A SWAT sniper was justified in fatally shooting a highly intoxicated Pasco man after he fired nearly 70 rounds from four different guns during a July standoff with authorities, prosecutors announced Friday.
Rick R. Howard, 49, had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit and was suicidal when he was shot in the chest following a four-hour standoff, officials said. He died on the front porch of his Sacramento Drive home with a gun nearby.
An investigation into Howard’s death was conducted by the Tri-City Special Investigative Unit, which investigates incidents where officers use deadly force. The unit is comprised of officers from different local law enforcement agencies.
Scott Surplus, a Benton County deputy and SWAT sniper, has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the July 9 incident. Officials say it was clear Howard presented a serious risk to citizens and officers.
“Letting him come outside with rifles and firing rounds outside would have been extremely dangerous,” said Kennewick police Cmdr. Craig Littrell at a press conference. “Because of (Howard’s) actions coming out armed, and knowing that he has fired 69 rounds, we needed to take action.”
Officials credited another Benton County deputy, Jason Erickson, with preventing Howard from seriously hurting or killing anyone. Erickson — who lives near Howard’s house and was off-duty during the incident — was able to keep Howard contained to his house by firing at him until backup arrived.
Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane told a small crowd at the press conference that Erickson’s actions “potentially saved many lives.”
Howard’s wife, Vicki, left work early the day of the standoff after getting concerning text messages from her husband, said Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant. When Vicki arrived home, she found Howard drinking a large bottle of liquor. He continued to drink and Vicki soon noticed an arsenal of guns next to him on the couch.
Vicki told investigators that her husband — who previously had a heart transplant — does not usually drink liquor. Vicki was able to get out of the house and Howard began shooting inside the home.
Howard eventually came out of the house carrying a high-powered rifle, shotgun and pistol, Sant said. He encountered Erickson, flanked by his two small children, and another neighbor, Leo Garcia. Erickson was able to calm Howard down and get his children home, where he called 911.
While Erickson was on the phone with a dispatcher, Howard fired and then pointed the pistol at Garcia, Sant said. Erickson fired his service weapon at Howard through an open window, allowing Garcia to take cover behind a car.
Howard returned to his house and continued firing as Erickson called for backup, Sant said. Soon, authorities from Benton and Franklin counties raced to the scene as Howard continued firing. Authorities used an armored SWAT vehicle to rescue Garcia, who was still pinned down behind a car.
Authorities surrounded Howard’s house and evacuated neighbors while Howard refused to surrender.
Howard called dispatch about an hour after the initial shots and threatened to shoot officers if they tried to come in, Sant said. He continued to fire inside the house, busting a water pipe and partially flooding the home.
“By his statements he made it very clear that if the police come I’m going to shoot them,” Sant said. “Most people understand that there is going to be a response back to those actions ...”
About 10:50 p.m., SWAT members saw Howard open the front door and raise a gun at an approaching vehicle, Sant said. Surplus, fearing Howard would shoot his fellow officers, fired the fatal shot.
A toxicology test showed Howard had a blood-alcohol level of .26, as well as marijuana and prescription medication in his system.
Erickson was honored by the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police for his actions and protecting the neighborhood. A park is just yards from Howard’s house and children and neighbors were outside on the hot summer day when the firing began.
“This had the potential for really bad things to happen,” Keane said. “I think if Deputy Erickson didn’t keep him contained inside the residence we could potentially be looking at a very, very horrific scene beyond what we already have.”
Howard is one of four men to be killed by Tri-City police officers in a three-month span. Officers have been cleared in three of the shootings and findings in a fourth — the death of Matthew L. Stoddard — could be released soon.
Authorities say all the men were armed during the incidents. The weapons included a knife, gun and pellet gun.