In response to a lawsuit filed by the family of an unarmed Native American man police shot to death in 2015, the City of Lakewood offers a blunt answer: the plaintiffs are lying and they know it.
Officers fatally shot Daniel Covarrubias, 37, who had a history of mental illness and substance abuse, in a Lakewood lumberyard, after they responded to reports of a suspicious person at the site.
He was standing on a 25-foot stack of lumber when police confronted him, according to records of the incident. The officers told him they were bringing a ladder for him to climb down. Records and witness accounts from civilians and police say he reached into his pocket and pointed a black object that turned out to be a cell phone.
Officers shot him four times. A wound to his head was fatal. A post-mortem analysis by the Pierce County Medical Examiner found that Covarrubias had methamphetamine and other drugs in his system.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist's office concluded after an investigation that the shooting was justified, in "response to a perceived deadly threat,” while adding the loss of life was regrettable.
Attorneys for the family say Covarrubias was not a threat. They contend racial bias played a role in the incident, that officers failed to de-escalate the situation and that they knew Covarrubias was in the midst of a mental-health crisis. Earlier in the day, he had tried to check himself into a hospital and told medical staff he had cameras in his eyes and wanted them removed.
The suit also states that officers used "shoot-first, ask-questions-later tactics," and fabricated accounts of the incident after consultation with union attorneys. It adds that civilian witnesses ("everyone") recognized Covarrubias was holding a phone, not a gun.
"The same witnesses did not see Daniel make an aggressive or threatening gesture," the suit states. "Because he did not make such a gesture.”
Attorneys for the city say that statement is false, and that plaintiffs are ignoring evidence available to both sides in the case. The argument appears in an unusually specific response filed earlier this week by outside attorney Stewart Estes, who is defending the suit on Lakewood's behalf.
"Plaintiffs are in possession of all of the investigation files in this matter and have actual knowledge that these allegations are false," the response states. It repeatedly accuses the family's attorneys of using "sensational argument in a blatant effort to seek media attention."
Ryan Dreveskracht, one of the attorneys representing the family, called the city's answer "extremely odd — usually you would just write 'deny' or 'admit.' " He said the city's legal brief distorts the circumstances.
The city's brief cites cell phone video of the incident taken by witnesses, and multiple statements from witnesses recorded on video after the incident, which both parties to the lawsuit have obtained.
The video evidence includes footage of Covarrubias pointing his hand toward the officers over the span of four to five seconds while holding a "dark-colored object." One witness, a lumberyard employee, can be heard saying, "Don't point (expletive) at 'em."
Separate video footage includes interviews with four witnesses from the lumberyard, who give similar statements. The court filing attaches screen captures of four witnesses imitating the gestures by Covarrubias, and quotes their accounts of what they saw. All point one or both arms forward.
"To be honest with you, I thought it was a gun," one witness said, adding Covarrubias "was holding it like a gun," with two hands, court records state.
Another witness, also pictured in the court filing, referred to the object in Covarrubias's hand and his movements.
"He had something in his hand. . . . From where I was, it was just something dark and small. I couldn't tell you what it was," the witness said. "And then he did that [hand motion] and I was like don't punch it at 'em. That's the dumbest thing you could do and then he did it one more time and then and that's when everything happened."
Dreveskracht said his law firm hired investigators to interview the lumberyard witnesses individually.
"Without being manipulated and led by detectives, they (the witnesses) said clearly that the object in Daniel’s hand was not a gun."
The family is seeking $15 million in damages from the city, a number that mirrors a jury award tied to a similar lawsuit lost by the city earlier this year. A jury and a U.S. District Court judge found Lakewood liable for the fatal 2013 shooting death of Leonard Thomas, an unarmed black man killed on his front porch as he held his 4-year-old son in his arms.
The Covarrubias lawsuit, filed in late April, hasn't moved past the preliminary stage. No trial date has been set. A planning schedule set by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle orders the parties to complete an initial status report and discovery plan by July 25.