Inquest Sgt Reed

Police Sgt. Clyde Reid points out officer's positions during a coroner's inquest into the police shooting of Ryan Lowell along Highway 3 near the Billings airport in May.

LARRY MAYER Gazette Staff

Billings Police officers were justified in shooting and killing Ryan Edward Lowell at the end of a nearly hour-long standoff on the Billings Rims last May, a jury concluded Wednesday following a coroner's inquest.

Coroner’s inquests are required under Montana law whenever law enforcement is involved in a fatal shooting or someone dies in law enforcement custody.

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Inquest scene

Billings police officer Philip Tanis is questioned during a coroner's inquest into the police shooting of Ryan Lowell along Highway 3 near the Billings airport in May. Bighorn County coroner Terry Bullis presided over the proceeding.

Four officers with the police department fired their weapons at Lowell, 30, on May 12, 2017, following a standoff that began as a report of a suicidal man on the Rims. Lowell could be seen multiple times displaying a handgun in police dash-cam footage of the incident. He pointed the gun at the officers repeatedly during the standoff, which ended when he fired a single shot at officers who returned fire.

Lowell was struck by at least five bullets and as many as eight shotgun pellets, according to Montana Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Kurtzman, who performed the autopsy.

None of the shots fired were immediately fatal, Kurtzman said. Lowell was transported by ambulance to Billings Clinic where he died about an hour later.

Big Horn County Coroner Terry Bullis presided over the inquest and the seven-person jury.

Among the nine witnesses called by Yellowstone County Deputy Attorney Ed Zink was Mike McCarthy, the primary instructor on officer use of force at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy. As an expert witness who reviewed the evidence in the case, McCarthy said that Billings Police officers acted properly, and that the tragic outcome of the standoff rested entirely with Lowell.

“He’s the determining factor in this. At any time he could have put the gun down ... and he didn’t,” McCarthy said.

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Inquest negotiator

Billings Police Department hostage negotiator Jeremy Boeckel testifies during a coroner's inquest into the police shooting of Ryan Lowell along Highway 3 near the Billings airport in May.

Throughout the duration of the incident, Officer Jeremy Boeckel, who served as the negotiator throughout the incident, could be heard speaking through a bullhorn to Lowell and asking him to put his gun down dozens of times.

Noting that Lowell had already pointed his gun at officers several times and could be seen waving his gun around throughout the incident, McCarthy later added, “The officers would have been justified in shooting earlier.”

Lowell was described by officers and other witnesses who testified Wednesday as unstable and oscillating between episodes of extreme agitation and relative calm. A toxicology report revealed that at the time of his death, Lowell’s blood alcohol concentration was more than 3.5 times the legal limit for operating a vehicle, or 0.293 grams per 100 milliliters, Kurtzman said.

When officers were dispatched at around 2:30 p.m. to the Rims in search of Lowell’s white Mercedes passenger car, his ex-girlfriend, who was not named in the inquest, had just called police to report that she had received a series of troubling, suicidal texts from Lowell, according to Zink.

The texts had begun shortly after 5 a.m., he said, and reportedly culminated that afternoon with at least one photo showing Lowell with a handgun pointed into his mouth, a suicidal call to his mother and a message to the ex-girlfriend that he was turning his cell phone off.

One of the officers who fired, Mike Freeman, testified that he was the one who first spotted Lowell’s car, parked to the south of the highway about a half-mile from the roundabout.

The ensuring 56 minutes leading up to the shooting were described by the four officers as tense, with Lowell at times appearing receptive to Boeckel’s pleas to cooperate, then later becoming aggressive.

Negotiators in standoff situations try to keep tabs of what negative “triggers” seem to be making the situation worse, and what positive “hooks” the negotiator can use to relieve tension, Boeckel explained. During his back-and-forth with Lowell, Boeckel said the subject of his mother seemed to be a positive hook, and he used it to try to reason with distraught man about the consequences of suicide on surviving family members.

“It started off very much up and in a rage, and then he would calm down, and laugh,” Boeckel said. “And then he would ratchet back up and we would have to ratchet back up.”

Several officers, along with expert witnesses, testified that a turning point appeared to come toward the end of the standoff when Lowell’s attitude began to change, and he appeared to be calming down.

“People that are suicidal, when they accept that they’re going to die, their spirits lift,” Boeckel said. “We as a department gave this situation our very best effort to have a positive outcome ... It just didn’t work out that way.”

Throughout the incident, Lowell could be seen walking across the highway from his parked car, coming closer to the officers’ vehicles before moving back to the road and back over to his car. But in his testimony, Police Chief Rich St. John said that at no point was Lowell close enough for officers to reliably use non-lethal weapons like stun guns or bean-bag rounds.

Among the four officers who fired at Lowell, Sgt. Clyde Reid, the commanding officer during the standoff, and Officer Steve Swanson both testified that they had already decided to fire at Lowell before the shooting began.

Reid noted that he had almost fired his gun during an earlier point in the standoff, when Lowell pointed his gun toward the Rims and appeared to be “hunting” for Freeman, who had moved across the road to the trees along Zimmerman Park to avoid potential cross-fire.

Throughout the incident, his goal was to get Lowell some help and end the situation peacefully, he said, but “the possibility that it was going to end badly became more and more evident.”

“I had made up my mind that if he turned around and pointed that gun at us again, I was going to have to do something,” Reid said, adding that he didn’t realize until after the incident that Lowell had fired the first shot. “There was just a tiny bit of relief, I guess, that I wasn’t the one that fired first.”

The jury was unanimous in its determination that Lowell’s death was a justifiable homicide under Montana law, which requires that a person be facing a situation where they reasonably expect their life or the lives of others are in danger, Zink explained in his closing statement.

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Inquest video

Dust flies as Ryan Lowell is shot by police in this view from a dash camera video during a coroner's inquest Wednesday.

Five members of Lowell’s family were present at the inquest. Following the jury's verdict, Zink commended the officers’ work and expressed sympathy for Lowell's family and the families of the officers involved.

During his testimony, St. John also noted that the incident had taken a substantial emotional toll on his officers.

“We're very mindful of the traumatic effect that these things have. It's not like on TV,” St. John said. “I felt that the entire situation was handled very professionally. I thought their performance was exemplary. They worked tirelessly to resolve this thing peacefully.”

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Morning Reporter

General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.