Crime

Passenger in Richland police shooting tells story

RICHLAND — A Grandview man in the car when James Dean Schultz was killed by Richland police claims his friend did nothing to warrant the barrage of gunfire.

Schultz, 27, was climbing over the front seat of the gold Honda Accord trying to start the ignition when officers started shooting, said Rolando Vargas, 21.

Vargas was with Schultz and three others during the 6:30 a.m. incident June 5 on Cottonwood Drive.

"As soon as he reached for the ignition -- I think he cranked it once -- when he went to do it again, they started shooting him," Vargas told the Herald on Monday, giving his version of what happened in the fatal shooting.

Full details of the shooting have not been released by authorities, but Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller did question Vargas' credibility based on his criminal history and inconsistencies with his statements and those from other witnesses.

"His statement does appear to be inconsistent with other evidence in the investigation," he said. "It's pretty clear he was committing a crime shortly before the shooting and he lied about the commission of the crime. He has not been straightforward or consistent."

Richland police have previously said two guns were found at the shooting scene -- one was in the car and one in a backpack found in a nearby yard -- and two spent shell casings not matching the officers' ammunition were inside the car.

A witness also reported seeing Schultz with a handgun and hearing a gunshot from inside the car before officers fired, police said.

Four of the five officers placed on paid administrative leave after the shooting fired their guns, said Richland police Capt. Jeff Taylor.

Their names were made public Monday.

-- Sgt. Tony Striefel, who has spent eight of his 14 years in law enforcement with Richland.

-- Cpl. Bryce Henry, who has been a Richland officer for 10 years and has a total of 14 years law enforcement experience.

-- Cpl. Hyrum Stohel, who has 14 years law enforcement experience and has been with Richland for 61/2 years.

-- Officer Jon Ladines, a Richland patrol officer for 3 1/2 years with a total of 12 years in law enforcement.

The four officers will remain on paid leave until the investigation is done, which is standard procedure.

The fifth officer, Officer Scott Lien, did not fire his gun but was a witness to the shooting, Taylor said.

Lien has been cleared to return to work. He is a nine-year law enforcement veteran who has been a Richland officer for four weeks and is completing training.

The shooting is being investigated by the newly created Tri-City Special Investigation Unit.

Vargas was arrested after the shooting after a homeowner allegedly confronted him in a yard in the 1400 block of Alice Street, where a backpack with a 9mm gun was later found. Vargas was released from the Benton County jail Thursday.

He has not been charged, but Miller said they are still looking into that case.

Miller said Vargas' initial statement to police that he inadvertently stepped on the grass and was confronted by the homeowner was not true.

Detectives with Kennewick police and the Benton County Sheriff's Office interviewed Vargas again after the backpack was found and Vargas claimed Schultz told said he had ID in the backpack and wanted Vargas to get it.

No identification belonging to Schultz was in the backpack, Miller said.

"The fact of that is that Vargas was allegedly committing a crime that night and lied about it, and even after he lied he gave a statement that raises questions about his credibility," Miller said.

Vargas, who would only tell the Herald that the group was in Richland going to a friend's house, said they were driving on Cottonwood Drive in his cousin's car when they passed a cop and he got behind them and turned his emergency lights on.

His cousin pulled over near Thayer Drive and two more patrol cars showed up and officers surrounded them at gunpoint, Vargas said.

He said his female cousin was driving, a male friend was in the front passenger seat, Schultz was sitting behind the passenger, a female friend was in the middle in back and he was sitting in behind the driver.

Officers reportedly ordered the driver out of the car, and she got out, while the others stayed inside. Vargas said that's when Schultz climbed over from the back seat and tried to start the car.

"As soon as the first shot was fired (by police), (the front passenger) jumped out ... ," Vargas said. "The cop was right next to his door. When he started crawling out, the cop was shooting over him."

Miller, however, said that appears to be inconsistent with what the front seat passenger told police.

Vargas said several shots were fired by three or four officers. He said officers shot from the driver's side, passenger side and the front of the car. He said the officer behind the car may have also fired.

"It all happened quick. There was a lot of gunshots," Vargas said. "... Every bullet they shot hit him. I just saw the body jerk. With the second gunshot, he fell back into the passenger seat, but the cop just kept unloading on him."

No one else in the car was hit by gunfire.

Vargas said when the gunfire ended, he asked the cops why they shot Schultz and they reportedly said Schultz shot at them first.

"I didn't see James with a gun," Vargas said. "How can you hold onto the steering wheel and turn the ignition with a gun?"

When told police said a witness heard a gunshot from the car first, Vargas said, "That never happened."

Miller said Vargas' criminal history shows he may not be an objective observer. Vargas is a documented gang member, Miller said, and has the following criminal convictions: second-degree possession of stolen property, eluding, two counts of unlawful possession of a firearm, second-degree theft, two gross misdemeanor convictions for vehicle prowling, possession of marijuana under 40 grams and criminal trespassing.

"Vargas claims he never saw Schultz with a handgun, but does concede Schultz typically carried a .380 (caliber gun)," Miller said. "There are some issues with Mr. Vargas' claim that he didn't see Schultz with the handgun."

Capt. Taylor said more facts will be released once the investigation is completed.

The names of the officers involved were released Monday because they were interviewed late Friday afternoon.

The officers' names were also withheld while investigators reviewed whether Schultz had any ties to gangs. One of the occupants in the car was an identified gang member, Taylor said.

In the past year, police have documented information that local gang members are believed to be carrying guns and have made "serious threats" against police, Taylor said.

He said gang members have been told that anyone who hurts an officer will achieve the highest dedication to that gang.

Taylor said the officers were not aware of the gang affiliation at the time of the incident and it did not contribute to the actions that the officers took.

But, he said, it would have been inappropriate to prematurely release that detail, and it took some time to investigate whether Schultz had any formal ties with gangs. They found he didn't.

Police officials weren't willing to release the names of the officers until the safety of the officers and their families could be "reasonably assured," Taylor said.

A separate administrative investigation has been initiated by the Richland Police Department to determine if the officers' actions were in compliance with department police and practices, and to evaluate the incident from an equipment and training perspective.

-- Paula Horton: 509-582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com

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