Inquest opens into fatal shooting by officer

2013-11-05T18:55:00Z 2014-04-18T23:05:53Z Inquest opens into fatal shooting by officerBy ZACH BENOIT The Billings Gazette

When the Billings Police Department's SWAT team pulled Daniel and Heather Brawley from a house on Miles Avenue after an hourslong standoff on Jan. 6, they thought a dangerous situation had been defused peacefully.

"Everybody came together, everybody did their jobs," said Sgt. Jason Gartner on Tuesday. "It ended peacefully at that point."

That all changed a few minutes later when Officer Dave Punt fatally shot Daniel Brawley as Brawley tried to escape in Punt's patrol car.

Gartner was one of 10 people who testified Tuesday at a coroner's inquest, presided over by Big Horn County Coroner Terry Bullis, into Brawley's death. He told the seven-person jury that, in the blink of an eye, the situation got out of control.

"He just didn't care who was in his way, he didn't care who he hit," Gartner said. "We weren't in control, but neither was he."

The jury convened at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility for the two-day inquest, which is required whenever law enforcement is involved in a death, to determine if Punt was justified in shooting Brawley.

Brooke Waldron told the jury that the day in question started when she went to check on the house of her boyfriend — who was out of town on business — and found a man passed out in a living room recliner and the house ransacked with items packed up.

"First I was confused, then terrified," Waldron said.

She called 911 and told them that somebody was in the house, adding that there were numerous hunting weapons inside.

Officer Seth Foster testified that he led a group of officers down the basement stairs but ordered them to turn around when he saw ammunition and open gun cases on the floor around a corner.

Officers considered sending a K-9 unit down before deciding it wasn't safe for a dog, either, and called in the SWAT team and negotiators.

Acting as lead negotiator, Officer Tom Keightley tried to contact the then-unknown people in the basement for more than an hour without a response.

Possibly spurred by the threat of SWAT entering and using gas, Brawley and his wife came out peacefully. Responding officers said Brawley appeared calm.

"He was calm and polite," Keightley said. "He seemed to be unconcerned about the circumstances, almost like it was something that happens all the time."

Video played by Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and testimony from police officers indicated that officers patted down Brawley, whose hands were cuffed behind him with plastic zip-ties called Flex Cuffs, several times before Punt placed him in the back of his running patrol car.

Brawley managed to free his left hand from the cuffs — the lead investigator, Sgt. Riley Finnegan, testified that both ties were still attached tightly to his right wrist — and climbed into the driver's seat through a partition window that Finnegan said didn't lock into place as it normally did.

Finnegan also said that the tie on Brawley's right wrist was tightened about an inch more than the one on his left.

Deputy County Attorney Ed Zink said in opening statements that Punt's patrol rifle and shotgun were in the front seat with Brawley at the time. Brawley then put the car in reverse and backed into a tree before trying to speed off westbound on Miles.

As the car backed up, Punt ran to it and was struck by the front driver's side of the car. The impact threw him into the street.

"He makes the decision to draw his weapon to protect himself and everybody else at the scene," Zink said.

Punt fired nine shots, with one striking Brawley in the right side. Detective Blake Richardson said Tuesday it was likely that the first shot fired by Punt, which went through the front passenger side window, that killed Brawley.

He died about 30 minutes later at a Billings hospital.

Two neighbors and a man who was in the area testified that they watched the incident unfold and recounted seeing the patrol car speed off and either seeing or hearing Punt fire at it before it crashed into two parked pickups at the west end of the block.

During his opening statements, Zink told the jury that they'd see testimony that Brawley had a significant amount of methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death.

The inquest concludes Wednesday with testimony from five more people, including Punt and Police Chief Rich St. John.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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