Jurors rule in favor of police officers involved in deadly shootout
May 29, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
Jurors deliberated only 19 minutes 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 May 23, a six-member jury affirmed the actions of Cpl. Christian Muñoz and officers Laura Asbell, Brian Horn and Jesse Petersen. The decision ended a King County-mandated inquest into the incident.
The officers fatally shot Ronald W. Ficker just before noon 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, he 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.
“I thought he was going to kill people,” Asbell said May 22, as the officers answered questions about the incident for the jury.
The inquest opened on a rain-soaked morning May 21 at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle and concluded just after noon May 23.
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.
Gunman posed risk to hundreds of people
Officers fanned out across downtown Issaquah after callers dialed 911 to report the abandoned Kia and Ficker, carrying firearms and dressed in military-style clothing.
What to know
The officers recounted the buzz of activity near the Clark Elementary campus on the balmy Saturday.
The adjacent high school campus hosted about 100 players, coaches and spectators at a youth football game. The popular Rainier Trail through downtown neighborhoods attracted bicyclists and joggers. The unusual temperature for early autumn lured people outside from nearby homes.
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,” he said.
(Jennifer Petersen is not related to Jesse Petersen.)
Fear for bystanders propelled officers
Asbell encountered a pair of boys on the Rainier Trail near the Issaquah Skate Park. The boys asked if the officer needed information about Ficker.
“‘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.
Jesse Petersen recalled the rush to the scene, as officers received continuous reports from dispatchers about the gunman.
Horn came from a traffic assignment at Costco. Asbell, en route to a less-serious call in the Issaquah Highlands, headed downtown. Muñoz and Petersen gathered gear at the police department and headed for the schools.
Ficker shot at — and missed — Liberty High School cross country coach Michael Smith on the Clark Elementary campus moments earlier, after using a rifle butt in a botched attempt to break into a driver’s education vehicle parked on campus.
“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.”
Ficker soon lost interest in the driver’s education car, headed elsewhere on the campus, reached a backhoe parked in a field behind the school and started slamming a rifle butt against the backhoe instrument panel.
Jurors later saw the scuffed, splintered stock on the rifle as evidence.
Training guided life-or-death decisions
The officers arrived just before 11:40 a.m., not long after shots echoed across the campus. Officers yelled repeatedly to demand for Ficker to drop his firearms — a .22-caliber rifle and a .30-30 rifle.
Police 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 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.”
Issaquah police officers carry a .45-caliber Glock pistol as a standard service weapon. But, because the handgun lacked the range for the 120 to 150 yards between police and Ficker, officers used department-issued Bushmaster AR-15 rifles.
“These don’t shoot nearly as far or as accurately as the assault rifles do,” Asbell said, pointing to the sidearm in her hip holster.
Behind the school building and portable classrooms, Ficker hunkered down in a drainage ditch near the backhoe. The position offered him some cover from the officers’ bullets.
The shooting between the officers and Ficker started at 11:39 a.m. and lasted for several minutes as officers and Ficker fired more than 100 shots. Ficker fired and struck a portable classroom not far from Asbell and Horn.
“I was shooting whenever he would present a target,” Asbell said.
Shooting stopped after several minutes
Ficker soon stopped shooting from the drainage ditch. Police waited for a King County Sheriff’s Office team to reach the area in a specialized, armored vehicle called a Peacekeeper to determine whether Ficker still posed a threat.
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 May 22 in response to a question. “I think it just hit me afterwards, when I realized how close he was to trying to kill me.”
Police later recovered 952 rounds of ammunition — mostly small rounds for .22-caliber firearms — on Ficker’s body and in his cargo pants pockets. Investigators also discovered $4,000 on the body.
Jurors heard from the King County medical examiner, Dr. Richard Harruff, about the subsequent autopsy.
Ficker sustained four gunshot wounds in the shootout — to his left upper thigh, left buttock, left lower back and left shoulder. The gunshot to his thigh hit the femoral artery, a major blood vessel.
“The most important wounds were the ones that entered the femoral artery and the firearm wound that entered the left kidney,” Harruff said.
The gunshot wounds caused excessive bleeding, and Ficker died in a matter of moments from blood loss.
Toxicology tests did not indicate the presence of alcohol or drugs in Ficker’s body.
The medical examiner used a plain line drawing to indicate the entrance and exit wounds, rather than graphic autopsy photos.
Odd interaction started hours earlier
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 ramp at about 9:30 a.m. The unoccupied vehicle partially blocked the travel lane, so she 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 as the officer 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 noticed Ficker carried a pair of long knives in sheaths on each leg. The officer asked for Ficker’s driver’s license, per standard procedure.
“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.”
Gunman shared strange tale with police
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 process determined Ficker held a valid driver’s license.
Asbell then conducted a separate check on the dashboard-mounted computer inside the patrol cruiser and determined Ficker contacted the Issaquah Police Department days earlier.
“I remembered it because it was strange and he had a firearm,” she said.
Just before midnight Sept. 15, Ficker stopped at Issaquah City Hall and asked for assistance from a police officer. The slim, balding man carried a handgun, and told the responding officer a strange tale about saving the planet. Ficker also asked for police to file a report in case the devil or demons caught up with him.
Ficker did not have a record in the FBI criminal database or a record of involuntary commitment in King County.
Asbell cleared the call at about 9:40 a.m. and logged the odd incident to alert other officers to Ficker. Then, she followed Ficker down East Sunset Way as far as City Hall.
The rental car 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 left the stalled Kia and headed in the direction of the school campuses.
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.