By The Seattle Times – Mike Carter
A federal judge has declined to dismiss a civil-rights lawsuit from a former U.S. Navy master chief who was shot while trying to help Island County deputies subdue an armed and suicidal sailor following an 2017 armed standoff.
Heath Garcia was shot in the foot with a high-powered rifle slung across the back of a deputy trying to arrest one of Garcia’s shipmates, Nicholas Perkins, who was drunk, suicidal and had barricaded himself in his house with several weapons, including a fully automatic M4 rifle.
The lawsuit alleges the Island County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Robert Mirabal and Lt. Michael Hawley, the scene commander, were responsible for a “state-created danger” and placed Garcia’s life at risk by allowing him to enter the house unarmed to try to talk to Perkins, while numerous heavily armed deputies huddled behind cover outside.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly denied Island County’s motion for summary judgment, saying there were factual disputes only a jury could settle.
The lawsuit alleges Garcia persuaded Perkins to give himself up, led him out the front door and then grabbed him in a bear hug, shouting for deputies to help him detain the struggling Perkins, who was armed with a shotgun. That’s when Mirabal jumped into the fray, a loaded and charged AR-15 carbine slung across his back.
The AR-15 discharged at least 10 times during the scuffle. One of the high-velocity rounds tore through Garcia’s ankle and foot, causing a devastating wound that ended his 18-year Navy career and left him with a disability, according to his attorney, Jay Krulewitch.
Island County, in court pleadings, claimed Perkins had managed to grab the weapon and was responsible for its discharge. But documents Garcia filed in U.S. District Court suggest that Mirabal had not engaged the weapon’s safety and indicate the weapon was never tested for DNA or fingerprints. Mirabal said the safety was engaged and that Perkins must have activated the weapon during the struggle.
Perkins was shot to death moments later by Deputy Trevor Wolff.
The lawsuit alleges Mirabal was negligent in carrying the unsecured weapon into a close-quarters fight with a violent suspect — and accuses Hawley, the incident commander, of ignoring well-established protocols by allowing an unarmed civilian into the scene, creating the potential for a hostage situation.
The lawsuit also accuses Island County of gross negligence by years earlier disbanding its SWAT team — the unit that would normally respond to calls of a barricaded person — and failing to train its officers in crisis management.
The lawsuit claims the Sheriff’s Office did have a critical-incident response team, which included a hostage negotiator, but that the unit was not called to the scene until after Garcia had entered the house.
The Sheriff’s Office was called to Perkins’ home on Sept. 17, 2017, after receiving a report that he was intoxicated, armed with an automatic weapon and threatening to kill himself over a divorce and the loss of custody of his son. The Sheriff’s Office responded and set up a perimeter around the house, with Perkins locked inside a bedroom.
Garcia, a security chief at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and a friend of Perkins, heard about the incident and responded to the scene to see if he could be of assistance, according to documents.
Once he arrived, Garcia said he was given permission to go into the house to talk to Perkins, which Garcia’s lawyers and hired police experts described as a “dangerous and amateurish” attempt to end a volatile situation, endangering Garcia’s life and creating a potential hostage situation.
The Sheriff’s Office disputes that officials initially gave Garcia permission to enter the home, but acknowledged that his later efforts to talk to Perkins, including his successful attempt to talk him out of the house, were done with the department’s knowledge and Hawley’s permission.
“This was an inherently dangerous situation,” noted Krulewitch, Garcia’s lawyer. “They didn’t send a deputy into the house, nor would they ever. Why they would let Mr. Garcia — or anyone — go in defies common sense.”
John Justice, an attorney representing Island County, Hawley and Mirabal, declined to comment on the lawsuit or Zilly’s ruling.
Documents indicated Perkins and another man, identified as his roommate, went in and out of the house several times that evening while deputies waited outside. A flight surgeon from the Naval Air Station who had been treating Perkins for mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, also responded to the scene. At one point, according to sheriff’s reports, Hawley, the incident commander, spoke to Perkins inside the home using Garcia’s cellphone and promised that deputies would back off and he could be taken from the home in an ambulance.
Perkins, according to Garcia’s statements and Hawley’s sworn deposition, was distrustful of police and said he was concerned he would be shot if he left the house.
Eventually, Perkins exited the house carrying a shotgun and saw deputies hiding behind nearby bushes. Yelling obscenities, he ran back into the home. Garcia returned inside and again managed to persuade Perkins to leave the home and surrender. As soon as they were out the door, Garcia grabbed Perkins and pinned his arms so he could not raise the shotgun — and called deputies for help, leading to the fatal scuffle with Mirabal and Garcia’s injury.
In his order, issued this month, Zilly found evidence that Garcia’s injury was the result of a “chain of actions” by the Sheriff’s Office that began with Hawley allowing him access to a dangerous situation and ended with Mirabal entering a fray with a loaded and unsecured semiautomatic weapon within Perkins’ reach.
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Source: American Military News