No charges will be filed against a North Dakota Highway Patrol trooper involved in the early September shooting death of a Montana man on Interstate 94 west of Mandan, an incident the man's father says showed his otherwise good son's "bad side" amid increased drinking following a divorce.
Trooper Steven Mayer “was justified in discharging his firearm in defense of self and others,” Assistant Morton County State’s Attorney Gabrielle Goter said in a letter to the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. BCI handled the probe and turned the case over to the state's attorney's office for consideration of charges.
The patrol late Tuesday released video of the incident, along with reports from the BCI, Highway Patrol and Morton County Sheriff’s Office and the letter from the state’s attorney's office. Mayer "acted within department policy in the incident," the patrol said.
Mayer was assisting Morton County sheriff’s deputies who attempted to stop Craig Knutson, 45, of Billings, after receiving a call of a reckless driver on Sept. 7. Knutson continued east at highway speeds and slowed after authorities deflated the front left tire of his van with a spike strip.
A dispatcher can be heard in Highway Patrol video telling officers that Knutson was threatening to shoot himself in the heart. Knutson confirmed to the dispatcher that he had a gun. He also can be heard saying he had no intention of harming any law officers.
Knutson during the conversation with the dispatcher says he knows he's "not going to dig out of this," and that he "wants a last smoke." The dispatcher asks Knutson several times to pull over and talk to the officers. Knutson at one point said "it's come to the end for me," and tells the dispatcher "you've done everything you could."
The dispatcher tries again to get Knutson to pull over and let one officer approach the van. Knutson says he doesn't trust them and the dispatcher assures him there are "really great guys out there."
"I know, but the end is still the same," Knutson says.
He later told the dispatcher that he planned to take an exit ramp and stop, but Mayer shortly after used his patrol vehicle to push the van into a skid and parked in front of it. Authorities did not want Mayer taking the exit because of homes in that area, according to the BCI report. Knutson just before the shots are fired can be heard saying on the video, "They didn't listen."
After the van was stopped, Knutson waved the revolver and pointed it at Mayer, according to an account from the trooper detailed in the BCI report. Mayer got out of his squad car and pulled his handgun but did not shoot because he felt the deputies would be in the line of fire. He moved to the side of Knutson's vehicle and attempted to open the driver door but it was locked. The trooper realized he "had made a mistake and backed away from the vehicle," the report states.
Mayer and deputies can be heard more than half a dozen times telling Knutson to show his hands. Mayer as he moved from his squad car told deputies that Knutson had a gun.
Knutson was smoking a cigarette with his left hand. Mayer fired when he saw Knutson's right hand come up with the revolver in it, and at about the same time as Deputy Jonathan Moll fired a less-than-lethal round at the van's driver-side window, according to the report. Mayer was unsure after the shots if he had shot Knutson, if Knutson had shot himself, or if Knutson had shot at Mayer and Moll, the report said.
Moll said in a separate report that the shot that killed Knutson came "immediately after" Moll fired his beanbag round. The BCI report also indicates that Mayer shot second.
Another deputy at the scene, Angel Beltran, said in his report that he also saw Knutson's hand moving up right before Knutson was shot, though Beltran didn't indicate if Knutson held a gun.
Officers said they found a loaded revolver and a cellphone in or near Knutson's lap. During a search of the van they also found additional ammunition, along with other items including "various" prescription medication and a partially empty vodka bottle, according to the BCI report, which also noted that the interior of the van had an odor of alcohol.
The report does not say if authorities determined whether Knutson was under the influence. The patrol said it did not have the toxicology report on Knutston and referred the Tribune to the state's attorney's office. Goter declined to provide the results and said the Tribune would need to get them from the North Dakota Medical Examiner’s Office once the autopsy report is finalized.
Knutson's father, Jerry Knutson, also of Billings, told the Tribune that his son was "a good man, a good father, a good son," and that what people saw in September was the "bad side of Craig."
Craig Knutson had been divorced about two years ago, had his 17-year-old son living with him, was under a lot of pressure, and his drinking had intensified within the last year, his father said.
Jerry Knutson said he had no issues with Mayer being cleared because "he did what he had to do." He also said he was thankful his son did not get into a wreck on the highway or shoot an officer. He said there are law officers in the family.
"Why he would think to not stop, I don't understand," he said of his son.
Craig Knutson was in Bismarck for work for his father's company, West-Tech Supply and Services, which does underground storage and compliance out of Billings, according to Jerry Knutson.
Mayer is a patrol veteran of more than 15 years, with no disciplinary history, according to patrol spokesman Sgt. Wade Kadrmas. Mayer is a K9 handler with two bloodhounds assigned to him. He also has taught Active Threat Response at the Law Enforcement Training Academy, according to the BCI report.
He had been on administrative leave since the shooting, and on Tuesday was given clearance to return to full duty, Kadrmas said.
Investigation reports indicate Mayer underwent a drug test following the incident, but they do not include the test outcome. Kadrmas declined to provide the Tribune with results, saying any toxicology reports for Mayer would be confidential under state law.
(Online Producer Jason Heupel contributed to this story.)
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com