Files show police in disarray during deadly standoff

From the Oregonian, December 22, 2005. Not available elsewhere online.

Detective Rae Klein didn’t waste a moment trying to strike up a rapport with a 30-year-old armed suicidal man who had threatened to shoot the police from a Northeast Portland triplex on Nov. 4.

Raymond Gwerder      November 12, 2005 - February 4, 1975

Raymond Gwerder November 12, 2005 - February 4, 1975

“Ray, hi. My name’s Rae, too,” started Klein, a trained hostage negotiator. “I’m with the Police Bureau. What’s going on?”

Over the next 6 minutes and 50 seconds, the detective told Raymond Gwerder to put his gun down. She assured him police would not storm the house or hurt him. And, not knowing that Gwerder was in the backyard, Klein urged him to stay inside.

She got him talking about his pure-bred Collie. He told her the dog’s name was Lillie, and she shed a lot. “Too much actually,” he added.

Then he let out a loud guttural cry, as if someone socked him in the stomach.

A Portland police sniper had fired a shot from his .308-caliber rifle, striking Gwerder in the back as the man was about to go inside the triplex.

Detective Klein stayed on the line, calling Ray’s name at least 10 times. But she got no response.

East Precinct Cmdr. Mike Crebs, who was in charge of police operations that day, told investigators later, “The shot just came outta nowhere. . . . I thought we were talking to the guy.”

Portland police on Wednesday released a tape of Klein’s brief conversation with Gwerder, as well as at least 1,000 pages of police reports and transcripts of detectives’ interviews with police involved in the shooting. The material revealed a breakdown in communication between members of the hostage negotiation team and members of the bureau’s Special Emergency Reaction Team who surrounded the home.

It also showed that there was tension at the scene between Crebs and SERT Lt. Joe Stidham over when to evacuate a mother and her children from a neighboring unit, whether to move SERT’s armored car in front of the triplex as a show of force and just how the command post should be run.

Further, there were misunderstandings among officers regarding who was assigned to do what. For example, several commanding officers identified SERT Officer Rusty Nelson as a liaison to the hostage negotiation team, responsible for relaying information between the negotiator and the SERT officers.

Nelson, however, told investigators he didn’t feel that was his responsibility but the role of another officer, Jim Schindler. Schindler, in his brief written report, said he knew the hostage negotiation team had contacted Gwerder .

“Shortly thereafter I learned he had been shot. This ended my duties,” Schindler wrote in a three-paragraph report.

Meanwhile, Stidham said he had received no radio updates about Gwerder ‘s movements just before one of his sniper officers fired the fatal shot.

The hostage negotiation sergeant, John Brooks, who was monitoring Klein’s conversation with Gwerder, had no idea Gwerder had been in the backyard of the triplex, even though several SERT officers were watching him.

The sniper, Officer Leo Besner, later told investigators that he saw Gwerder appear to aim his gun as if “hunting” for something. He said he feared that if Gwerder went inside the triplex, he’d harm a mother and her two children in an adjoining unit. Yet several SERT supervisors told investigators later that they would have preferred having Gwerder inside the home, rather than outside where officers could be his target.

A Multnomah County grand jury reviewed the police shooting and found no criminal wrongdoing by Besner. However, several of the grand jurors interviewed last month said there was a glaring lack of overall strategy and wondered whether Gwerder would still be alive if it had been handled differently.

Portland Police Chief Derrick Foxworth said an internal investigation will examine officer communication and tactics and whether police followed bureau policy.

Instead of using a mobile command post at the scene, Crebs, the SERT lieutenant, the hostage negotiation team’s acting lieutenant and the commander of the tactical operations division stood together about a block away from the triplex. Crebs called it a “little modular group that’s constantly communicating,” saying that he expected the others around him to hear the updates he was receiving.

But that didn’t always happen. The SERT lieutenant got frustrated that Crebs would step away at times. Stidham told investigators, “I couldn’t get him to stay put. . . . So finally I just asked him, please stay here, and tell me what your goals are here.”

Crebs explained later that his goal was simple: “Get that guy out alive.”

Crebs directed the hostage negotiator to get Gwerder on the phone as soon as possible, even though Stidham argued that she should wait until all the SERT officers were in place. Crebs wanted SERT officers to figure out a way to quickly evacuate the mother and children next door; Stidham felt that would put his officers and others at risk. Stidham wanted SERT’s armored car to drive up as a show of force. Crebs nixed that, instructing officers to stand by out of sight.

After the shooting, Stidham came up to Crebs as the commander was seated in his car. Stidham told him there was nothing else that police could’ve done.

Crebs, in his interview with detectives, choked up. “You know, I didn’t want to see it end like this.”