CARLTON, Minn. — A Carlton County deputy who shot an unarmed man while serving a warrant in July believed he and other officers were under gunfire amid the chaos of a high-risk SWAT team operation, according to additional findings released Friday, Nov. 1.
Sgt. Jason Warnygora, a 15-year veteran of the Carlton County Sheriff's Office, was cleared earlier this week of any wrongdoing in the non-fatal shooting of 34-year-old Shawn Michael Olthoff at the Hillside Terrace Mobile Home Park in Moose Lake on July 29.
Carlton County Attorney Lauri Ketola announced that finding on Tuesday. On Friday, she released a more comprehensive, 10-page memorandum outlining her decision, as requested by the News Tribune.
The report details how officers were attempting to apprehend Olthoff, who was accused of pointing a firearm at a deputy two days prior. The shooting occurred after officers deployed a flash-bang device and Warnygora heard what he believed to be gunshots, Ketola said.
"Based on the totality of the circumstances, Sgt. Warnygora believed he and his teammates were facing a deadly threat," the county attorney wrote. "As such, the use of deadly force by Sgt. Warnygora in the process of executing a warrant for the arrest of Shawn Olthoff was necessary, justified and authorized by law."
The case was investigated by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Citing a "close working relationship with local law enforcement," Ketola also had retired St. Louis County prosecutor Vern Swanum conduct a legal review of the case.
According to Ketola's report:
Olthoff had been "credibly suspected" of "numerous thefts, burglaries and other criminal activities" in the weeks and months leading up to the shooting. He had recently been released from prison, with a "substantial and violent criminal record," including a case in which he rammed the vehicle of U.S. Marshals who were attempting to apprehend him.
When Carlton County Deputy Justin Jokinen spotted a car registered to Olthoff's mother on State Highway 210 on the evening of July 27, he initiated a traffic stop. As the car pulled over, Jokinen said he saw Olthoff get out and point a firearm directly at the squad car.
Jokinen took "evasive action," circling around the area until additional officers arrived. When they did, Olthoff was gone; two females in the car reported he ran into the woods. Another deputy and K-9 tracked his path, locating a gun holster with ammunition for a 9 mm pistol and a cellphone. But neither Olthoff nor the gun could be located.
Investigators later discovered Olthoff was at his mother's residence at the Moose Lake manufactured home park. The Carlton County Attorney's Office obtained a warrant charging him with three felony firearm-related charges.
Given the severity of the offense, Olthoff's history and the belief that he was still armed with the pistol, the Consolidated Emergency Response Team was activated to serve the warrant. The team consists of members from the sheriff's office and Cloquet and Moose Lake police departments.
The team devised a plan to draw Olthoff's mother out of the residence and then detonate a flash-bang device, designed to disorient Olthoff long enough for officers to enter and safely subdue him. An officer who had been in the house recently drew up a diagram of the layout. The team even had a sniper positioned at a distance.
After Olthoff's mother was safely out of the building, the first team member, whose job was to breach the door, unexpectedly crossed the threshold and entered the house to the left. The second officer, having already pulled the pin on the flash-bang, tossed the device to the right.
Warnygora, the third in line, saw the first officer covering his head with his arm and heard him yell "oh s---." The second team member yelled something along the lines of "let me see your hands" at Olthoff, who was lying on a couch.
Warnygora reported he heard something he described as a "ping" and saw Olthoff's left hand moving. Believing the officers were under fire, he shot twice at the suspect. Warnygora then asked his teammates, "How many shots did he fire?" and inquired whether anyone had been hit.
Another officer's account suggests the "ping" was actually due to a door closing quickly; no gun was found at the residence. Officers also reported there was confusion caused by the fact that the home's layout was different than the diagram that had been provided.
Officers rendered aid to Olthoff, who was taken to Mercy Hospital in Moose Lake and then airlifted to Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth. His injuries were initially described as life-threatening; he survived the shooting but has permanent injuries.
Ketola said Warnygora and other officers had significant cause for concern over their safety, given Olthoff's history and the gun-pointing incident from two days earlier. She said the team is highly trained but must make "split-second" decisions in the moment.
"Mistakes alone as to whether a suspect is armed or not do not determine whether the decision of an officer to use deadly force rises to the level of criminal conduct," she wrote. "Above all, one must view the decision from the position of the officer at the moment deadly force is deployed, and not with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight."