Investigation finds officer-involved shooting justified, lawful

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

Published:

Updated: April 12, 2013, 6:57 PM

 
photoVancouver Police Department Cpl. Marshall Henderson was cleared of wrongdoing in the Jan. 25, 3013, shooting death of a teenage robbery suspect in Vancouver.

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photoVancouver teen Douglas E. Combs
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Prosecutors clear VPD officer in shooting

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The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office finished its investigation into the Jan. 25 officer-involved shooting death of a Vancouver teen, concluding that the use of deadly force was “objectively reasonable, justified and therefore lawful.”

At the climax of a police pursuit that night, Vancouver Police Department Cpl. Marshall Henderson believed Douglas E. Combs, 16, was going to shoot him, so Henderson shot him first.

The seven-page case review references witness interviews, photos and diagrams of the scene of the shooting and the autopsy report from the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office that led investigators to their conclusion. The following narrative of events is from that case review document.

On the evening of Jan. 25, police had probable cause to believe Combs had committed three armed robberies, each a violent felony, in the past month. The Hudson’s Bay High School sophomore was also the suspect in a home invasion and shooting early that morning.

The crime spree started with an armed robbery Jan. 2 at Discount Tobacco, 6301 N.E. Highway 99. Clark County Sheriff’s Office detectives were assigned to investigate the robbery. Weeks later, on Jan. 25, a series of violent crimes unfolded, leading police to suspect Combs was behind each one:

1 a.m.: William Toohey was shot twice in his apartment at 1101 N.E. Minnehaha St. He told his girlfriend who shared his apartment, Cora Whitebird, that he was shot by a neighbor named “Greg.” When detectives showed Whitebird photos of Combs, she identified him as the neighbor she and Toohey knew as “Greg.”

5:30 a.m.: An armed robbery occurred at a 7-Eleven convenience store at 4500 N.E. St. Johns Road. Detectives later viewed surveillance footage and identified the suspect as Combs. The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office later filed two counts of first-degree robbery against Combs.

2 p.m.: An informant, who described himself as a friend of Douglas Combs, told detectives that Combs had admitted to robbing Discount Tobacco. He also said that he had seen Combs in possession of a handgun that matched the description of the handgun used in the tobacco store robbery.

According to the informant, Combs also said he wanted to start a gang, rob and shoot up stores, and shoot other gang members. Combs, he added, might shoot himself if the police were after him.

6:32 p.m.: The Shell convenience store at 7001 N.E. Andresen Road was robbed. Clark County sheriff’s Detective Linday Schultz reviewed videos footage and recognized Combs as the suspect.

6:40 p.m.: Superior Court Judge Scott Collier signed a warrant for Combs’ arrest.

8:45 p.m.: The informant called 911, telling dispatchers that Combs was heading to Pop Culture, a soda shop and concert venue in Vancouver’s Uptown Village. He said that Combs knew police were looking for him and admitted to robbing the Shell store. He gave dispatchers a physical description and told them Combs was armed with two pistols — one in his left pocket, an extended magazine in his right pocket and a second handgun in his backpack.

Vancouver police officers and sheriff’s deputies converged on the area surrounding Pop Culture, 1929 Main St., and set up a perimeter. Sgt. Jeff Kipp decided to use on-duty SWAT team members to contact and take the teen into custody. Henderson was one of those officers and also the assistant SWAT team leader. Kipp and Henderson discussed the violent nature of the crimes Combs was wanted for, the fact that he was thought to be armed and “the risk he posed to the community if he was allowed to escape from the perimeter.”

Henderson and sheriff’s Deputy Pete Muller were given the assignment to arrest Combs if he left Pop Culture and traveled to the north or east of the business.

Around 11:27 p.m., officers saw Combs and a second teen, later identified as Nehemiah Rudner-Singleton, 16, leave the soda shop and walk east on 20th Street.

Henderson and Muller each pulled out of an alley in separate unmarked police SUVs and began to slowly drive toward the two teens. Once they were close to the pair, Henderson and Muller yelled “Stop! Police!” out the windows of their vehicles. Combs turned east, then north into and alley and then east between two houses, as Henderson followed in his SUV. A SWAT team member in the passenger seat of Henderson’s SUV, Cpl. Bill Pardue, also yelled “Stop! Police!” multiple times. Henderson got out of his vehicle, ran south through the alley and east on 20th Street in pursuit of Combs.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Allais was on C Street, just north of 20th Street, helping another officer arrest Rudner-Singleton. Allais saw Combs appear from the area of a brick duplex and run east across C Street while Henderson also ran east, parallel to Combs.

Allais ran after Combs, yelling “Stop! Show us your hands!” Combs ran east into a small parking lot at 2105 C St. Initially, Henderson said in an interview, Combs was pumping his arms as he ran, but then he reached his left hand into his waistband and came up with what appeared to be a gun. Combs made no effort to throw the gun down. Instead, he began to move the gun across his body toward Henderson.

In order to prevent himself from being shot, Henderson fired first. From about 10 to 15 feet away, he shot Combs multiple times in the upper torso. A semi-automatic Glock 9 mm pistol fell out of Combs’ hand and slid across the pavement as he hit the ground.

Combs lay motionless.

Henderson stopped to report the shooting over the radio and requested medical assistance, as other officers converged on his location. From the time he left his SUV to the time of the shooting, Henderson estimated less than a minute had elapsed.

Cpl. Drue Russell, a SWAT medic, helped place handcuffs on Combs and provided medical aid to him. AMR paramedics pronounced Combs dead at 11:34 p.m.

Deputy Bill Sofianos noticed that Combs was lying face-down on the ground with his right hand under his stomach and his left hand extended above his head toward the pistol.

Officers canvassed the neighborhood for witnesses. William Stufflebeam, who lives directly west of the parking lot where the shooting took place, said he heard loud noises and saw an officer shoot the teen three times in the parking lot. He did not recall hearing any yelling or warnings, but he noted that he has poor hearing.

Pistol found

After the shooting, the area was designated a crime scene, marked off by police tape and secured. During an initial search of the area, officers found a loaded Taurus .380 pistol near where Nehemiah Rudner-Singleton was taken into custody. He was later interviewed and told investigators Combs had two pistols while at Pop Culture and gave him the Taurus pistol to carry.

Rudner-Singleton also told the investigators that “Combs admitted to shooting someone, that he hated the government, and that he was probably going to die soon.” Combs told him that while on the run “he would probably have to shoot people and he would not be taken alive.”

An autopsy found two gunshot entry wounds in the upper right shoulder blade and one entry wound in the right rib cage. Two exit wounds were located in the throat and left chest areas, while a bullet was still lodged in Combs’ left shoulder.

The Glock pistol found near Combs had a round in the chamber and nine more rounds in its magazine. A second magazine, found in Combs’ front right pocket, contained 15 rounds of ammunition. He had $118 in his wallet and $313 inside the backpack he was wearing.

A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives trace on the two guns revealed they had been purchased by Combs’ father, Gary Combs. Douglas Combs’ brother, Jason, viewed photographs of the two pistols. He told detectives that the pistols appeared to be the same guns his father had purchased that were missing from the residence where he and Douglas lived.

According to Washington law, deadly force is justifiable only when an officer has “probable cause to believe that the suspect, if not apprehended, poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or a threat of serious harm to others.”

In this case, investigators said they found a suspect displayed a weapon in a manner that could be considered threatening. The reasonableness of an officer’s use of force depends on the severity of the underlying offenses, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to officers or others and whether he’s actively resisting arrest.

Henderson has been involved in two other police shootings, according to The Columbian’s archives.

He was cleared of wrongdoing for firing at Anthony Pyle, 38, of Vancouver on Oct. 12, 2010. Pyle had shot his pregnant sister; he killed himself later during a police standoff.

Henderson and three Clark County sheriff’s deputies were also investigated for fatally shooting Robert K. Miller, 43, of Orchards during an Oct. 7, 2008, standoff in which Miller indicated he planned to kill his estranged girlfriend and himself. Investigators found that Miller fired first.

Henderson, an expert on Latino gangs, received a Distinguished Service Medal in February.

Cleared of wrongdoing, Henderson immediately resumes his assignment on patrol and as a member of the SWAT team. The Vancouver Police Department will conduct an internal review as part of normal protocol.

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops; patty.hastings@columbian.com.