After about five minutes of deliberation, a seven-person coroner’s jury reached a unanimous verdict Wednesday that a Yellowstone County sheriff’s lieutenant was justified in the shooting death of a gun-brandishing fugitive last July.
Lt. Shane Skillen shot Dean Randolph Jess, 42, four times just before 1 p.m. on July 5, 2013, in the 2500 block of King Avenue West.
The jury of four women and three men ruled that Jess died by justifiable homicide and that there was nothing criminal about the death.
“The evidence that was presented spoke for itself,” Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said after the verdict was announced. “I don’t think there was any reason to believe, right from the beginning, that Lt. Skillen did anything wrong. He did what he had to do.”
Footage from a dashboard-mounted camera released Wednesday by the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office shows the moments leading up to Jess’ death. With their guns drawn, Skillen and Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Ellis can be seen approaching a Jeep stopped at an intersection. They repeatedly yell at Jess to “put the gun down.”
Skillen testified he could see that Jess was brandishing a .22-caliber pistol with one hand.
“He started tapping his forehead and told me to shoot him here,” said the lieutenant, one of 11 witnesses the county attorney’s office called during the day-long coroner’s inquest, presided over by Fergus County Coroner Richard Brown.
“At that moment in time, did you know this was heading south pretty quick?” Senior Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Ed Zink asked.
Skillen, breaking down, paused and then said, “Yes.”
“He tipped the barrel of the gun directly towards me and at that time I had no other choice but to defend myself and fire,” the veteran deputy said.
Skillen, 41, has been in law enforcement for about 20 years. He said he joined the sheriff’s office in 1995. He was promoted to a patrol sergeant in 2012. He said he interviewed to be a patrol lieutenant on July 1, 2013, and was promoted to that job as well.
“Lt. Skillen, he is very professional,” Sheriff Mike Linder said. “(He is) one of the core people of this sheriff’s office.”
Jess was convicted of rape in 1992 and of additional felony sex offenses in 2005, according to testimony Wednesday. Days before the shooting, Jess escaped from the Montana State Prison, where he was serving on a 50-year sentence.
With that kind of person at large, “It’s a top priority to locate him and make sure he’s not a threat to the citizens,” Skillen testified.
Skillen, Linder and other witnesses testified that earlier on July 5, Jess had called an acquaintance in Billings and said he was at a Wal-Mart store.
That acquaintance reported to the sheriff’s office that Jess was at the Wal-Mart in Laurel. Sheriff’s deputies, deputy U.S. Marshals and other members of the Montana Violent Offender’s Task Force went to the Wal-Mart in Laurel and quickly determined Jess wasn’t there.
Linder said that Jess called his acquaintance again, and a dispatcher was able to trace the call to a pay phone at the West End Wal-Mart, 2525 King Ave. W.
Deputy Ellis responded to the Wal-Mart minutes before 1 p.m. and spotted the stolen Jeep that Jess was believed to be driving.
Ellis followed the Jeep as Jess drove away from the Wal-Mart to a stoplight on King Avenue West.
The footage from the camera in Skillen’s car shows him arriving at the intersection and directly blocking the Jeep from moving.
He gets out of the car with his gun drawn. Skillen and Ellis approach the vehicle, identifying Jess by name and telling him to show his hands.
The video shows him raising a gun with his right hand.
By this time more, numerous other officers had converged on the intersection and drawn their weapons on Jess.
“I started calling him by his name, thinking I can establish a rapport with him to where he just might cooperate,” Skillen said Wednesday. “I kind of made a decision in my mind that if the gun, the barrel of the gun, shifted or arced toward me I was going to defend myself.”
Skillen testified Jess then pointed the gun at him. The lieutenant fired four shots, all of which hit Jess.
Tom Bennett, a forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy on Jess the day after the shooting, said that one of those shots passed through Jess’s shoulder, right lung, aorta and left lung before lodging under the skin of his left armpit.
“I saw him reacting to the rounds,” Skillen testified. “The gun fell out of his hand.”
Jess’s foot apparently pressed the Jeep’s accelerator.
“The engine was redlined,” Skillen said.
Fortunately, Ellis had earlier told Jess to put the Jeep in park. Ellis testified that was the only command Jess obeyed during the altercation.
“Lieutenant, are you comfortable today with the actions you took on July 5, 2013?” Zink asked Skillen.
“I am,” Skillen said. “It’s taken me a while to process it.”