Police officers guard an area where Aaron Danielson was shot and killed at a protest in Portland, Ore., Aug. 29, 2020. (Mason Trinca/The New York Times)
Police officers guard an area where Aaron Danielson was shot and killed at a protest in Portland, Ore., Aug. 29, 2020. (Mason Trinca/The New York Times)

Michael Reinoehl was on the run.

A few days after a shooting left a far-right Trump supporter dead on the streets of Portland, Oregon, Reinoehl, an antifa activist who had been named in the news media as a focus of the investigation, feared that vigilantes were after him, not to mention the police. Even some of his close friends did not know where he was.

But the authorities knew.

On Sept. 3, about 120 miles north of Portland, Reinoehl was getting into his Volkswagen station wagon when a pair of unmarked sport utility vehicles roared through the quiet streets, screeching to a halt just in front of his bumper. Members of a U.S. Marshals task force jumped out and unleashed a hail of bullets that shattered windows, whizzed past bystanders and left Reinoehl dead in the street.

Attorney General William Barr trumpeted the operation as a “significant accomplishment” that removed a “violent agitator.” The officers had opened fire, he said, when Reinoehl “attempted to escape arrest” and “produced a firearm” during the encounter. But a reconstruction of what happened that night, based on the accounts of people who witnessed the confrontation and the preliminary findings of investigators, produces a much different picture — one that raises questions about whether law enforcement officers made any serious attempt to arrest Reinoehl before killing him.

In interviews with 22 people who were near the scene, all but one said they did not hear officers identify themselves or give any commands before opening fire. In their official statements, not yet made public, the officers offered differing accounts of whether they saw Reinoehl with a weapon. One told investigators he thought he saw Reinoehl raise a gun inside the vehicle before the firing began, but two others said they did not.

Reinoehl did have a .380-caliber handgun on him when he was killed, according to the county sheriff’s team that is running a criminal homicide investigation into Reinoehl’s death. But the weapon was found in his pocket.

An AR-style rifle was found apparently untouched in a bag in his car.

Five eyewitnesses said in interviews that the gunfire began the instant the vehicles arrived. None of them saw Reinoehl holding a weapon. A single shell casing of the same caliber as the handgun he was carrying was found inside his car.

Garrett Louis, who watched the shooting begin while trying to get his 8-year-old son out of the line of fire, said the officers arrived with such speed and violence that he initially assumed they were drug dealers gunning down a foe — until he saw their law enforcement vests.

“I respect cops to the utmost, but things were definitely in no way, shape or form done properly,” Louis said.

The U.S. Marshals Service declined to comment for this article, citing the pending investigation. The agency previously said that it had attempted to “peacefully arrest” Reinoehl and that he had threatened the lives of law enforcement officers.

President Donald Trump, who has described the racial justice protests that have roiled the nation as the work of lawless criminals, praised the operation.

“This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. Marshals killed him,” the president told Fox News. “And I will tell you something, that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.”

‘That shot felt like the beginning of a war’

Reinoehl had joined protesters in Portland in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by the Minneapolis police in May, writing online that they were waging a necessary war with the potential to “fix everything.” He devoted himself to the Black Lives Matter movement and once touted himself as “100% ANTIFA all the way.”

Reinoehl, a 48-year-old contractor and professional snowboarder, had run into trouble with the law in June, when he was cited for driving under the influence of a controlled substance and having an unlicensed firearm in the car. Later, during the protests, the police arrested him and cited him for carrying a loaded firearm in a public place, but prosecutors dropped the charges.

When the protests against the police got underway in Portland, he carved a niche for himself providing security, watching for agitators. After a caravan of supporters of Trump arrived in Portland on Aug. 29 and began clashing with the protesters, a security camera showed Reinoehl keeping an eye on one of them — Aaron J. Danielson, a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer who was walking with a can of bear repellent and an expandable baton.

Seconds later, a separate livestream video captured Danielson being shot, and The Oregonian newspaper reported later that Reinoehl was under investigation in the case. In an interview while he was in hiding that Vice News broadcast on Sept. 3, Reinoehl said he had fired in self-defense. “That shot felt like the beginning of a war,” he said.

A quiet night and a sudden raid

On the day the interview aired, officers with the U.S. Marshals’ Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force met for an intelligence briefing.

The team, which included a mix of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, already knew that Reinoehl was staying in a brick complex of apartments in Lacey, Washington. The task force had information from an informant, passed on by the Portland police, about Reinoehl’s location and possession of firearms, said Lt. Ray Brady of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, who leads the team investigating Reinoehl’s death.

Though the Portland police had yet to issue a warrant for Reinoehl’s arrest, the task force prepared to move in.

That evening, outside the apartment complex where the police say Reinoehl had been staying, the neighborhood was quiet.

Louis, a carpenter and former U.S. Army medic, watched his son ride his bike with his younger brother and a neighborhood friend. Around the corner, Chad Smith and two friends, Chase Cutler and Jon Chastain, were wrapping up an afternoon spent working on cars.

Reinoehl left the apartment and walked toward his Volkswagen, parked along the street roughly 100 feet away. Two officers positively identified Reinoehl, who proceeded to get into the car, said Brady, who shared some of the initial findings of the investigation with The New York Times. They decided to make an immediate arrest, the officers told investigators, in part to avoid a high-speed chase.

Smith said he and his friends turned their heads to the sound of a vehicle accelerating rapidly, headed southbound toward the street where Reinoehl was walking. A second law enforcement SUV, which had been parked across from Smith’s house, moved in with such speed that the friends thought they were witnessing a road rage incident or a gang shooting.

Smith and Cutler ran after the unmarked SUVs, watching as they turned onto Reinoehl’s street, one cutting the corner and speeding over the grass.

Nate Dinguss, who according to Brady lived in the apartment where Reinoehl was staying, said Reinoehl was chewing a gummy worm as he approached his station wagon, with a phone in one hand and a bag in the other.

Dinguss said in an interview that officers began jumping out of the vehicles before they had come to a complete stop, and that one of them opened fire immediately, before any commands had been given. Another man who was walking his dog nearby said that a burst of about 10 gunshots began almost immediately after the SUVs came to a halt, and that he did not recall hearing any commands. Louis, who was on the other side of the scene, some 140 feet from Reinoehl, also said the police opened fire immediately, without giving any warnings — as did Smith and Cutler.

“There was no, ‘Get out of the car!’ There was no, ‘Stop!’ There was no nothing. They just got out of the car and started shooting,” Louis said.

Smith described it similarly: “There was no yelling. There was no screaming. There was no altercation. It was just straight to gunshots.”

Of the 22 people interviewed by The Times who said they were near the shooting when it occurred, only one man reported hearing any shouting before the gunshots began.

That man, Quentin Gruner, whose apartment is about 75 feet away, said he was letting his dog out when he heard shouting that he thought was neighbors having a fight, followed by a popping noise.

The four officers who were riding in the SUVs said in their statements to Thurston County sheriff’s investigators that they shouted “Stop! Police!” before opening fire, Brady said.

But the officers gave conflicting stories about what led them to begin firing. One reported that he saw Reinoehl, inside the vehicle, raise “what they perceived to be a gun,” Brady said. Two other officers said they only saw Reinoehl make “furtive movements” toward the center console, he said.

Brady said the first shots appear to have struck Reinoehl inside the vehicle, and videos of the aftermath show bullet marks in the driver’s side of the windshield. Though apparently wounded, Reinoehl began moving away from the officers on foot.

Officers continued to fire, and as Reinoehl stepped into the street from behind a nearby truck, a final burst took him down, Brady said. He most likely died immediately, said the Thurston County coroner, Gary Warnock.

Officers also offered conflicting accounts of those final shots. One said that Reinoehl, while in the street, pointed a gun. Other officers said that he appeared to be trying to “retrieve” one from his pants pocket.

As they searched Reinoehl’s body, officers found the gun, Brady said. It was still in his pocket.

The aftermath

In all, four officers fired about 30 rounds from two rifles and two handguns, Brady said.

A visit to the scene by a reporter, as well as videos and photos from the aftermath, showed that at least eight of the officers’ bullets struck civilian property.

Angel Romero, who lives directly adjacent to the shooting, said at least five bullets hit a brick wall and a wooden fence at his home. One traveled through an exterior wall and passed above his dog kennels and through his dining room — narrowly missing his brother before lodging in a kitchen wall. Romero’s neighbor found a smashed bullet in his backyard grass.

“They literally found ricochet bullets where my kid was,” Louis said.

Brady said it would be several months before lab results determined whether the shell casing found in the Volkswagen matched the handgun found in Reinoehl’s pocket, and it may never be known whether it was fired that day. There is no evidence that Reinoehl touched the rifle found in the bag in his car, the chief investigator said.

None of the officers said they saw Reinoehl fire his handgun, and investigators have found no other evidence that suggests he did. Investigators found no .380 bullets or casings outside the vehicle.

In the aftermath, some news accounts quoted witnesses describing Reinoehl firing shots. One of them, Smith, said he was misquoted. Another woman also described Reinoehl firing shots, but in another account said that she was not present when the shooting began. Cutler said he heard a pistol that he thought might have been Reinoehl’s firing first, but Brady said the officers fired pistols as well as rifles.

Six minutes after the shooting started, Jashon Spencer, a resident of the apartment complex, began filming a live video from the scene. In it, roughly 8 1/2 minutes after Reinoehl was likely killed, an officer could be seen beginning chest compressions on Reinoehl’s motionless body. They were undertaken almost perfunctorily, from a standing position, and soon ended.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

Source Article