Witnesses at police inquest describe chaotic scenes from school shootout

May 29, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Just after 11 a.m. Sept. 24, as Ronald W. Ficker meandered 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 May 21 at a court hearing about the 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 May 21 at a King County-led inquest into the actions of police officers involved in the shootout — Cpl. Christian Muñoz, and officers Laura Asbell, Brian Horn 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.

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“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 his fateful trip to the adjacent Clark Elementary campus.

James Hoel, a motorist caught in the traffic jam after Ficker’s silver Kia sedan ran out of gasoline on Front Street South near the Julius Boehm Pool, described the scene for jurors.

“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.

“It didn’t feel right to me that a man was taking a rifle out of a trunk, even though that act in itself wasn’t illegal,” he said. “It was a little strange.”

Liberty High School coach confronts gunman

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. Team members slurped Otter Pops and chatted in the late-morning heat.

Using testimony, poster-sized maps of downtown Issaquah, printed handouts, and ammunition and rifles recovered from the scene, Deputy Prosecutor Jennifer Petersen and witnesses re-created the moments after Ficker arrived on the school campuses.

(Jennifer Petersen is not related to Jesse Petersen.)

Smith and Chucka described a strange scene as Ficker reached the school 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 education 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.

“Honestly, we thought that Coach Smith was probably dead,” she said. “The kids were certain of it, because there were all of those shots and we hadn’t heard from him.”

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.

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

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