A former Los Angeles police SWAT trainer and supervisor testified Monday that there was no evidence Leonard Thomas was a threat to anyone when a Pierce Metro SWAT team sniper shot and killed him after a standoff in Fife in May 2013.
Scott DeFoe was hired as an expert witness by attorneys representing Thomas’ family in a wrongful-death and civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court.
He reviewed the actions of the multiagency team that surrounded Thomas’ home the night of May 23, 2013. He concluded that, while negotiators and team members did an exemplary job, they were failed by their leader, Mike Zaro, now the Lakewood police chief, who was in charge that night.
The often-tense situation had all but resolved — Thomas, 30, had agreed to let his 4-year-old son, Elijah, go home with Thomas’ mother, Annalesa Thomas — and had taken the child, a car seat and a backpack to the front porch.
After a couple of false starts when Thomas balked at releasing the boy, Annalesa Thomas was brought up from the command post to call for the child from behind an armored vehicle.
Zaro, in the meantime, radioed that the SWAT team was not to let Thomas take the child back into the house.
He also ordered an assault team at the rear of the home to set off explosives and blow down the door, flooding the house with armed men who shot and killed the family dog.
Thomas, according to witnesses, grabbed for the child at the sound of the blast, and a Lakewood police sniper, Brian Markert, shot him from 90 feet away.
SWAT officers said they had to slug Thomas to get him to let go of the child, who was yelling “Daddy! Daddy.” Thomas’ last words were, “Don’t hurt my boy” before he bled to death, according to testimony.
Zaro, who spent most of Monday on the witness stand, had said he gave the order because Thomas was increasingly agitated. He believed the assault team’s violent entrance would cause Thomas to freeze and give officers a chance to rescue the boy.
Thomas, Zaro said, was controlling and using the child as a bargaining chip.
But when the explosives detonated, Thomas reached for the boy, and Markert, believing Thomas was going to hurt the child, fired his rifle.
“Nobody thought he would grab his son and flee back toward the sound of an explosion,” Zaro said.
The chief said Thomas had been controlling, belligerent and hostile toward police, although he acknowledged that at no time during the evening did Thomas threaten officers, himself or the child.
No firearms were found in the house, and Thomas was not armed.
Police had been called to his home that night because he was drunk, had argued with his mother and had grabbed a cellphone out of her hand while she was calling 911. The decision was to arrest him for misdemeanor domestic-violence assault.
Zaro said Thomas’ erratic actions that night “left him no choice” but to authorize deadly force.
In his testimony, Zaro acknowledged the Thomas’ SWAT call-out was his first experience as tactical commander during an incident with a hostage or barricaded subject.
He also said he rarely trained with the SWAT team snipers because he had other duties.
DeFoe is a 25-year Los Angles police officer and Medal of Valor winner who spent more than a decade in SWAT as a supervisor, trainer and crisis negotiator.
He told the jury he has supervised hundreds of barricaded suspects and hostage situations, and questioned whether Elijah was a hostage at all, considering there had been no threats.
While he said it was “prudent” to have an assault team and snipers ready, DeFoe said his review of reports, transcripts, depositions and dispatch audio from that night led him to conclude there was no reason to kill Thomas, and every reason to continue negotiating with him.
There was no emergency, he said. The boy was fine and had apparently been in bed and was about to be let go. There were no weapons, no threats and there was no hurry. The two hostage negotiators, he said, had done an “excellent” job when Zaro ordered the assault.
“My criticism lies with command,” DeFoe said. “There was a departure from training and tactics in this case. I don’t think the shooting itself was reasonable.”