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.
Skillen testified Wednesday he and another deputy repeatedly told Jess, who was sitting in the driver’s seat of a stolen Jeep brandishing a .22-caliber pistol, to put down his weapon.
“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.
“At that moment in time, did you know this was heading south pretty quick?” Senior Yellowstone County Ed Zink asked.
Skillen, breaking down, paused and then said, “Yes.”
Dash cam footage released Wednesday by the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office shows the moments leading up to Jess’s death. With their guns drawn, Skillen and Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Ellis, can be heard repeatedly yelling at Jess to “put the gun down.”
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.
Sheriff Mike Linder testified that earlier on July 5, Jess had called an acquaintance in Billings and said he was at a Walmart store.
The man reported to the Sheriff’s Office that Jess was at the Walmart in Laurel. Sheriff’s deputies, deputy U.S. Marshals and other members of the Montana Violent Offender’s Task Force went to the Walmart 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 payphone at the West End Walmart, 2525 King Ave. W.
Deputy Ellis responded minutes before 1 p.m. and spotted the stolen Jeep Jess was believed to be driving. Ellis followed the Jeep as Jess drove away from the Walmart 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 Jess 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 report 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 did the most damage, passing 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, Deputy Ellis had earlier told Jess to put the Jeep in park. Ellis testified that was the only command Jess obeyed during the altercation.
Jess died from his injuries at the scene of the shooting.
“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.”