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Oct. 21, 2020

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Family: Man shot, killed by Vancouver police had schizophrenia

Michael Eugene Pierce, 29, was homeless, family says

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published:
11 Photos
Friends and loved ones of Michael Eugene Pierce gather for an emotional candlelight vigil in his memory Friday evening in downtown Vancouver. About 30 people, many of them homeless, shared memories and jokes about the man Vancouver police officers shot and killed Thursday night.
Friends and loved ones of Michael Eugene Pierce gather for an emotional candlelight vigil in his memory Friday evening in downtown Vancouver. About 30 people, many of them homeless, shared memories and jokes about the man Vancouver police officers shot and killed Thursday night. Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

The man fatally shot by Vancouver police late Thursday afternoon, after reportedly brandishing two firearms, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia as a teenager but had stopped taking his prescribed medication, according to family members.

Family identified the man as 29-year-old Michael Eugene Pierce, who was born in Oklahoma but had been living in Washington for the past decade.

Pierce’s aunt Beth Brittain said Friday that he had stopped taking his medication a couple years back because he said it made him “feel like a zombie.” He once told his mother he heard voices telling him to kill himself, Brittain said.

Officers were called about 4:45 p.m. Thursday for a report of an armed person near West 12th and Jefferson streets west of downtown Vancouver. Shortly after, officers yelled that shots had been fired and said the man was down, with a firearm by his feet, according to emergency radio traffic monitored at The Columbian.

“Multiple callers called in saying a man was waving his guns and pointing them at people,” Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said.

12 Photos
Braedon Buhler of Vancouver, center, gathers with other friends and loved ones of Michael Pierce as they prepare to release balloons in his honor during a candlelight vigil in downtown Vancouver on Friday evening, March 1, 2019. Buhler said he hoped to see more support for people struggling with mental illness, such as Pierce. He also said he remembered Pierce as a loyal friend. "If you were his friend, there's nothing he wouldn't do for you," Buhler said. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
Gallery: Candlelight vigil for Michael Pierce Photo Gallery

Two officers fired their weapons; neither was injured. The officers have been placed on critical incident leave, standard department protocol in an officer-involved shooting. They likely will not be identified until Monday, Kapp said.

Joe Newsome, who witnessed the shooting, said he had just gotten off work in the area and was walking home when he saw a man holding a gun, screaming at passing vehicles. The man was waving the firearm, Newsome said, and pointing it at his own head. Other witnesses said the man had two firearms.

About 30 people gathered Friday night at the site where Pierce died for a candlelight vigil. Spray-painted epitaphs covered the street: “You are loved.” “Michael RIP.” “Love you.”

Kyla Houchens was a close friend of Pierce’s, she said. He called her “mom,” and the two spent hours together at the recently-opened Vancouver Navigation Center on Grand Boulevard.

Houchens and others at the vigil said Pierce’s guns were brightly colored pellet guns; he treated them as toys. When he put the guns to his head, it was a call for help, she said.

“Today is a commemoration of Michael’s life, and a day of accountability for everyone else,” Houchens said.

A home in Vancouver

Pierce was born in Sapulpa, Okla., and spent his formative years in Seminole, Okla., where he attended school. He was the second youngest among four siblings — three brothers and a sister, Brittain said.

Pierce left home when he was 18 or 19 years old. He hitchhiked across the country and settled in Washington. His family is unsure what led him to Vancouver.

Pierce’s mother, according to Brittain, had him evaluated when he was 7 years old due to odd behaviors, which included harming himself. Doctors put Pierce on Ritalin, and despite his mental health issues, Pierce had a fair upbringing, according to his aunt.

“He was the sweetest little boy,” Brittain said.

In 2008, Pierce’s older brother John went missing in Idaho. Authorities found his foot in a boot, but the family never learned what truly happened. Brittain said she believes the traumatic event is part of the reason Pierce started wandering.

The family was unfamiliar with his current living situation, she said. Pierce would show up sporadically. He would sometimes call from the bus stop in Seminole and ask his mom for a ride.

Joan Wickenhagen, the grandmother of Pierce’s 5-year-old daughter, said Pierce was homeless and had been couch surfing for the past several years, after a conviction that resulted in jail time. He would infrequently visit Wickenhagen’s Vancouver home, she said, to visit his daughter and her mother, Mollie Wickenhagen.

“He didn’t come around a lot,” the elder Wickenhagen said. “He tried to be good. He loved all of us, especially (his daughter).”

Mollie Wickenhagen remembered the father of her child as a “different sort,” a book nerd who loved to fix things. He struggled, she said, and could be “irrational” and “all over the place.” But he had a good heart, she said, and love for his daughter and the family he had built in Vancouver.

“He always found home here,” she said.

Run-ins with the law

Joan Wickenhagen said Pierce had run-ins with police, but they were all nonviolent. According to Kapp, responding officers at the time of Thursday’s call did not know Pierce’s identity or his criminal history.

Court records show that Pierce’s felony criminal history in Clark County began in July 2015.

A Vancouver police officer was called to the Hough neighborhood for a report of three men possibly using drugs, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in Clark County Superior Court. The officer came upon the men sitting around a bong. Pierce was arrested for criminal impersonation for giving a brother’s name and for a felony arrest warrant out of Texas that’s not detailed in local court documents. He was listed as transient during the time of his arrest.

He spent about a month in jail, and his right to possess firearms was taken away as a result of the conviction.

His next arrest was more than two years later. In late November 2017, a Vancouver police officer recognized Pierce, who was sitting on a bench in the area of Evergreen Boulevard and Z Street. Pierce was wanted on a misdemeanor warrant for “displaying (a) weapon” in a October 2016 case, according to an affidavit of probable cause. Once Pierce was handcuffed, the officer found a glass pipe with residue that tested positive for methamphetamine. He ended up in jail for another month on a drug conviction, court records show.

Two similar arrests happened last year. A Vancouver police officer responded in April to 100 W. 11th St. for an illegal camper. Pierce gave the officer a fake name, and when he was taken into custody, the officer found a meth pipe among Pierce’s belongings, according to court records. Then, in December, Vancouver bicycle officers came upon a homeless camp at East Seventh and C streets. Pierce was spotted exiting a tent; he refused to give his name and again used a brother’s name. He had a hypodermic needle that tested positive for meth. Pierce was exonerated of two charges three days later; more investigation was necessary, court documents show.

He was also picked up at least twice in January, court documents show. A jail pre-booking sheet filed Jan. 5 says Pierce did not answer a corrections officer when asked if he showed any signs of suicidal behavior or attempts.

On his visits home in Oklahoma, Pierce would not share much about his troubles. Brittain said the family was suspicious about Pierce using drugs, but they never confirmed it.

“When he was around, he was good. He had his problems, but no one is perfect … He would never hurt anybody but himself.”

‘Catalyst for change’

Joan Wickenhagen said Pierce appeared depressed over the past couple of years.

“He had mentioned at one point that someone suggested he go see a counselor,” she said. “He had a big heart. He wasn’t always around the best people.”

Adam Kravitz last saw Pierce about a month ago. Pierce had just gotten a haircut and was feeling positive, he said. Kravitz, the founder of Vancouver-based homeless advocacy organization Outsiders Inn, was driving Pierce and a few others to Share House. The men were boasting about the day and their plans for dinner.

Kravitz had been supporting Pierce over the years, with favors such as rides, and got to know him well, he said.

“He was just a good guy … I’m not sure what was going on recently. It may have been his struggles got to him; he just wasn’t where he wanted to be,” Kravitz said.

The homeless community is devastated about the shooting. They have questions about what happened, and concerns about whether enough was done to de-escalate the situation, Kravitz said.

Ren Autrey, Kravitz’s partner at Outsiders Inn, said the group plans to testify before Vancouver City Council about the police department’s de-escalation policies and training. She hopes that Pierce’s death can be used as “a catalyst for change.”

“Do the police go and talk you off the bridge?” Autrey asked. “Or do they push you off?”

Columbian reporter Katie Gillespie contributed to this report.

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