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Four officers, an armed suspect and 12 terrifying minutes in downtown Eureka's rush hour

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Mark McKenna

It was about 4:40 p.m. on Dec. 6 and Steve Fowlkes was out driving a Dodge Ram pickup truck that he'd just rebuilt the transmission on. The 56-year-old father of two and grandfather of two had planned on just taking the truck home with him for the night to give it a test drive, but its owner seemed anxious to get it back, so Fowlkes was out circling the block around his shop, Eureka Smog and Repair on Summer Street, before dropping it off to the customer at Sole Savers auto dealership.

Just up Fifth Street, Fieldbrook native Jessica Mahoney sat behind the counter at the Hertz car rental office, filling out paperwork. Sitting across from the mother of four and answering questions about fuel and insurance options were two men — one from France, the other from Chile — looking to rent a car to drive down to the San Francisco Airport, where they planned to catch flights home.

Meanwhile, a few streets over, Clayton Lee Lasinski was driving a white Dodge pickup truck. He allegedly wasn't wearing his seatbelt, a detail that would set off a chain of events ending in a hail of gunfire in downtown Eureka. Within 15 minutes, four Eureka police officers would fire a total of more than 40 bullets as part of a chaotic chase that left Lasinski lying on Fifth Street, bleeding from a single nonfatal gunshot wound to the chest. And Fowlkes and Mahoney would have witnessed gunfire in the streets for the first time in their lives.

In the aftermath of the officer-involved shooting — Eureka's first since officer Steven Linfoot shot and killed 22-year-old Thomas McClain on Allard Avenue in September of 2014, and its second in the past six years — the Journal interviewed about a dozen witnesses who observed part of the pursuit, attended an EPD press conference, spoke with sources familiar with the investigation and reviewed EPD's policies governing the use of force and foot pursuits. The result is the following timeline, which, as best we can, details 12 tense minutes in downtown Eureka.


4:42:27 p.m
.

"CHP is requesting Code 3 backup for a subject who fled, unknown direction of travel, possibly armed with an unknown weapon," blurts the police scanner. Moments earlier, a California Highway Patrol officer had been conducting routine traffic enforcement in the downtown area when he saw Lasinski allegedly driving without a seatbelt and began to follow him, according to EPD. Lasinski then allegedly rolled through a stop sign while turning west on Fourth Street and the officer initiated a traffic stop.

Lasinski pulled his Dodge pickup into the parking lot of the Best Western, where he had a room, but jumped out of the vehicle and ran, leaving his two female passengers behind. When the officer pulled into the parking lot, he reported seeing Lasinski running on one of the hotel's second-floor balconies. A pair of motel employees reportedly tried to detain the 26-year-old but he allegedly told them he was "strapped" and brandished a .45 caliber handgun, and they let him pass. He then reportedly jumped off a balcony and hopped a fence out of the Best Western property at the corner of Fourth and Commercial streets.

About two minutes after the initial scanner call, a dispatcher updates that the suspect is wearing a black sweatshirt and camouflage pants, and that "according to a witness, subject displayed a firearm."

At an EPD press conference held the day after the shooting, Chief Andrew Mills said Lasinski believed he had an out-of-state warrant, which may be why he fled after the traffic stop. According to Henry County, Illinois, court records, Lasinski was arrested in January of 2011 when he and his mother were pulled over on Interstate 80 and found in possession of more than 4 pounds of marijuana. Both pleaded guilty to transportation charges and were given 36 month's probation. Henry County prosecutors have moved to revoke Lasinski's probation four times in the years since, once even having him extradited from Humboldt County. According to online court records, prosecutors again moved to revoke his probation in July of 2013 and he hasn't appeared in court there since. Attempts to reach the Henry County State's Attorney's office for more information were unsuccessful.

According to Humboldt County court records — other than being extradited back to Illinois in May of 2013 — he's never been charged with a crime locally as an adult. However, Mills said a subsequent search of his hotel room found "a little heroin and three pounds of (marijuana) shake."

4:46 p.m.

Michael Williams, who works in the maintenance department at Roy's Auto Center on Fourth Street, was standing in the showroom when a young man in a hooded black sweatshirt and camouflage pants opened the glass door and leaned inside. "He asked if he could use the phone because, of all things, he said he needed to call a cab," Williams said. "You could see something wasn't right, just his expression and he seemed all worked up. Our sales manager thought he looked suspicious and said, 'We can't let you use the phone.' He took off running across the street."

4:47:55

"Subject possibly went up Summer from Fifth," the dispatcher informs officers. Moments earlier, an employee at Roy's Auto Center's other location, farther down Fifth Street, had been standing on the sidewalk watching all the police activity at the Best Western across the street when he saw a man in a black hooded sweatshirt spring across Fifth Street and up Summer. He said he called an officer over to pass along what he saw.

4:48:32

"I've got him. He is running toward Seventh between a couple of buildings," officer Steven Linfoot calls in to dispatch. This appears to be the first time in the pursuit that an EPD officer laid eyes on Lasinski. About 40 seconds later, Linfoot updates: "Westbound. Jumped a fence."

4:49:27

"Going toward auto dealership. Foot pursuit, going toward the back lot of EPD," Linfoot calls again, this time with the strain of running and the stress of a chase heavy in his voice. It's unclear exactly why, but Linfoot has made the decision to get out of his patrol car and pursue Lasinski on foot. This was a noteworthy decision.

EPD's foot pursuit policy begins with a warning: "Foot pursuits are inherently dangerous." In fact, the policy deems them so dangerous that it explicitly states that no officer can be criticized or disciplined for deciding not to engage in one. The policy admonishes officers that the safety of department personnel and the public should be the most important consideration when determining whether to initiate or continue a foot pursuit, and notes that "surveillance and containment are generally the safest tactics for apprehending fleeing persons."

The policy further warns against foot pursuits when an officer is alone and when the suspect's identity is known — meaning he or she can be apprehended at another time — and there "is no immediate threat to department personnel or the public if the suspect is not immediately apprehended."

4:49:49 p.m.

"Code 4. Shots fired," Linfoot calls in, alerting dispatch that shots have been fired but he's OK.

Moments earlier, Steve Fowlkes had pulled into the Sole Savers lot to return the Dodge Ram with the new transmission. He was walking out of the office when he heard someone yelling. "I hear, 'Stop, stop, stop.' The only thing he's saying is stop, constantly," Fowlkes said, adding that he then watched as a man with both hands in the front pocket of his black hooded sweatshirt — Lasinski — turned up the driveway. "He was jogging, but with a limp, like his left leg is injured," Fowlkes said, adding that a cop with a pistol in his hand — Linfoot — was chasing about 10 yards behind the man. "They were gassed, you could tell," Fowlkes said.

Fowlkes said Lasinski ran past him and into a loading bay behind the Sole Savers offices, where a red Mazda 3 sat idling with its passenger door open. The car had just returned from the detail shop, Fowlkes said, and was left running unoccupied with the heater on to dry out the still-damp upholstery. Fowlkes said he watched as Lasinski jumped into the vehicle's passenger door and Linfoot approached the vehicle's driver's side. Standing about three feet from the car at the front end of the driver's side door, Linfoot raised his gun and trained it on the vehicle, yelling "stop" one final time, Fowlkes said. "Then he unloads eight shots, at least," he said. "I thought to myself, 'It's over. It's over. He can't survive that.'"

But it turns out Lasinski was uninjured and, a moment after the shooting stopped, he slammed his foot on the gas, the Mazda's tires chirped and the chase was back on. Fowlkes said the Mazda came directly at him and he dove for cover between a building and a parked truck. "The cop gives chase and I heard more gunfire," Fowlkes said, adding that he believes Linfoot again fired on the Mazda as it left the Sole Savers lot, turning eastbound into Sixth Street traffic.

EPD's use of force policy states officers should take 17 factors into account when deciding whether to use force on a suspect, including the "immediacy and severity of the threat to officers and others," the proximity of weapons to the suspect, the seriousness of the suspected offense or reason for police contact with the suspect, the potential for injury to the officer, the suspect and others, and the risk associated with the suspect's escape. The use of deadly force is only justified under the policy in instances when officers are protecting themselves or others from what they "reasonably believe would be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury." Deadly force can only be used to stop a fleeing suspect under the policy when officers believe there is "an imminent risk of serious bodily injury or death to any other person if the suspect is not immediately apprehended. Under such circumstances, a verbal warning should precede the use of deadly force, where feasible."

EPD's policy also states that shooting at a moving vehicle is "generally prohibited," though it goes on to say it is permitted if there are no other "reasonable means available to avert the threat of the vehicle."

The day after the shooting, three bullet holes could be seen in a white shed in the loading bay behind where the Mazda had sat idling the day before. Bullet strikes were visible on an adjacent wall.

A woman who works in the Sole Savers finance department and declined to give her name said she'd been in the office when the shooting occurred. "I just saw a cop run by the window and then all holy hell broke loose," she said. "We got under our desks and didn't come out until they said it was OK."

She was then asked how many shots she heard. "A lot," she answered. "A lot."

4:50:08 p.m.

"Red Mazda. Number Six, toward B," an unidentified officer calls in to dispatch. Moments earlier, Jessica Mahoney — the mother of four from Fieldbrook who works at Hertz — had walked outside with her two customers to inspect their rental car when she heard gunshots, though she didn't immediately know what they were.

"I just heard a pop-pop-pop," she said. "Then I saw a red car going the wrong way on Sixth Street and then it stopped in the intersection of Sixth and B."

It's unclear why Lasinski stopped the car and took off on foot. Photos of the Mazda as it was left in the intersection show bullet holes in the vehicle's hood and windshield, so it's possible this is where Lasinski was shot or that one of the bullets disabled the engine. Whatever the reason, Lasinski left the Mazda and started heading north on B Street. "I saw this man walking briskly down B Street," Mahoney recalled. "He gestured back toward the officers with his hand — he gestured like he was shooting but I didn't hear anything."

4:50:45 p.m.

"Subject going toward Number 5," an officer reports to dispatch as gunshots ring out in the background.

At this point, Mahoney said her customers — already hiding behind the Hertz office — were yelling at her to take cover and she joined them behind the building, but walked around to the other side where she had a view of B Street. She said she saw a group of officers moving cautiously down toward Fifth Street. One officer, she said, raised his AR-15 style rifle and fired twice as another leveled his handgun and fired once toward Fifth Street.

Peter Morry works as a technician at Copiers Plus, which sits on the east side of Fifth Street about halfway between A and B streets. Morry said he'd heard "about 10" gunshots ring out a minute or so earlier, then saw a man with a black sweatshirt on and a gun in his hand walk by heading west. "He was walking slow, like he was either stoned or drunk," Morry said. "Later, I found out he'd already been shot."

4:51:20 p.m.

"Suspect is currently on 5 between B, Boy, and C, Charles," an officer mistakenly reports to dispatch as others can be heard screaming, "Drop the gun," in the background.

Tom Sadler, a project manager at New Life Service Co. on the east corner of Fifth and B streets, said he was sitting in his office deep in the labrynth-like building when the company's administrative assistant came running back to say she'd heard gunshots and seen a commotion outside. By the time Sadler got to the front window that looks out onto Fifth Street, Lasinski was leaned up against a black Volkswagen Jetta parked in the middle of the block.

Officers were yelling for Lasinski to drop the gun and get his hands in the air, Sadler said, but the commands didn't seem to register. "He didn't seem to be paying attention to anyone at that time," he said, adding that he watched the scene unfold over the course of several minutes as police officers kept their guns aimed at Lasinski, apparently waiting for him to give up or make a move. "He was leaning against the car, then he slumped down and he's like sitting, then he just fell over," Sadler said. "Then, the cops come over and take the gun out of his hand and lay it on the hood of the car."

4:55:40 p.m.

"We're Code 4. You can have medical respond just outside American Stove. One detained," Capt. Brian Stephens, who has vertical responsibility for all personnel and functions related to patrol, tells dispatch after officers disarm and cuff Lasinski.

Stephens then assigns himself incident command and starts assigning officers tasks. While roughly a dozen officers are clustered around Lasinski, none begin administering first aid to the suspect in the roughly one minute and 15 seconds between when he's cuffed and an ambulance arrives on scene. (See video below.)

While some initial media reports described the chase as a firefight or a shootout, when Mills held a press conference the following day — after the dust had settled and officers from a host of agencies had worked through the night to process evidence strewn across at least five city blocks — the police chief said there's no evidence Lasinski ever fired his weapon. Mills said the suspect's .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol was found with a full magazine, an empty chamber and its hammer cocked back, which Mills said makes him believe Lasinski had tried to fire the weapon but was unable to.

According to several sources familiar with the investigation, four Eureka police officers — Linfoot, senior detective Ron Harpham and officers Abraham Jansen and Dustin Nantz — combined to fire 44 rounds that night. Mills wouldn't confirm that but said officers did fire more than 40. Meanwhile, sources tell the Journal that Harpham, the only officer to wound Lasinski, fired just once during the chase. Linfoot, according to sources, fired 17 times.

As the Journal goes to press a week after the shooting, the investigation remains in its infancy. The officers involved were scheduled to be interviewed Dec. 9, there is a lot of physical evidence to analyze and potentially lots of video to review from dashboard-mounted and body-worn cameras.

But what we know right now is that a 26-year-old man who has never been charged with a crime locally and was potentially wanted for an out-of-state probation violation was armed with a handgun and fled a traffic stop. None of the witnesses the Journal interviewed saw Lasinski displaying his gun or pointing it at officers until the pursuit's final minutes, after he'd been shot at dozens of times. The pursuit — and tensions — escalated to the point where police fired more than 40 bullets in Eureka's downtown on the cusp of rush hour.

At the press conference, Mills said the time of day the shooting occurred is concerning and pledged that the investigations into the incident will be fair and impartial, ultimately looking at whether the officers involved acted criminally and whether they followed EPD policies. And, he said, each of the four officers will have to answer for every gunshot he fired.

"I understand that each officer is personally accountable for every round that they discharge and where that round ends up," he said. "And I will report back to the community once we've completed that investigation as to our actions last night."

In the meantime, those who were going about their everyday lives in downtown when gunshots rang out on Dec. 6 — people like Fowlkes, Mahoney and Sadler — continue to come to grips with what they saw.

For his part, Fowlkes was shaken. That night, when back at the home off Myrtle Avenue that he shares with his wife and their adult daughter, whose husband is currently deployed in Iraq, he couldn't sleep. He sat in the quiet house. Around midnight, he contemplated knocking on a neighbor's door who he knows works as a police officer. He needed someone to talk to. Finally, he called EPD dispatch and talked to a woman named "Tracy."

"She said, 'Just calm down,'" Fowlkes recalled. "She told me it would be all right."

The following day, standing in the Sole Savers lot and talking to a reporter, Fowlkes said he was still processing how helpless he'd felt the day before. His voice trailed off for a moment, then he started again. "I believe in guardian angels," he said. "You have to. I'm all right. It's just something you don't want to think about."


Warning, some viewers may find the following videos depicting Lasinski's arrest disturbing.



Full audio from EPD Chief Andrew Mill's press conference discussing the shooting:



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About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

Bio:
Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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