A man Lakewood police fatally shot in a lumberyard last month pointed a cellphone at two officers, who believed it was a gun, interim Police Chief Mike Zaro said Monday.
Daniel Covarrubias, 37, died April 21 when officers David Butts and Ryan Hamilton shot him. The officers fired a total of nine shots, five of which hit Covarrubias, who had no gun.
Zaro publicly released the officers’ names and further information about the shooting for the first time Monday, nearly three weeks after the shooting.
He also said he knew people wanted to know whether the situation could have been handled without officers using their weapons.
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“I’m not going to ask our officers to stand there with a gun pointed at them, or what they believe to be a gun pointed at them, and not take actions to defend their lives,” Zaro said.
Covarrubias’ family referred The News Tribune to attorney Ben F. Barcus, who said he and the family have “serious concerns,” about the shooting, including that only two minutes passed between the officers arriving at 1:20 p.m. and the shooting.
Zaro said he understands that concern, but that an officer has no way to predict what’s going to happen at a scene.
“That’s how long it took for Mr. Covarrubias to point the dark object at the officers,” Zaro said. “We never know when it’s going to turn into something like that.”
The shooting was the first for both officers. Zaro gave this account of what happened:
Police came to Pinnacle Lumber & Plywood, 3600 108th St. SW, after an employee called 911 to say a man who appeared to be running from police was hiding on top of a pile of wood.
Police hadn’t been chasing the man, who turned out to be Covarrubias. The employee assumed that after seeing him running and hearing sirens.
Butts and Hamilton responded to the call nevertheless and found Covarrubias crouching on a 25-foot stack of lumber. They tried to talk to him, but he didn’t respond.
He reached into his pockets, at which point they told him to show his hands.
“Seconds later, Covarrubias raised up with a dark object in his hand, and pointed it at the officers in a manner that was consistent with pointing a firearm,” Zaro said.
Covarrubias crouched back down, as officers kept telling him to show his hands. Seconds later he popped up and again pointed the object, later found to be a cellphone, at the officers, who fired at him.
Covarrubias crouched down, then raised up and pointed the cellphone at the officers a third time as the officers fired, before dropping onto the lumber.
Six seconds passed between the first time Covarrubias pointed the cellphone at them, to the last shot fired.
Officers climbed a fire ladder already at the scene to get Covarrubias, who later died at a hospital. When they reached the top of the stack, they realized Covarrubias had been holding a cellphone, not a gun.
Zaro said reports from St. Clare Hospital indicated Covarrubias had methamphetamine in his system the day he was shot, and possibly had gone three days without eating or sleeping, and might have been hallucinating.
It appeared he was walking home when he went into the lumberyard.
Zaro talked briefly about why the details weren’t released sooner.
“Our primary objective in this is to maintain the integrity of the investigation,” he said. “Releasing any information too early can tamper with future witness statements, and it can damage the integrity of the investigation.”
He said the department waited to release information until the officers gave their statements and until he could give the details to the family Friday.
Asked why the officers waited until April 30 to give their statements, Zaro said that in part they were concerned by widely publicized police protests in Baltimore, among others across the country. In Baltimore, Freddie Gray died from injuries suffered while being transported by police, and six officers were charged in his death.
As for the time the Lakewood officers took before giving statements, Zaro said the officers were not second-guessing their own actions, but were concerned about the changing environment in which police work.
“It influenced I think the willingness of the officers to give voluntary statements,” he said. “The statements were released voluntarily after consulting with their union attorney and feeling comfortable with the process.”
The department can compel officers to give a statement but generally won’t, Zaro said, because the statement then can’t be used by prosecutors if an officer is charged.
By volunteering a statement, the officers essentially forfeit their right to not incriminate themselves, and should prosecutors need the statements they can use them.
The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office will review the shooting and determine whether it was justified. Barcus, the Covarrubias family attorney, said he was conducting an investigation as well.
Butts, 48, has worked in law enforcement since 1999. Hamilton, 39, has been an officer since 2001. Both have been with Lakewood since 2004. They returned to work Thursday.
Barcus noted that Covarrubias had seven children “whom he thought the world of and they thought the world of him. It’s a huge tragedy in that regard, with these children having lost their father.”