The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's Office announced Wednesday that sheriff's deputies used justified and reasonable force when they fatally shot a child-rape suspect following a high-speed pursuit in 2020.
A letter from Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett to Sheriff Ed Troyer outlining her decision details for the first time what prompted deputies to fire upon 37-year-old Brandon Mark Stokes after his vehicle crashed near Eatonville on April 7, 2020.
Five deputies fired at Stokes, hitting him nine times with three of those likely fatal wounds, after four of them saw what looked like a shotgun barrel emerge from Stokes' vehicle, according to the letter. The fifth deputy said he fired after another deputy yelled out "gun" and he thought he heard shots from Stokes' car.
Multiple people told 911 dispatchers Stokes was behaving erratically and might have had a shotgun prior to the shooting, the letter shows. Detectives were attempting to interview Stokes about allegations from his wife that he'd sexually abused his two stepdaughters.
One person told dispatchers Stokes intended to make deputies shoot him, according to the letter.
Detective Jesse Hotz along with deputies Theron Hardesty, Darrell Tevis, Jake Reed and Chad Chapman were placed on paid administrative leave following the shooting per department policy. Spokesperson Sgt. Darren Moss said each of them returned to regular duty within a few weeks after the department cleared them of wrongdoing internally.
The Tacoma police investigation of the shooting was one of 30 police use-of-force investigations statewide reviewed by the Washington Attorney General's Office for compliance with Initiative 940. The law, which went into effect in 2020, prohibits law enforcement agencies from investigating their own department's uses of force resulting in death or significant injuries.
That review was prompted by the Pierce County Sheriff's Department's failure to disclose during its investigation of the Tacoma police killing of Manuel Ellis that two of its deputies were at the scene. One of the deputies grabbed Ellis' leg while Tacoma officers put him in restraints.
While investigating Pierce County deputies' fatal shooting of Stokes, the Attorney General's Office found Tacoma police didn't comply with 11 requirements. Most of those rules pertain to transparency, such as including community representatives in the investigation.
Tacoma Police Department spokesperson Wendy Haddow said she was not aware of any impact the Attorney General's findings had on the department's investigation of the shooting.
In her letter, Robnett wrote that the "investigation appears to have been independent and fair, and largely complies with the standards set" for independent investigations of police uses of force.
Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney's Office spokesperson Adam Faber said he was not aware of any requests of Tacoma police to reach full compliance with I-940 requirements on the investigation.
Pierce County investigators at first weren't able to find Stokes after his wife reported he had sexually abused his two stepdaughters, according to the letter from the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney. One detective tried to call Stokes and left a business card with his aunt and uncle.
Stokes called the detective around 2 p.m. but soon hung up on him, the letter says. Stokes told the detective he knew he was going to be arrested and he didn't want to go back to jail.
Within minutes, two employees of Varsity Pizza in Eatonville called 911 saying Stokes was in the restaurant's parking lot along Mountain Highway and "acting crazy," according to the prosecutor's letter. He told one of the employees that police were looking for him and he was driving a roommate's truck to evade them.
She said she saw a shotgun in his lap and he told her, "it was his last day on earth and that he was going to make the police shoot him," the prosecutor's letter shows. He was also shaking and not able to work his cell phone.
The detective who was initially investigating Stokes soon heard about that call and gathered additional deputies to respond to a former address for Stokes, according to the prosecutor's letter. A truck matching the description of the vehicle Stokes was driving was parked nearby at a neighbor's, and investigators learned Stokes lived there with his roommate.
The roommate told investigators his shotgun was missing and that Stokes would be driving a white SUV, the prosecutor's letter shows.
EATONVILLE HIGH-SPEED PURSUIT
Just before 5 p.m., deputies spotted a car matching that description in the area, and the SUV didn't stop when they attempted a traffic stop on Mountain Highway, according to the prosecutor's letter. The car reached speeds of 90 mph on the highway and deputies lost sight of the SUV about 10 minutes into the pursuit.
Then a deputy reported the SUV driving through stop signs on Mashell Avenue in Eatonville, the prosecutor's letter shows. The car "brake checked" a deputy attempting a maneuver to make the SUV lose traction and traveled into oncoming traffic to pass other cars.
Stokes hadn't threatened deputies with the shotgun in his car but made hand gestures like he was shooting a gun at pursuing deputies, according to the prosecutor's letter. The car reached speeds of 97 mph shortly thereafter and a deputy reported the SUV trying to drive him off the road.
The SUV Stokes was driving lost control and left the roadway near Mountain Highway and Eatonville Cutoff Road at about 5:14 p.m., the prosecutor's letter shows. Radio recordings and bystander cell phone footage indicate deputies fired shots within a minute and a half.
PIERCE COUNTY DEPUTIES OPEN FIRE
Nine patrol vehicles quickly surrounded Stokes' vehicle after it drove off the roadway, according to the prosecutor's letter. Multiple deputies moved into cover while at least two gave commands for Stokes to show his hands and get out of his car.
Then deputies reported a loud bang and at least one saw glass breaking at the driver's side window of Stoke's SUV, the prosecutor's letter shows. It was initially reported as gunfire over the radio, but one deputy corrected the information, saying he was wasn't sure what the sound was.
That's when four deputies saw what looked like a shotgun barrel emerging from the driver's side window and angling toward them, according to the prosecutor's letter.
The five deputies who fired provided the following accounts to investigators:
Tevis said he fired a rifle after seeing the shotgun and hearing another deputy yell "gun." He said he continued firing until he couldn't see the barrel of the gun.
Hardesty said he saw =what looked like a shotgun or rifle pointing from the SUV and then heard a gunshot before firing his handgun at the driver's seat of the car several times.
Hotz, a detective, said he saw what looked like a black shotgun barrel protrude from a window and fired at the driver's seat of the SUV when he heard a deputy yell "gun."
Reed said he ordered Stokes to show his hands about five times and began firing his handgun when he saw the shotgun come out of the SUV window.
Chapman did not report seeing the shotgun but began shooting when he heard gunfire that he thought was coming from Stokes.
Four other Pierce County deputies at the scene did not fire any shots. They reported not having a full view of Stokes or the gun.
Cell phone videos from bystanders did not capture the shooting, but the audio recorded deputies' commands and two gunshots followed by a pause and a "large volley of shots," the prosecutor's letter shows. The gunfire lasted about four seconds.
Investigators did not find evidence Stokes fired the shotgun in the car, the prosecutor's letter says.
After deputies used a shield to get to the SUV, they requested medical aid, according to the prosecutor's letter. An ambulance took Stokes to Madigan Army Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Toxicology reports showed amphetamines in his system.
"We have evaluated the facts known to each shooting deputy independently and find that all of them acted in a good faith belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent death or serious bodily harm to themselves or others," Prosecuting Attorney Robnett concluded in her letter to Sheriff Troyer
This story was originally published by The News Tribune.