King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht has fired a detective involved in the 2019 fatal shooting of a Black Diamond man, concluding the deputy’s tactics unnecessarily escalated a situation that led to the unfortunate use of deadly force.
Ultimately, Johanknecht exonerated the detective, George Alvarez, of the allegation that he or his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, used excessive or unnecessary force when they shot and killed Anthony Chilcott, who could have struck the deputies while trying to drive away: “I think that you reasonably concluded you and your partner were at risk of serious bodily injury or death,” the sheriff wrote.
But Alvarez should not have let the situation reach that point, the sheriff concluded.
“The urgency here was created by your actions, not the actions of the suspect,” Johanknecht wrote in a March 25 notice of termination letter, adding that backup was nearby.
Johanknecht also chastised Alvarez for failing to wear a marked ballistic vest identifying him as law enforcement when he moved to arrest Chilcott.
Cooper Offenbecher, a Seattle attorney representing Alvarez, told the Seattle Times last week that Alvarez will challenge his termination. The deputy’s actions that day were necessary and justified due to the danger Chilcott posed to the community, Offenbecher told The Times.
Due to Alvarez’s actions that day and two prior disciplinary incidents (including a “serious incident of misconduct” in 2003), Johanknecht fired the detective effective April 2. He served with the KCSD for 21 years.
“Your actions demonstrated a disregard for the public, your partner and yourself,” she concluded.
No charges have been filed against either deputy by the King County Prosecutor’s Office. Prosecutors are waiting for the results of a coroner’s inquest into Chilcott’s death before making a final decision on whether to charge.
Carl Sanders was filling the gas tank of his Ford Raptor at the Black Diamond Cenex gas station the afternoon of Friday Nov. 22, 2019 and went inside the store to make a quick purchase.
That’s when deputies say Chilcott jumped in the unlocked truck, which also contained the man’s 4-year-old poodle named Monkey, and sped away, ripping the nozzle and hose from the still-flowing gas pump.
Law enforcement issued a “Be on the lookout” alert for Chilcott, as he was wanted on suspicion of auto theft, theft of a dog and misdemeanor stalking. That alert included a warning that he was known to be hostile to law enforcement, and likely to try to evade or use force against officers.
The Raptor was spotted near Flaming Geyser State Park by a county deputy three days later, but it sped away again.
Later, a pair of county detectives — Alvarez and Lerum — learned the truck was in the vicinity of Southeast 352nd in the small, unincorporated community of Cumberland. Driving an unmarked GMC Yukon with Lerum in the passenger seat, Alvarez searched for Chilcott with the plan to locate him and then call in for backup.
Alvarez determined from witnesses and other officers that Chilcott had hit another deputy’s car during a pursuit. The deputy clarified within minutes that the “hit” was merely incidental contact with the push bar that likely caused no damage, but communication was imperfect and Alvarez said he didn’t catch everything that came over the radio, according to the sheriff’s letter.
Alvarez saw Chilcott drive past him going the other way, and discreetly made a u-turn in order to follow Chilcott. He came upon Chilcott to find the man had pulled over and stopped on the side of the road next to a power station.
It was at this point, Johanknecht wrote, that Alvarez’ tactics went awry.
“Rather than continue to surveil and wait for the ‘calvary [sic],’ you made a sudden decision, without any planning, discussion or communication with Detective Lerum, to pull up next to the vehicle,” the sheriff wrote.
The Raptor’s tinted windows “made it impossible to see what the suspect was up to” when Alvarez drove up by the car, putting Lerum, who was in the passenger seat, right next to Chilcott’s window. Lerum was “unaware of this sudden change in strategy,” Johanknecht wrote.
“Your primary rationale was the potential risk to the people at the bus stop nearby, and yet, you took actions that likely increased the risk of harm to nearby civilians,” Johanknecht wrote. “You also failed to follow basic offer safety practices and your extensive training, creating extreme risk for your partner and yourself.”
A better strategy, Johanknecht wrote, would have been surveilling Chilcott from a distance as the deputy had originally planned. Alvarez knew backup was coming, the sheriff wrote, and didn’t use the chance he had to calm the situation down.
When contacted, Chilcott did not comply with commands from the deputies, and Lerum radioed that Chilcott then rammed the deputies. In response, Alvarez pushed Chilcott’s vehicle across the road and onto a string of rocks.
According to the letter, some witnesses at the nearby bus stop thought Alvarez rammed Chilcott first, but there were no witnesses who said they saw the entire sequence of events.
Chilcott, stuck on the rocks, began spinning his wheels in an attempt to flee. The deputies approached the car and broke out the driver’s side window with a sledgehammer, then reached inside to try to shut the vehicle off and stop Chilcott from getting away.
Chilcott fought with officers, the sheriff wrote, at one point grabbing for Alvarez’ firearm. In that struggle, Alvarez and Lerum shot Chilcott.
Monkey, who was still in the pickup at the time of the shooting, lept from the pickup and ran. He was returned to his family.
As far as whether Alvarez could face criminal charges, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is waiting for the results of a coroner’s inquest into Chilcott’s death.
“After the inquest process is completed, our office will further examine this case in light of any new information/evidence gleaned from the inquest,” King County Prosecuting Attorney Casey McNerthney said in an email. “A decision to criminally charge or not charge the officers will be made at that time.”
That decision likely won’t be made anytime soon. King County Executive Dow Constanine halted police shooting inquiries in January 2018 while a county committee considered potential reforms to the system.
The county filed an order changing the system in October that year, but various cities, law enforcement entities and families of the deceased filed suits challenging parts of the new process.
Some progress came in June last year, when Seattle dropped its own legal challenges and Constantine agreed to certain compromises over the inquest process. But other legal challenges remain.
If prosecutors do ultimately file charges against Alvarez over the shooting, that decision could be aided by recent legislation.
At the time of the shooting, state law required prosecutors to prove that law enforcement officers acted with “malice,” or ill intent, to successfully argue that a use of deadly force was not justifiable.
But that changed in 2018 and 2019 with the passages of Initiative 940 and House Bill 1064, which together changed the standard to “whether another officer acting reasonably in the same circumstances would have believed deadly force was necessary.”