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Court records detail events that led to fatal shooting at Smith Tower

No bail set in case; prosecutor argues 80-year-old Robert E. Breck a danger to the community

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor, and
, Columbian Breaking News Reporter
5 Photos
Robert Breck, 80, the suspect in an Oct. 3 fatal shooting at Smith Tower, is wheeled out of the courtroom after making a first appearance in Clark County Superior Court on Friday morning, Oct. 4, 2019.
Robert Breck, 80, the suspect in an Oct. 3 fatal shooting at Smith Tower, is wheeled out of the courtroom after making a first appearance in Clark County Superior Court on Friday morning, Oct. 4, 2019. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A shooting at Smith Tower Apartments that left one resident dead and another resident and her caretaker injured apparently started after the alleged shooter asked the caretaker to be his mistress and she said no, court records show.

However, Robert “Bob” Breck, 80, told investigators he had an ongoing feud with the man he killed, identified by police as 75-year-old Dean Leon Tunstall, according to an affidavit of probable cause. It’s unclear from court records how Breck’s connection to the caretaker and the men’s reported feud are related.

Breck appeared Friday morning in Clark County Superior Court on suspicion of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

Judge Daniel Stahnke set no bail in the case after a prosecutor argued Breck is a substantial threat to the community.

Breck was arrested late Thursday afternoon following a nearly 2 ½-hour standoff with a brigade of law enforcement at the senior living apartment tower in downtown Vancouver.

Police identified the two women injured in the shooting as Enelia Montoya, 73, also a resident of the building, and her caretaker, Shawne L. Garris, 44, court records show. A spokesman at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center said Friday morning that one of the women was treated and released, while the other was treated and transferred to another hospital with specialty care.

“Our trauma team saved their lives, and one of them is now at another facility,” PeaceHealth spokesman Randy Querin said.

Breck, who is also a Smith Tower resident, fired shots in the building’s lobby shortly after 2 p.m. Thursday, according to the Vancouver Police Department.

A 77-year-old resident who entered the building through a side door shortly after Breck told The Columbian he saw Breck standing with a handgun in the lobby and heard “boom-boom.” The witness said he fled and called police from a business next door.

Numerous law enforcement agencies were summoned at 2:09 p.m. for an “active shooter” call at 515 Washington St. There, they found three victims in the lobby suffering from gunshot wounds.

Smith Tower at a glance

  A downtown landmark, Smith Tower opened in 1966 at 515 Washington St. as a retirement home for seniors.

  At 158 feet tall, the cylindrical tower is the second tallest building in Clark County, according to Emporis.com. It has 15 stories, with 13 floors for residential units.

  The 170-unit building is owned by Mid-Columbia Manor Inc., a nonprofit corporation comprised of local labor unions.

  Tower residents were recently evacuated from their homes after a natural gas leak at a construction site across the street.

Teams of officers, holding the victims’ arms and legs, carried them out the front door. Tunstall was pronounced dead at the scene. The injured victims were tended to in the building’s parking lot until paramedics arrived and transported them to the hospital.

Witnesses and the surviving victims identified Breck as the shooter. The witnesses were ushered from the building by law enforcement and taken to City Hall to be interviewed.

Breck was holed up in his apartment on the building’s 13th floor on the south side when officers arrived.

A crisis negotiation team started communicating with him via phone before 3 p.m. SWAT officers evacuated the residents who were able to navigate the stairs and told the rest to shelter in place. The elevators inside the 15-story tower were shut off as police worked to contain the gunman to the 13th floor, where a drone hovered outside his window.

At about 4:35 p.m., police led Breck out of the building. He was wearing a gray T-shirt, plaid pajama pants and a baseball cap.

Shooting timeline

A man was killed and two women were injured Thursday afternoon in a shooting at Smith Tower Apartments in downtown Vancouver. The shooting prompted a roughly 2½-hour standoff.

The following is a summary of communications between emergency officials from emergency radio traffic monitored at The Columbian.

2:09 p.m.

  Vancouver police officers are dispatched to Smith Tower, 515 Washington St., for a report of a disturbance with a weapon.

2:10 p.m.

  Vancouver Fire Department and medical crews are dispatched amid reports of a shooting with multiple victims. A triage area is set up to receive victims.

2:30 p.m.

  Residents shelter in place on the 13th floor.

  The suspect in the shooting, Robert E. Breck, 80, is confirmed to be alone inside his apartment on the 13th floor. In a phone call with negotiators, he says he is willing to surrender and doesn’t want to hurt anyone else.

  A C-Tran bus stages at Esther Short Park to evacuate residents.

  The tower is cleared up to the 11th floor.

  Two patients are taken to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

  An officer requests that power be shut off on the 13th floor and that elevators are stopped.

  A negotiator says they are speaking with Breck about the surrender process.

  Breck hangs up, and a negotiator notes that the man is in the bathroom of the apartment.

  An officer says that anyone still inside their rooms may shelter in place and stay away from openings.

  An officer requests a door charge in case an explosive breach is necessary.

  Breck exits the front door of the apartment, refuses officer commands and re-enters.

  Officers want Breck to crawl out of the apartment on hands and knees. But the man claims he has a sickness “similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease,” making that difficult.

  An officer notes that police have probable cause for murder.

  Officers say that, when he surrenders, Breck should remove his shirt to ensure he is unarmed.

  Breck exits the apartment again, but he didn’t feel comfortable with the exchange and returns. A negotiator notes that Breck is “all about respect,” and officers should go easier on him. But Breck respects law enforcement and wants to surrender.

  Breck admits to shooting subjects on purpose.

  Breck is seen at a window with his hands empty.

  Breck’s daughter keeps calling him, unaware of his involvement, and interrupts negotiations.

•  Breck comes out of the apartment again and returns again.

  Police ask someone to contact the daughter.

3:51 p.m.

  A female neighbor next door is sheltered in place.

  Negotiators attempt to distract Breck as they plan to evacuate her.

  Moments later, negotiators and Breck continue working out a surrender plan.

4:02 p.m.

  Breck confirms that he knows one person is dead.

  An officer notes that “he’s pretty calm and coherent,” and he hasn’t shown signs of impairment.

4:13 p.m.

  A U.S. Homeland Security team is on the 13th floor but not connected with local police communications. They are asked to leave.

  An ambulance is requested to stage outside the tower in case “any more patients are produced.”

4:17 p.m.

  Evacuated residents are boarded onto a C-Tran bus. They are checked for injuries as they board.

  Negotiators note they are “working on some anxiety issues” with Breck.

4:23 p.m.

  A door to the apartment suddenly opens. Moments later, Breck is in custody.

4:26 p.m.

  Police enter the apartment to search for additional victims.

  Breck is led down an elevator and taken to a police vehicle.

4:29 p.m.

  Breck’s apartment is cleared. No other victims are found.

Law enforcement did not fire their weapons during the incident, Vancouver Police Department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle thanked emergency responders on Friday, stating their swift response ensured the safety of the public in the surrounding area and the Smith Tower residents who were still in the building.

“It is with a heavy heart that we mourn the loss of one of our residents and extend our condolences to the victims, their families and friends, and the residents at Smith Tower who experienced this tragedy,” McEnerny-Ogle said.

Potential motive

Police had not released a motive for the shooting Thursday, but court records shed some light on what transpired beforehand.

Two Vancouver police detectives went to the hospital to talk to Montoya and Garris.

Montoya told a detective that she, Garris and Tunstall were talking in the lobby when Breck exited the elevator and approached them. Breck confronted Tunstall about knowing Garris and then shot him in the chest; Tunstall fell to the floor, according to the affidavit.

33 Photos
Police from multiple agencies carry a wounded woman after a shooting at Smith Tower Apartments on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 3, 2019.
Fatal Shooting at Smith Tower Photo Gallery

When Montoya got up from her chair, Breck shot her, and she fell to the floor. She did not realize she had been shot twice. She said she heard another shot and believed Breck shot Garris, the affidavit says.

Garris said she got up from her chair to flee when Breck shot her in the back. She fell to the floor. She heard Breck fire at least one other round, but she didn’t see whom he was shooting at, according to court records.

All three of them were lying on the floor, Montoya said, when she saw Breck run away to the elevator, the affidavit says. Garris said she covered her head until Breck left, and then she called 911.

Montoya said she was scared and thought she was going to die. She didn’t remember seeing the gun but said Breck was about 2 to 3 feet away from Tunstall. She said she heard a total of four gunshots, the court document states.

Video surveillance in the lobby captured the entire incident and corroborated what the victims told detectives, according to the affidavit.

Garris was Breck’s caregiver for about a year until a few weeks ago, when he offered to pay her to be his mistress, she said. She declined, and he fired her about a week later, court records say.

However, Garris continued to care for Montoya, who is Breck’s neighbor.

Both women said Breck began spreading rumors about Garris and Tunstall to other men in the building, the affidavit says The court document does not state the nature of the rumors. Prior to the shooting, Garris said she learned Breck told Tunstall that Garris was going into his room without his knowledge. Tunstall told Breck he didn’t know Garris, according to the court document.

Montoya confronted Breck on Wednesday, she said, and asked him to stop spreading rumors. She also approached Tunstall and warned him to be careful, because she heard Breck was carrying a gun. Montoya said she had never seen Breck carry a gun, but Garris told her she saw his firearm, the affidavit states.

Once in custody, Breck agreed to a recorded interview and was advised of his right to remain silent. He stated he wanted a lawyer. However, without prompting, he continued to say, “The reason I shot that guy,” and then summarized his ongoing feud with Tunstall. That summary was not included in court records. Breck said he “couldn’t take it anymore,” according to the affidavit.

He will be arraigned Thursday.