Gresham Police Say Carts Blocked Officers’ Retreat

From The Oregonian, August 25, 1994

Police on Wednesday significantly changed their version of events Sunday when an officer shot and killed a mentally ill woman in the Gresham Fred Meyer store.

There were no shopping carts at both ends of the aisle when five police officers confronted Janet Marilyn Smith, who was carrying a knife. Instead, Fred Meyer employees moved the carts and blocked the aisle after the officers went into the aisle to talk to her.

The action effectively trapped the officers and Smith in the aisle, giving police no room to retreat once Smith lunged at them with her 6-inch knife.

Sgt. David B. Lerwick, spokesman for the Gresham Police Department, said there were inaccuracies in the version of events released to the public because he failed to ask investigators the right questions. He said he made the assumptions based on his experience and observations after the shooting, not on interviews with witnesses or officers involved.

“It’s my fault, and I take all the responsibility,” Lerwick said.

He said the detectives investigating the incident didn’t correct some of the details because they didn’t expect them to be controversial.

More details should be released after a hearing before a grand jury Tuesday. Gresham police also are conducting an internal investigation.

The department is getting calls from people criticizing officers for killing Smith.

They have been asking — based on three days of news accounts — why police went beyond the barricade of shopping carts placed at both ends of the aisle. They want to know why police didn’t wound or disable her, instead of shooting her.

Earlier this week, Lerwick said he didn’t know why police went around the carts and entered the aisle before calling mental health professionals or trained negotiators.

Lerwick said a store manager told him the employees moved the carts. But Lerwick said he failed to ask when the carts were moved — assuming they were put into place before police arrived.

Wednesday afternoon, Lerwick asked an officer involved in the shooting to describe what happened. The officer told him store employees blocked their retreat with the carts after all the officers were in the aisle.

A detective investigating the shooting confirmed the information, Lerwick said.

Lerwick said he first got some of his information from a detective Sunday afternoon. Lerwick said he didn’t talk to the officers involved until Wednesday to spare them reliving the event.

“You’ve got to realize what trauma these officers go through when they’re at the site where another human being has been shot and died in front of them,” he said.

The officers also were told not to read newspapers or listen to radio or TV broadcasts because they might influence their testimony to the grand jury investigating the case.

On Wednesday, two officers recalled the event for Lerwick. Here is what they said happened:

Police were dispatched to the Fred Meyer store at 1:11 p.m. Four officers and a sergeant arrived two minutes later and saw Smith sitting 10 feet in front of the checkout counters down Aisle 6. She held a cat and a knife. One police officer believed she was threatening to kill the cat; but the others have since said she wasn’t threatening the cat.

One officer went to the back of the aisle while four others positioned themselves at the front. Earlier accounts placed two officers at the front and three at the back.

One officer went over to Smith and knelt to talk to her.

Smith abruptly got up and walked away from the officer and headed toward the back of the aisle. The four officers followed her, one walking by her side, Officer Ron Willis behind her, and the other two somewhere behind Willis.

As Smith approached the officer near the back of the aisle, he, the officer at Smith’s side and Willis all sprayed her with pepper Mace to subdue her. However, the Mace didn’t appear to affect her.

By then, the carts were in place behind the officers cutting off their retreat.

Smith then turned around and charged Willis. Willis shot her twice in the chest when she was 5 feet in front of him.

Lerwick said he didn’t know whether Willis backed up before firing his gun. But they were all in the back half of the aisle, he said.

“What do you do when you know you’re trapped, when you can’t turn and run?” asked Lerwick.