Shot Dead in a Dead End Street

A SWAT team had an unarmed Russell Smith cornered in a dead-end street. Next week a jury will be asked: Should he have died?

Above: SWAT video of the police shooting.

After Russell Lydell Smith was shot to death in his car outside his Columbia City home in March by a Bellevue SWAT team, Seattle Police, who were also on the scene, said the officers were forced to shoot because Smith seemed determined to “drive them over rather than surrender.”

But as a King County inquest jury is likely to hear next week, Smith, a 51-year-old Seattle laborer and ex-con sought for questioning in five robberies, was killed in a 21-shot fusillade even though his car had nowhere to go. The gold 2000 Mercedes, having sped backward out of Smith’s driveway and crashed into a pickup truck, faced in the direction of a street dead end. The only way out was blocked by the pickup. A police armored vehicle had also moved in behind it.

Encircled by heavily armed SWAT officers commanding him to stop and surrender, Smith put the car in drive and accelerated, police claim. Within seconds, bursts of gunfire from three officers—two with automatic weapons—riddled his car doors and windows. Smith, within almost point-blank range of some officers, was hit eight times in his dead-end drive, the apparent fatal shot being a bullet to the side of his head. No officers or neighbors were hurt.

The sudden, slam-bang sequence of fatal events unfolded in the chaotic early-morning darkness of March 22, almost catching several Bellevue officers in a crossfire. Neighbors in the residential area, awakened by the gunfire, did not witness the shooting. At later meetings with police, many expressed anger at the risk the shooting presented to area residents.

Bellevue was the lead agency in the joint operation with Seattle police to serve a search warrant and arrest Smith and his brother. Bellevue Chief Linda Pillo said a SWAT operation was necessary because Smith was considered an armed and violent career criminal. His record shows convictions for bank robbery, two burglaries, and two assaults. In 2008, he was given a 10-year sentence for a robbery pled down to a theft charge, but obtained an early prison release and was on community supervision.

Two weeks before the predawn raid, a Bellevue detective had stood just feet away from Smith, watching him walk into an office meeting with his corrections officer. He was not arrested in that safer setting because police felt they needed more evidence of his robbery involvement. But investigators apparently still lacked what they needed to make their case when they launched their raid. They had probable cause to arrest Smith and the brother who lived with him, police say, but the warrant’s purpose was to collect more viable robbery evidence.

Bellevue SWAT members Casey Hiam, Jacob Bement, and Jacob Childers, all age 28, fired the 21 pistol and rifle rounds that struck and killed Smith. Chief Pillo says they and other officers were in danger of being run down by Smith. “No law-enforcement officer wants to be involved in a lethal use of force,” Pillo said. “Unfortunately, at times it cannot be avoided.”

In statements that are part of a 428-page file including photos and video already entered into the inquest court records and obtained by Seattle Weekly, officers did not report finding a gun on Smith, and gave conflicting impressions of his motives for the apparent attempt to escape without an exit route.

“Due to how hard the vehicle crashed,” recalled Bellevue SWAT member Ben Bradley, “and the fact that the street the vehicle was on was a dead end in the direction the vehicle was facing, I expected the driver to surrender.”

A dozen SWAT team members in body armor served the warrant. The brother was not home, and Russell Smith, dressed in construction boots and clothing, and who had an ID tag indicating he worked on the Turner Construction team building the $110 million Capitol Hill light-rail station, was in his driveway warming his car when the team arrived.

They had scoped out the raid minutes earlier in a meet-up with Seattle police. Around 20 officers and detectives from the two departments conferred at a command site on Rainier Avenue South just before 5 a.m.

Smith was suspected of involvement in a string of three Bellevue robberies and two in Seattle last November to January. The targets were a Bellevue mattress store, restaurant, and ice-cream shop, and, in Seattle, a Queen Anne food mart and an Airport Way office-supply store.

During the holdups, a suspect would show a handgun in his waistband and warn victims not to call police after he leaves because “my brother is watching.” Smith’s Mercedes had been identified in a security video as being parked near one of the robberies, and several witnesses had identified mug shots of him or his brother as possible suspects.

As part of the plan to invade Smith’s one-story wood home in the 5000 block of 43rd Avenue South, the SWAT unit would arrive quietly, then knock and announce the warrant service. If no one answered, they’d enter forcibly.

A group of detectives stayed behind as the Bellevue SWAT team, in a military-style BearCat armored vehicle, moved toward the home a few blocks away. According to officer statements and a nighttime-quality police video with audio shot from inside the BearCat, the team filed down the darkened 43rd Avenue South dressed in drab green outfits, helmets, and armored vests, outfitted with handguns and select-fire rifles—capable of semi-automatic to automatic fire, depending on the trigger pull.

At the 4:30 mark on the video counter, they move in. The BearCat is stationed around the corner, the camera filming a dead street. Over the police radio, an officer says in a low tone, “There’s a car running in the driveway.”

“Subjects are in the car, subjects are in the car!” another officer says in a raised hush, apparently recognizing Smith sitting under the dome light of his car, at the 5:22 mark.

“Let’s light it up,” says another officer. The BearCat begins moving. “Bring BearCat up, bring BearCat up!” someone orders.

By 5:29, gunlights are being trained on the car as two officers approach on either side and order Smith to show his hands, then try to break his windows. He reportedly hits the gas and roars backward. In the street, the back of his car slams violently into a big Ford pickup.

At 5:35, someone says “He turned around, he turned around!”, referring to Smith’s car moving forward.

At 5:38, a three-second sustained volley of gunfire erupts. The BearCat has moved onto 43rd, but the shooting scene is not in camera view.

“Shots fired, shots fired!”

A fire Medic One unit, routinely standing by when SWAT units are in action, was then called up.

“Advise the medic, gunshot wound to the head, severe bleeding,” a radio voice says at 6:30 on the counter. Smith was thought to still be breathing when he was carried to the medic unit. He was dead on arrival at Harborview Medical Center.

The SWAT unit then broke into the home, searching the lower level, and pulled back. With the aid of a Seattle SWAT team, police later searched the full house and yard. Along with clothing and cell phones found in the house, a .25 caliber pistol was found in a shed.

In their post-action reports, several officers recalled being close enough to see Russell Smith’s anger after he slammed into the truck. Det. Bryan Hershberger said he and Smith were staring at each other. “I could see Russell get a very angry facial expression on his face,” Hershberger wrote in his report. “Russell scrunched up his eyebrows and glared at me as I pointed my duty rifle at him.” He yelled at Smith to stop, but the car came forward. “I felt if I did not move out of the way, Russell would purposely run over me and I would be killed.” He moved, and did not fire. Other team members were in Smith’s path, he said, and did not have time or space to move.

In contrast, another SWAT member thought Smith seemed startled and, as he drove forward, covered his face. “I heard the engine rev up as the vehicle began to accelerate,” said BPD Officer Curt McIvor, “and then I saw the driver put both arms up and then cross them over his eyes, blocking his vision.” Several officers were in Smith’s path, on the sidewalk. “The angle of the vehicle was towards the sidewalk/team, rather than the clear road to the left of vehicle,” McIvor said.

Officer Ben Bradley said he was one of those potentially in the car’s path. “I immediately feared that the driver was going to try and to intentionally strike me, Officer Childers, and possibly other members of the strike team,” he said in his report. “I knew that there was nowhere for the vehicle to go as the street was blocked N/B by the pickup truck and the S/B was dead end.” Like McIvor, he and most other members got out of the way and did not fire at Smith.

Daylight photos and diagrams reveal a narrowly confined shooting scene, the car traveling a short path forward, toward (and curving away from) the curb, then rolling back. Shots were fired a few yards or feet from the car, mostly from the parking strip. One ejected cartridge case was found on the hood of the Mercedes.

Officer Andy Smith, who, with Officer Brad Knudtsen, had earlier ordered Smith out of his car and then tried to break his windows, said he ended up in a loose circle of officers around the moving car, and dashed away to avoid crossfire. Knudtsen indicated he was in an iffy position near the trunk of the car when the firing began. Det. Mark Halstad said he raised his rifle to shoot at Smith’s vehicle, but “when I realized there were two other officers directly across from me in a crossfire situation,” he held fire.

According to a report by Seattle crime-scene detective Don Ledbetter, “All of the shots came from either the right side or the front of the vehicle, and several shots were fired from almost directly in front.” The three officers who fired have not publicly released their post-action statements. But Hiam, according to an SPD report, was armed with a 9mm pistol and fired six times. Bement, with a .223 select-fire rifle, fired three times. Childers, also with a .223 select-fire rifle, fired 12 times. He had a bullet left in the chamber and 15 more remaining in a 28-round magazine.

As to who shot when, and exactly which weapon killed Smith, Ledbetter couldn’t say. “I am not able to establish the order of shots fired, nor am I able to distinguish between the shots fired by the two different rifle operators,” he said.

Those could be among the issues a six-member inquest jury tackles during an expected week of testimony starting Monday in King County District Court. Fact-finding inquests are held to determine the cause and circumstance of any death involving law enforcement. At the conclusion, jurors answer a series of interrogatories, indicating whether or not the killing was justified. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg will then decide if any charges should be brought.

Inquest questioning is limited and the evidence is cop-heavy, two of the reasons that unanimous “justified” verdicts have been the outcome of almost all of the more than 200 countywide cop-related deaths reviewed in the past 65 years. One partial exception was in January 2011, when a jury divided 4 to 4 over the key question of whether hard-of-hearing Indian woodcarver John T. Williams posed an imminent risk to Seattle officer Ian Birk before the cop quickly gunned him down in 2010. However, Satterberg subsequently concluded he would be unable to prove Birk acted out of malice, as a conviction would require, and chose not to charge him. Birk later resigned and Williams’ family received a $1.5 million city settlement.

Among questions jurors may answer in the Smith case is whether the suspect clearly realized those outside his car were police. Did he think otherwise, and panic? After he slammed into the truck, was he dazed? Could he have been trying to throw up his hands in surrender? Or was he just giving up in another sense—covering his eyes as he committed suicide by cop?

Jurors could get some inside help in answering these questions. A Seattle Police homicide report, part of the inquest record that jurors presumably will review, describes the death as “criminal killed by police officer.” If that isn’t clear enough, the homicide form asks the investigator to decide if there are any “justifiable homicide circumstances.” There were, the investigator answered. Smith “attacked off. & [was] killed by another officer.”

The robberies are still being investigated. The brother has not been charged.

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