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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Examining the Police Shooting of Merle Mikal Hatch

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 3:44 PM

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A fellow named Daniel Fox—at least that's what he said it was—had checked himself into the emergency room at Portland Adventist Medical Center on a humdrum Sunday in February because he thought two men were following him and maybe trying to kill him.

Fox admitted he was three days down from a meth binge and he had the oozing, pockmarked arms of an addict who just couldn't stop picking at his skin. He was nervous. Antsy. Pacing back and forth and refusing to sit down to have his vitals checked. And he made the hospital staff nervous in turn.

Right around 7 pm on Sunday, February 17, he was sent back to a part of the ER known as "security lane." Adventist is known for its mental health intake facility, and that's usually where the psych cases, or the people coming down from drugs, are tucked in while waiting for someone to see if they qualify for a police hold.

The long wait was grinding on Fox. He spent a lot of time telling one guard, Richard Butler, all about the men he thought were chasing him, down to their clothing, in intense detail. In between, he'd settle down and talk about sports. He did say, at one point, "today is a not a bad day to die." Weird, but not so uncommon for psych patients, Butler said.

Two hours later, it was guard Carol Graff's turn to mind Fox and attempt what coworkers call "her mom routine." He refused water, and he didn't need a blanket, so she got into doing some paperwork. But by 9:20, something in Fox had changed. He was eerily calm, like "Cool Hand Luke," Graff says. And very decisive. And he said he had a gun. And he wanted out.

What no one knew—and what a lot of people wouldn't know for hours and days afterward—was that "Fox" was really a federal fugitive named Merle Mikal Hatch who was supposed to be headed to Denver to finish out a sentence for bank robbery. He also was unarmed. He had taken a black phone handset from his room, smashed it outside, and then did what robbers do: He pretended it was a gun and pulled off the con very convincingly.

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Maybe no more than 15 minutes later, Hatch was splayed dead in the hospital's parking lot, having been hit by six police bullets after goading and charging at a line of cops—an encounter captured on cell phone video.

Hundreds of pages of grand jury transcripts released yesterday (here, here, and here) fill in the picture of how Hatch wound up dying in Portland's first fatal police shooting since the summer and reveal, for the first time, what led Hatch to the hospital in the first place.

The three cops who shot at Hatch—Sergeant Nathan Voeller, Officer Royce Curtiss, and Officer Andrew Hearst—have all been cleared of criminal wrongdoing. And the transcripts also offer the first detailed look into how those officers tried to manage a quickly changing situation—including at least one instance where Hatch pointed his black handset at cops without reprisal—before they got out their guns and began emptying them.

"I could not tell you what he was saying. But it looks like, psychologically, he's preparing for a fight," Voeller testified. "And now he is pointing that gun at us and he's yelling. Again, I have never been in that situation. And I hope to never be in that situation again."

***

The first report that Hatch was armed came from Graff. In the hallway, as he demanded she use her badge to swipe him out of "security lane," he raised up his shirt several times and backed up his threats by showing off what she assumed was a gun in his waistband.

Graff thought about fighting him, but decided to be as sweet and as calm as possible, relying on her training as the two of them made their way through the emergency department's labyrinthine hallways and reached the automatic doors that would dump him into the parking lot outside.

If he'd been checked in, she said, he'd have been searched and dressed in a hospital gown, with his belongings stowed in a locker. It would have been immediately apparent, then, that he didn't have a gun. Instead, he was teasing her about his not having been searched.

It was days later when Graff, watching the news, still in shock and struggling to get back to work, saw the cell phone video of Hatch's death and learned he wasn't actually armed.

"And then I took a deep breath and said, 'Okay, he had no gun. What position is that going to put me in? What did I see in his waistband?'" she testified. "So that kind of shook my psyche a bit."

Graff finally felt safe enough to get on her radio and call a Code Silver, putting the hospital on a state of alert and near lockdown.

***

Meanwhile Hatch, in his easy-to-spot blue jeans, gray hoodie, and light-colored shirt, bolted through the emergency room's automatic doors and was running along the hospital's loading dock. That was about when he found himself reunited with Butler, the guard he'd first spent time with in "security lane."

Butler was 10 minutes into his turn patrolling the grounds in a marked pickup truck when the first Code Silver call pealed out about an armed patient on the loose. Butler said he knew immediately who it was, even before he came upon Hatch again.

Butler was worried. But remembering Hatch's arms and his disheveled, agitated state, he didn't figure Hatch had a gun. It had to be a pocketknife, he says. If he'd had money for a gun, Butler guessed, he'd have been more likely to have spent it on meth.

But then came an update on hospital radio about Hatch having a gun, with the cops on the way. Any lingering doubt vanished, Butler says, when he saw Hatch, at some distance out in the lot, draw something from his waistband that looked like a handgun and point it directly at him.

And Butler got on the radio and added to the chorus of convincing reports about a man loose with a gun.

At this point, police officers from nearby East Precinct and the surrounding environs had begun rushing over to the hospital grounds, unsure what they'd find and working furiously to organize themselves and devise some kind of response plan. Updates like Butler's were making their way to 911 dispatchers and then to the police bureau's internal dispatchers and then to the cruisers of the nervous cops speeding on their way.

***

Sergeant John Clinton was among the first to pull his car into the lot. He had a citizen with him on a ridealong, James Linkous, and told him to keep his head down and stay in the car before heading out to meet up with other cops.

Hearst remembered hearing a call early on that a "long gun" was needed, code for someone to bring an AR-15 sniper rifle. He headed over, ready to put his marksmanship skills to the test. So did Officer Thomas Clark, who also brought his rifle. Voeller, the shift sergeant that night, also had showed up by then. And so did Curtiss, an ex-Marine still relatively new to the bureau, dispatched to help out as a cover officer. They were joined by Officer Richard Budry and John Anderson, a longtime sergeant working as acting lieutenant that night.

Other cops, meanwhile, had begun fanning out to form some kind of perimeter around the parking lot where Hatch was running. Several said they saw Hatch holding what looked like a black handgun, cupping his hand and holding his arm just like someone with a weapon might. Helmets went on, and cops started getting behind cars for "hard cover" in case Hatch really did have a gun and started shooting.

Clark even had words with Hatch early on in an encounter that lasted, at most, 15 minutes.

"Officers told him to get his hands up. He just said 'F-U guys,' and he started walking back," Clark said, toward a chain link fence on the premises.

It fell to Voeller to try taking charge while making sense of what he was seeing: Hatch, shouting and pacing "like a gorilla in a cage... trying to make himself look big." Soon after, says Voeller, who shot a man in 2006 in weirdly similar circumstances, he had one of the great scares of his career.

"At one point, he takes a gun and he points it straight at us as he's walking, in his right hand, and he's making these noises," Voeller says. "Thirteen years of police work, I have never been in that situation before."

Could he have ordered shots fired at Hatch right then and there? Maybe, he says. But Voeller, a former training instructor on defensive tactics, decided that even though Hatch was "an immediate threat as far as how quickly bullets can travel," he was far enough away that they could let him keep going.

"We were still trying to de-escalate the situation and look for other reasonable means to end it peacefully," he said.

***

Not that his nerves weren't steeled. He thought of the Clackamas Town Center shooting and looked at the hospital, which he also ordered on lockdown. He thought of a nearby Seventh-day Adventist Church and dormitory for nursing students. He remembered the guard, Butler, who was out in the lot and could have been taken, potentially, as hostage.

So his mind starts working on two tracks: Keep an eye on Hatch and pray he loses steam, but "push up" and "own" the entrance of the hospital at all costs. He almost got his wish for a somewhat quiet resolution. At one point, with Hatch getting as close as 25 yards away, he told Curtiss to come over with a less-lethal beanbag shotgun.

"It is a great option," Voeller said. "I was thinking this may be the moment."

But as soon as the idea came, Hatch loped back out of range. The opportunity vanished as quickly as it arrived.

In the midst of all this, two nursing students, boyfriend and girlfriend Holly Luce and Matthew Rogers, were out in the lot in Luce's black Suburban, watching YouTube videos and enjoying a bit more privacy than their dormitory affords. They saw Hatch yelling and waving what looked like a gun. Soon, he also noticed them. They panicked and drove away to another part of the lot, near the entrance to their school.

Hatch saw them get out of the Suburban and yelled to them something bewildering about how "smoke was coming off the ground" and asked them if they had a light. They ran toward waiting cops and into their dorm, where they watched the confrontation continue in the room next-door to fellow student Spenser Zaharie, whose iPhone famously captured what came next.

***

After a few minutes more of waving the phone handle, Hatch had decided to climb on top of a red Toyota 4Runner parked right in front of Luce's Suburban. It happened to be Rogers' car.

By now, the officers who'd penetrated the parking lot had split into two groups. Voeller and Hearst had put themselves behind a Toyota Avalon, and the rest were taking cover behind patrol cars. Voeller remembered seeing the distinct silhouette of what he assumed was a gun handle poking from Hatch's waistband. Others reported a similar sight and talked of keeping their distance in a bid to create space, and time, to avoid using deadly force.

All the same, having someone reportedly armed and taking high ground terrified the cops. The potential for ugliness, they thought, was exponential. Zaharie's video (subtitled and cleaned up by the police bureau, detectives said) would show Hatch swearing at the cops and daring them to come after him, threatening to take hostages, and calling them pigs

None of the cops, who were 80 or so yards away, said they could hear him. They just knew he looked like "psychologically, he's preparing for a fight."

***

Voeller says he still nursed hopes of a peaceful outcome. He wanted to call the bureau's version of a SWAT team, the Special Emergency Reaction Team (SERT). Anderson, the acting lieutenant, with his flashlight lighting up Hatch, also wanted to call in tactical officers. Voeller called in for police dogs and asked for the bureau's surveillance airplane and wanted Project Respond. He thought Hatch was running out of vigor after, at one point, he sat down on the 4Runner's roof.

"If he continues to relax, run out of steam," Voeller says, "we can get those mental health workers in there and see if we can facilitate an open line of communication."

If there was a lull, says Voeller, he was going to huddle with the other nearby cops to form more of an iron-clad plan. More wishful thinking. It was right then that Hatch made his move.

First walking, then jogging, then sprinting, Hatch, the cops all said, charged toward Voeller and Hearst and began counting down from three while waving the phone handset. Clinton, who said the move took him off-guard, shouted for Hatch to stop and put his hands up. Hatch didn't listen. He never got closer than 40 or so feet.

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Hearst fired five shots from his rifle. Voeller and Curtiss, who was off to the side, fired a total of 14 shots from their 9mm Glock 17s. Six of those bullets hit Hatch, with two likely doing him in: one that ripped through his right lung, the second pulverizing his liver and a kidney. One of the other four blew apart his right hand, with the others passing through and doing substantial, but likely not lethal, damage.

The video showed one final shot after the volley that killed Hatch. That was Curtiss, who commented on Hatch's "war cry" as he came toward his fellow officers and said he saw Hatch still moving after he fell.

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Voeller knew Hatch had fired his rifle. They were shoulder to shoulder. But he didn't even realize Curtiss fired his handgun until well after Hatch fell backward and everything had calmed down. Only Curtiss knew immediately after the shooting that Hatch had only been pretending to have a gun. Voeller and Hearst, like Graff, both said they saw it in the news days later.

Interestingly, Budry, another cop who had his gun out, said he didn't fire.

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***

After Hatch fell back, spread out, with "hot breath steaming out of his mouth," Anderson said, he ordered nearby cops to get a ballistic shield out to approach what appeared to be a dying man. Still, no one was sure if maybe Hatch was faking it.

Should they send the beanbag gun in? Curtiss, though he had fired his handgun and was supposed to step aside, was ready to do it. Instead, they sent in a police dog, which had finally arrived, minutes after Voeller really wanted. The dog bit Hatch's body and dragged him a couple of feet. His chest was moving, haltingly up and down, but he didn't respond.

"Have medical fucking come in here any second," one officer, unidentified, said in transcripts of dispatch calls included in the grand jury reports.

Clinton and Budry followed the dog with a shield, patted Hatch down, saw the phone handle at his side and decided he was dying. They didn't handcuff him. Rather, they gave way to paramedics who showed up almost immediately and tried CPR for a few brief moments. To no avail.

The man who called himself Fox in the Adventist emergency room had nothing on him besides the phone handle. No ID. Nothing of value. Just his fingerprints. And that's how authorities finally figured out who they'd actually shot.

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