Anatomy of a Shooting: The Leonard Renfrow Case

From The Oregonian, April 27, 1992 – not available online

When a special police assault team approached a suspected Northeast Portland drug house last year, the officers had reason to worry.

They’d heard the man inside was a “gun nut.”

Burglar-bars blocked many doors and windows. Three dogs patrolled the yard. To the police, these were not self-protective measures but “fortification” against a raid.

Setting their assault rifles for fully automatic fire, the Portland Police Bureau’s Special Emergency Reaction Team rushed into the house. Within seconds they killed the man. They said he reached out toward them with a derringer pistol.

They’d been told to expect the derringer.

Some of the 36 rounds that the SERT team fired penetrated into an adjoining bathroom.

Had it been the kitchen, the story might have been different.

SERT didn’t know, apparently, how many people were in the house. There were three children. Two toddlers were in the kitchen with their grandmother.

An infant was with his parents at the other end of the house.

The raid yielded a half-ounce of crack.

The shooting of Leonard Manuel Renfrow is the subject of a lawsuit against the city by Renfrow ‘s widow.

The police are tightlipped about it, but the circumstances of the May 16 raid and shooting have left some questions.

The gun Renfrow allegedly pointed was a two-shot derringer. It was unloaded.

Detectives found such a weapon, a 5-inch-long chrome model, small enough to nearly conceal in the palm of the hand, in an open paper sack on the floor about four feet from Renfrow ‘s body.

It apparently fell in there during the shooting.

A police photograph shows the gun inside the sack with several hand-tools. The upper edge of the gun is slightly underneath the handle of a screwdriver, with a roll of masking tape restly partly atop the screwdriver handle.

A scrap of paper is on top of, and perhaps stuck to, the roll of tape.

Nobody is claiming it wasn’t Renfrow’s.

But Nancy Ramona Renfrow, 39, wonders whether her husband was pointing it. She also claims in her lawsuit that police didn’t announce themselves properly when they entered the house and that they shot her husband more times than necessary.

The police deny this. But their 36-round outburst was an attention-getter.

The Renfrow shooting came at a time when the bureau was stirring up controversy with a series of high-volume shootings that eventually left people dead.

Leonard Renfrow was 47 when he died, a medium-size man with a 2-inch crop of hair that grew straight up but had a soft curl.

Not everything about him said “drug dealer.”

He lived modestly, wore baseball caps and kept pictures of his children. One picture wasn’t the usual family keepsake. His son, Dupree, gave him a portrait posing with a gun.

The elder Renfrow did drive a Jaguar but it was a ’74 — almost as old as his skimpy police record.

Renfrow had been arrested back in June 1972 for “harassment,” but there was no conviction. The next time he popped up in police reports was in 1987 when he was listed as an arson suspect.

The complainant was Larry Lee “Blue” Lewis, by coincidence a former occupant of the Wygant Street house and, by further coincidence, one of two other people in the room when police killed Renfrow.

Lewis accused Renfrow of throwing a firebomb through Lewis’ dining room window.

A month later, police received a report of a drive-by shooting at Renfrow ‘s house.

That’s about the extent of what police knew about Leonard Manuel Renfrow.

That spring, an informant brought an Oregon state policeman, John L. Grosz, a tip about crack dealing at the Renfrow house. Grosz was assigned to a special team whose main job was to go after gang-related drug dealers.

Grosz arranged three buys of crack cocaine in the house. The informant reported that Renfrow was heavily armed.

Looking the place over, Grosz could see some unusual problems.

The one-story structure, situated on a low rise of ground, had heavy bars on the windows and front door. A fence partly enclosed the yard, where two pit bulls and a German shepherd mix roved on chains. Strangers would enter and leave the house every few minutes.

Grosz had no doubt whatsoever that 2327 N.E. Wygant St. was a crack house, and a dangerous one. He decided to ask SERT to serve the search warrant.

The process of authorizing SERT to crash unexpectedly into someone’s house involved all sorts of red tape.

A request had to travel the chain of command to a deputy chief and back, and the final approval was up to SERT team leader Sgt. Stanley E. Grubbs.

Grubbs had to be sure that all the approvals were duly signed from upstairs, and he had to be satisfied that the hazards Grosz described — the fortifications and the armed suspects — were duly noted and fell within the guidelines of Police Bureau General Order No. 720, Revision No. 5, regarding activation of SERT.

Grubbs then signed his name.

The raid was going to be a fairly complex operation. There would be separate assault and diversion teams coordinating with a third element whose job would be to create, literally, a second entrance into the house if necessary.

Grubbs got ahold of a floor plan, but the house had been remodeled at least twice.

Renfrow was a do-it-yourselfer and could easily have made changes that wouldn’t show on the plan. So, if a door didn’t exist, as shown, or if it had been moved or obstructed, the risks of the raid went up.

Once inside, SERT officers had to move quickly before people could react. This, and an intimidating show of force, was a means of avoiding violence.

With that patchwork of intelligence, SERT chalked out a full-size diagram of the house on a floor at Tactical Operations Division and began rehearsing.

Renfrow had made the entry problem simple. His visitors were going in through the add-on TV den on the west end of the house.The den had a sliding glass door opening onto a patio.

The slider would be no problem at all. A SERT officer would smack out the glass with an iron bar and rake aside the drapes.

The usual effect was an open-mouthed collection of people sitting in goldfish bowl. The assault team, looking like alien invaders in ski masks, goggles and camouflage suits, would spring through the door and aim their automatic weapons before anyone could move.

Grubbs designed the approach. Seven officers, including himself, would make up the primary assault team.

However many times they had done this, the SERT people knew it wasn’t a game.

Six weeks earlier, all seven had been involved in the shooting death of 19-year-old Michael Lee Henry as he held a teller hostage inside a bank at the Gateway Fred Meyer store. Henry was killed by 19 shots, but the hostage was safe.

During that operation three SERT members — including Grubbs — suffered minor injuries when hit by bullets fired by fellow officers.

But 40 days later they were back in action.

Officer Michael D. Lieb, 29, drew the job of pathfinder.

John Cordell would walk behind Lieb as the dog man, a job he hated.

He would carry a pistol.

The “point man” would be third in line during the initial approach.

This was SERT officer Larry R. Wooten, 39. Wooten had also been first through the door during the bank hostage rescue and fired 10 shots.

And on Wooten’s heels would be Tadd W.H. Kruger, 33.

Kruger had been right behind Wooten going through the door of the Gateway Fred Meyer bank. He fired six shots.

Bob Childers, who would line up behind Grubbs going into the Renfrow house, had fired two shots in the Gateway Fred Meyer operation. Mark Butler, assigned to the diversion squad, had fired one.

As darkness fell, SERT team members went through a last rehearsal and put on their ballistic vests and camouflage fatigues. They readied their balaclava — dark hoods with eye-slits, and goggles.

Several members of the team, including Wooten, Kruger and Lieb, would carry submachine guns. The Austrian-made HK MP-5s took a 30-round clip of 9 mm ammunition and could spit out 10 rounds per second.

The raiders moved out in two vans.

The entry team watched the other van drive by slowly. It disappeared past Renfrow ‘s motor home. SERT medic Bill Barrie of the Portland Fire Bureau pulled the second van to the curb near the walkway going up to the front door. If the signal came, Barrie was going to drive away with that door.

Back at the other van, dark figures emerged onto the sidewalk. The team “tapped up.” Each man touched the shoulder of the man in front, murmuring a number.

In front of the house, the diversion crew waited for its cue.

Officer Eric A. Hendricks, 36, a relative newcomer to SERT, was paired up with Butler, the most senior. Hendricks would break the living room window the moment they heard the entry team shout “search warrant.”

And if Grubbs radioed that the hallway door was blocked, Barrie’s van would run away with the front door, and Hendricks would lead the backup team into the living room.

SERT Officer Mike Smith, moving up to cover Hendricks, could see that the front door wasn’t going to be a problem. It was open.

Renfrow ‘s wife, Nancy, had been watching television in the living room 10 minutes earlier with two of her grandchildren.

Leonard Mario Renfrow, not quite 3, and his sister, Lashia, not quite 2, had been living in the house along with their parents since October.

The parents, Leonard Renfrow Jr. and his girlfriend, Gloria Thompson, had turned in early with their infant son, Angelo. They were in a bedroom as the SERT vans drove up.

And that was about the time Nancy Renfrow got up from in front of the television to go feed the three dogs outside.

She took the two toddlers into the kitchen.

Lieb begins walking. The team follows.

In the dark, a dog begins barking.

Cordell has his pistol ready.

Three people are having a conversation in Renfrow ‘s cluttered den.

Larry Lee Lewis, 41, sits on a sofa against the west wall.

Apparently bygones have been bygones since the time Lewis accused Renfrow of trying to burn his house down.

A family acquaintance, Ethel Kindred, 35, sits on Lewis’ left.

Renfrow is on another sofa to their left, against the north wall. He sits behind a coffee table.

Lewis will later tell the police he saw a derringer on one corner of that table, but Kindred won’t remember it.

Renfrow faces the sliding door, 14 feet away. On this warm night the door is ajar.

Suddenly everybody looks that way.

What is wrong with that dog?

Kelly, the mixed-breed German shepherd, is furiously challenging the dark shape that moves toward him up the driveway.

Cordell steps around Lieb and aims.

Five shots.

Wooten sees a man step into the doorway and then run back inside. The team is virtually on his heels. Svilar drops his iron bar and flings the door wide open. Over by the living room window, Hendricks hears shouts of “search warrant” and “police.”

Wooten is running into the den, followed by Kruger, Lieb and Grubbs.

What happened next — what the different witnesses did, or didn’t do, saw or didn’t see, gets a little muddled.

Wooten will tell homicide detectives a few hours later that he saw Renfrow standing on the porch, then run into the den just ahead of him and sit on the couch facing the door.

But Lewis will tell the detectives that he was the one who looked out the door after hearing the shots that killed the dog. He said he then turned around and flopped face-down on the floor. This position, he said, made it impossible for him to see Renfrow being shot a few seconds later.

Wooten’s recollection was different. He said Lewis was on the couch.

Wooten remembers shouting at Kindred and Lewis to get on the floor, but “the female stayed on the couch (and) put her hands up” while Lewis “slid off the couch down on his knees, started to raise his hands.”

Kindred told investigators, however, that she didn’t see the shooting because she had buried her face in a pillow as soon as she heard the shots outside.

A detective asked her, “So, uh, basically you never saw anything, you just heard it, you just heard loud noises, shooting?”

“Yes,” replied Kindred.

There were other loose ends.

Kruger’s job had been to move straight ahead, concentrating on any threat from that area, which meant Renfrow.

As Kruger moved up on Wooten’s right, Wooten said he caught a glimpse of Renfrow leaping suddenly from the couch and pushing something at his face. He described it to investigators a few hours later as a shiny derringer, no question about it.

The range was maybe three feet.

Kruger fired. So did Wooten and Lieb.

All three MP-5s were on full-automatic. Which officer shot first isn’t clear. But there were 36 shots, and 22 hit Renfrow.

The bursts took only a second or two.

The flurry of 9mm bullets walked around Renfrow from his front to his side to his back as he fell. Most of the ring and small fingers of his right hand turned to pulp.

The injuries to Renfrow’s hand would complicate, further, the mystery of the derringer. A detective found it in a paper sack four feet from the body.

Police concluded that the gun flew there from Renfrow ‘s hand as he spun around during the shooting, jostling itself slightly under other objects in the bag.

The Oregon State Police laboratory identified foreign material above the trigger as human flesh matching Renfrow’s tissue-type. The photo did not show any damage to the derringer from the bullets that mangled Renfrow’s hand.

There were two other photographs in the file relating to the derringer puzzle:

In one of them, Homicide Detective William Johnston is shown standing in Renfrow ‘s TV den with his fist extended toward the camera. He is pointing a small metal-tipped cigarette lighter at the camera.

Another photo shows a remnant of a cigarette lighter. It is similar to the one Johnston is holding.

Renfrow had turned about-face as he was shot, dropping into a kneeling position over the seat of a folding metal chair. A bureau criminalist collected the lighter remnant from the seat and four smaller pieces from the carpet near the body.

One of Johnston’s reports mentioned the lighter, saying it “appeared to be shattered and in pieces from being hit by a bullet.”

The reports don’t discuss the lighter or explain why Johnston posed for a photograph, pointing a similar one at the camera.

The police have declined to discuss the case while the Renfrow lawsuit is pending, but Grubbs said everything would be easily explained if the case ever goes to trial.

The file hints that the lighter question may have been raised and disposed of.

Kruger told Detective Ed Herbert in a taped interview, without the question being asked, that he’d considered the possibility that Renfrow had something in his hand other than a gun.

“I didn’t know if it was a TV remote controller, a lighter, or what it was, but I did not recognize it as a handgun,” he said. Then, he said, Renfrow suddenly stood up and reached out and “I realized that I was looking down the bore of a derringer. I thought he was going to shoot me in the head.”

Kruger described seeing Renfrow ‘s finger move on the trigger and said “things kind of slowed up for a second and in my mind’s eye everything was happening real fast.

“We had just made entry in the room and I was scared. I mean, it’s almost like you don’t have time to be afraid, you’re just reacting, realizing what’s going to occur and you react to it. I mean you can be afraid later, but at that point in time there was really no time for any kind of an emotional response. It was either do it or die.”

A Multnomah County grand jury cleared all the officers, as did the bureau after its own internal administrative review. The details of both proceedings are secret.

Police files did make it clear that SERT had little, if any, idea of who all was in the house during the raid.

Hendricks broke the living room window and tore down the curtains on cue, but nobody was there.

SERT’s outside perimeter team also killed the Renfrows’ two pit bulldogs on the east end of the house.

Nancy Renfrow, hearing the shots, got down on the kitchen floor with the toddlers.

The police ordered everyone out. Nancy Renfrow brought out the grandchildren. Her stepson and his girlfriend came out with their infant.

A search left little doubt that Renfrow was selling drugs in the house.

An ashtray under the coffee table contained four half-inch chunks of crack cocaine, a total of 14 grams. A packet of marijuana was on top of the table. A crack-pipe was on the floor near Kindrick’s thongs and purse. Police also fund measuring scales, filters, packaging materials and funnels.

And there were notes about prices of an unnamed commodity in terms of grains, grams and ounces.

But the evidence that 2327 N.E. Wygant St. was an armed fortress requiring a military-style assault wasn’t quite as clear.

Nancy Renfrow, a bookkeeper for a roofing company, had owned the house since 1977. The bars were there when she bought it.

Still, there was the matter of the drugs. “Blue” Lewis told the police, after the shooting, that Leonard Renfrow kept crack for his friends, that Renfrow sometimes gave him crack, free, but otherwise sold it for modest prices — $2 to $5 a hit.

Renfrow’s armory didn’t amount to much. Besides the 9mm derringer, police found three guns. Two guns were in a bedroom trunk. One was an old Iver-Johnson .45 caliber revolver with its cylinder removed.

The other gun was a Colt D.A. .41 caliber revolver with one empty casing in the cylinder.

In the closet of another bedroom was a Rohm gmbH Model 66 .22 caliber revolver with five live rounds and the hammer on an empty chamber.

Lab technicians tried making the derringer work, to no avail.

They did come up with a possible explanation, however indirect, of why Renfrow may have seen fit to point a broken gun at police officers carrying automatic weapons.

Renfrow ‘s blood alcohol level was .18 percent — very drunk — and there was a trace of cocaine in his urine.