.
The officers recounted the buzz of activity near the Clark Elementary campus on Sept. 24, a balmy Saturday. The high school campus hosted about 100 players, coaches and spectators at a youth football game. The popular Rainier Trail through downtown Issaquah attracted bicyclists and joggers. The unusual temperature for early autumn lured people outside from nearby homes.
Jesse Petersen recalled the rush to the scene, as officers received continuous reports from dispatchers about the gunman. Ficker shot at — and missed — Liberty High School cross country coach Michael Smith on the Clark Elementary campus moments earlier.
“I don’t know if they have been killed already. I don’t know what’s between where he is now at the high school to where his car is abandoned,” Jesse Petersen said. “I just know that he’s pointing rifles at people. People are reporting gunshots. This guy needs to be stopped or someone is going to get killed.”
(Jennifer Petersen is not related to Jesse Petersen.)
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. “It was just act.”
The odd interaction between Ficker and the Issaquah Police Department started earlier in the morning.
Asbell noticed a stalled Kia sedan with California license plates at the Interstate 90 Sunset Interchange at about 9:30 a.m. The unoccupied vehicle partially blocked the travel lane, so Asbell stopped to investigate. Unhusked ears of corn sat on the Kia’s front seats.
“I kind of figured it was just people from out of town who had gone to the farmers market,” she said.
Ficker, carrying a red gas can, approached the vehicle as Asbell examined the vehicle. Asbell asked dispatchers to check the license plate information for the Kia. The vehicle belonged to a rental car company based in California.
Asbell asked if the vehicle ran out of gas, and then the officer noticed Ficker carried a pair of long knives in sheaths on each leg. Asbell asked for Ficker’s driver’s license.
“When he had walked up, the hair on the back of my neck stood up,” she said. “He didn’t do anything overt, but there was something about him that made me feel uncomfortable.”
Ficker started searching for the license in the Kia’s center console. Asbell and Ficker then made eye contact through the rear window.
“His reaction immediately after we made eye contact was to remove his hands and step out of the car,” she said. “It was strange. Instead of continuing to look for his driver’s license, I felt like he was looking to see where I was standing.”
Ficker could not produce a driver’s license, so Asbell collected his name, date of birth and phone number, and asked dispatchers to check the information. The check determined Ficker held a valid driver’s license.
Asbell then conducted a separate check on the computer inside her patrol cruiser and determined Ficker and the Issaquah Police Department had earlier contact.
Just before midnight Sept. 15, Ficker 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 did not have a record in the FBI’s criminal database or a record of involuntary commitment in King County.
Asbell cleared the call at about 9:40 a.m. and logged the incident, and then left the scene.
Ficker’s vehicle ran out of gas again at 11:11 a.m. on Front Street South at Newport Way Southwest near the Julius Boehm Pool. Then, Ficker headed in the direction of school campuses.