Kennewick policeman 'acted appropriately' in shooting

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldJuly 19, 2013 

A Kennewick police officer acted appropriately when he shot a 26-year-old man through the chest in June near Horse Heaven Hills Park, officials said at a news conference Friday.

A monthlong investigation by the Tri-Cities Regional Special Investigation Unit -- an interagency task force composed of local law enforcement -- found that Officer Jeremy Taylor had no option but to shoot Dennis Jaymes Skellenger as the Kennewick man allegedly pointed a gun at another officer.

No one on the task force was from the Kennewick Police Department.

The unit's report, which was more than 1,200 pages, was handed over to Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller to review.

"Based on the facts of the case," Miller said. "I concluded that Officer Taylor acted not only appropriately, but acted in the only course of action that was available to him given the circumstances."

The .38 revolver Skellenger allegedly pointed at K-9 handler Brad Kohn as he hid behind a tractor in an open field was missing multiple pieces and was "inoperable," Miller said.

The revolver was not loaded, didn't have a mainspring -- which causes the gun to fire -- and was missing a barrel, said Richland police Capt. Al Wehner, who headed the unit's investigation.

It was not clear to the "naked eye" that the gun didn't work and investigators had to send it to the Washington State Crime Lab before they realized it couldn't fire, Miller said.

"Even the officers who were involved in the investigation and observed the gun couldn't tell it was broken," Miller said.

Skellenger spent about a month at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle recovering from the gunshot wound, which grazed his left wrist, struck his chest and went out through his back. Miller has filed charges against Skellenger for third-degree assault, a felony, and eluding for the June 15 incident. The Prosecutor's Office will not issue an arrest warrant for Skellenger -- who is back in the Tri-Cities recovering -- due to "medical problems" he's experienced from his injuries.

If it weren't for those medical problems, an arrest warrant would have been issued, Miller said. Skellenger will be sent a notice to appear in court later this month to face the charges.

Police have had at least 169 contacts with Skellenger since 2000, said Kennewick police Chief Ken Hohenberg.

An internal review by the Kennewick Police Department on July 17 found that Taylor was justified in the shooting and he will return to patrol duty on Monday, Hohenberg said.

Taylor -- who has been with the department for six years -- was on paid administrative leave for just over two weeks after the shooting. He returned to the department July 1 in an administrative role.

"Officer Taylor is an example of somebody who did what they are trained to do under some very tough circumstances," Hohenberg said.

The shooting took place on a sunny Friday morning around 7:55 a.m., when Skellenger allegedly tried to return merchandise he bought with a stolen credit card to Auto Zone in Kennewick.

When Kennewick police tried to stop Skellenger in a parking lot near the store, he fled and the hood of the gray El Camino he was driving opened over his windshield, Miller said. Officers chased Skellenger for a short distance before the chase was called off for public safety reasons.

Police found Skellenger's abandoned car at 27th Street and South Keller in Kennewick, Miller said. Residents began calling police about a man jumping fences and running through backyards. Police tracked Skellenger to an open field near the park and Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Miller said. Kohn, who was holding a K-9 officer, Taylor and Cpl. Matt Newton saw a foot sticking out from tractor in the field.

It was Taylor's job to cover Kohn as he approached the tractor and Newton was behind both men, Hohenberg said.

"It's important to realize officer Kohn had his hands full controlling the dog," Hohenberg said. "Officer Kohn did not have his gun out."

Kohn repeatedly told Skellenger to come out, Miller said. After refusing to come out, Skellenger told Kohn, "OK, I'm coming out."

As Skellenger came out, he had the revolver point at Kohn and Taylor shot him, Miller said. No other shots were fired. Skellenger was taken to the hospital and the three officers were interviewed separately, Miller said. All three of the officers' statements matched when they were interviewed.

"These three officers didn't have the opportunity to discuss the details of what they observed prior to (their) statements," Miller said.

Kohn and Newton were allowed to return to work immediately following the incident.

Miller stressed throughout the press conference that Taylor was protecting his fellow officer and had no option but to shoot when he saw the gun allegedly pointed at Kohn.

"This is another example of the Tri-Cities community being proud of our local law enforcement agencies," he said. "Officer Taylor fired the shot only when there was no alternative to do so."

Skellenger is still being investigated by the Kennewick Police Department and the Prosecutor's Office for charges related to the merchandise he allegedly tried to return, Miller said.

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556;; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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