THE TWO POLICE officers involved in the death of a fleeing Central District motorist have given homicide investigators key new details to justify the controversial May 31 shooting.
After being grabbed and dragged by driver Aaron Roberts at 23rd and Union, Seattle police officer Greg Neubert was able to save himself, says his attorney, by clinging to the open window of the bolting Cadillac.
The swerving car shot forward and abruptly backward as Neubert held on for dear life, says Seattle attorney Ted Buck, recounting details that his client recently gave investigators.
Neubert was thrown from the four-door sedan when it smashed backward into a concrete planter, Buck says. The officer landed on the ground with his head about a foot from a spinning rear wheel of the car, which had high-centered on the broken planter.
It was at about this time that Roberts, 37, was shot by Neubert's partner, Craig Price, police earlier indicated.
That scenario does not clearly explain how Roberts could presumably steer the car and work the gearshift lever while also hanging onto Neubert. But Buck indicates that Roberts, at some point, released his grasp and that Neubert was hanging onto the car himself.
"He had no means of getting loose from that car" after Roberts grabbed him by the hand and took off, says Buck. "Even if he had dropped to the ground while it was moving, the officer would have been run over. He just hung on."
Despite earlier police and news reports, Neubert never reached inside the car for Roberts' ID after stopping him for erratic driving; Buck says, "That didn't happen." Roberts handed Neubert papers before grabbing him, the attorney says.
Police have not said if Neubert and Roberts recognized each other that night, but Neubert had arrested Roberts for robbery last year on a warrant that called Roberts armed and dangerous.
If true, Neubert's depiction of events provides a plausible, though arguable, police version of why Price ended up taking the life of the often-arrested Roberts after what was a routine late-night traffic stop.
According to the department, Price, who had been running alongside the car, climbed in through the passenger door and struggled with Roberts before shooting him. That may have happened after the car stopped, which could mean that Neubert was no longer in danger when Price shot. Police have not released details of the struggle nor revealed if the car was still moving. (At press time, KING TV reported a postmortem blood test showed Roberts had cocaine and morphine in his system.)
In Neubert's scenario, even if the car had stopped, the fallen Neubert was still in danger of being further injured because Roberts' foot remained on the accelerator. Price, who was on the opposite side of the car, also may have thought that Neubert had fallen under the vehicle and could be run over.
Neubert's attorney thinks there's little question the shooting was justified. "Price's goal was to save his partner's life," says Buck. "He had seconds to make that decision."
Fostered in part by long-standing community suspicions, rumors about the shooting abound—including the claim that medics paid attention first to the lesser- injured officer before tending to the dying Roberts who, some say, was left on the street for an hour.
None of that is true, fire officials say, although Officer Neubert was indeed taken to the hospital first.
Hit on the right side, near his ribs, Roberts remained alive for 21 minutes after the shooting, according to a Seattle Fire Department Incident History report (the radio/dispatch log of the shooting). He was transported at 11:42 p.m. and died about 10 minutes later at Harborview Medical Center.
Suffering from cuts and bruises, Neubert was administered to for 10 minutes and transported to Harborview at 11:41 p.m. He spent the night.
The fire department says its crews were following medical procedure. "Mr. Roberts had to be stabilized [at the scene] and the officer didn't," explains Seattle Fire Department spokesperson Lt. Sue Stangl. "If you've got any kind of life-threatening condition, you're not going anywhere until we do what has to be done to stabilize you." She continues, "We do the things on the scene that would be done at the hospital, so when they arrive they're ready for surgery."
The first arriving units went to work on Roberts and didn't immediately know that the officer had been injured, Stangl says. Another Medic One crew arrived about five minutes later to attend Neubert and was able to quickly transport him due to his lesser injuries, the department says.
Along with the SPD homicide probe, internal investigation, and firearms review, the FBI has routinely joined in the probe under its civil rights mandate. And though an as-yet-unscheduled coroner's inquest will openly air details of the shootings, at least three City Council members don't think that's enough.
After considering past inquest complaints, council members Nick Licata, Jim Compton, and Richard McIver asked county executive Ron Sims to appoint an independent investigator to probe the shooting. As it now stands, the three say in a letter to Sims, "The inquest outcome seems unlikely to inspire confidence in the African-American community."
Sims isn't opposed to the idea but says the city should hire the investigator. Sims had earlier appointed a group to study the fact-finding inquest process, which is weighted in a public officer's favor and produces only an advisory verdict. It's unclear if any recommended changes could pass county approval prior to the Roberts inquest.