Tuesday, February 7, 2023
Feb. 7, 2023

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‘Life or death’: Dispatcher, 2 Tacoma officers testify about Sheriff Troyer threat call


TACOMA — The 911 dispatcher who answered Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer’s call reporting a threat to his life nearly two years ago feared the county’s top lawman was being targeted when he put out a countywide alert rallying dozens of officers to the scene.

“In my perception of what was going on, waiting any amount of time could be a life or death situation,” South Sound 911 dispatcher Conrad Shadel said Thursday from the witness stand of Troyer’s trial on two misdemeanor charges related to false reporting.

That’s why Shadel entered a Priority 0 call — reserved for officers in danger and natural disasters — and typed Troyer’s location with a note of “making threats to kill,” within 30 seconds of picking up Troyer’s phone call on Jan. 27, 2021, Shadel said. He didn’t want to wait for more information before alerting officers.

The Priority 0 call put out a loud beeping sound over the radio that told officers countywide to clear the airwaves and listen for critical information, according to witness testimony. Two pairs of Tacoma police officers rushed to Troyer’s location in their patrol cars with lights and sirens activated.

An officer from each of those patrol cars also testified during Troyer’s trial Thursday. Corey Ventura has since become an officer in Texas. Prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office called in Aaron Baran on his way to work for TPD.

Baran told jurors that he drew his gun at a ready position when he approached the car of newspaper carrier Sedrick Altheimer, a then-24-year-old Black man, who Troyer reported threatened to kill him. Ventura said his partner at the time, Chad Lawless, also drew his gun and held it at chest height.

Lawless is the officer who interviewed Troyer and wrote a report the following day stating the sheriff told him he was never threatened. It is unclear when Lawless and Altheimer will testify.

Defense attorneys Anne Bremner and Nick Gross of the Seattle-based law firm Frey Buck devoted much of their questioning witnesses Thursday to distancing Troyer from the dispatcher’s decision to enter a Priority 0 call and minimizing the intensity of the police response it garnered.

Troyer plans to testify that he never retracted his statement about Altheimer threatening him, according to defense attorneys.

Bremner, a regular legal analyst on cable news, asked all three witnesses who testified to count up how many officers arrived at the scene.

“This is important,” Bremner told Shadel when he said he’d have to analyze a multi-page dispatch log to give her an accurate number.

Shadel said 40 officers were headed to Troyer prior to TPD officers at the scene downgrading the call around 2:11 a.m., about five minutes after the sheriff’s call. A dispatch log showed five officers were at the scene at that point, Shadel testified. At least 10 arrived in all.

Attorneys excused Shadel and Ventura as witnesses, but the defense team wanted the opportunity to recall Baran later in the trial. Court proceedings will resume on Monday morning.

If convicted, each of the two misdemeanor charges against Troyer would carry penalties of up to a year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. Only a felony conviction automatically removes an elected official from office under state law.

Tacoma officers testify about Troyer emergency response

Ventura, who left TPD after about 7 years in May for a policing job in Southlake, Texas, was the prosecution’s first witness. Several observers from the public were in the courtroom.

After hearing the Priority 0 call on his radio from a north side substation, Ventura said, “immediately we ran to our patrol car and started responding to the call.”

Ventura drove and his partner of the last year, Lawless, gave updates from their car’s computer monitor. They learned en route that the officer whose life was reportedly threatened was Troyer.

Prosecutors played Ventura’s body-worn camera footage for jurors. Lawless forgot his camera at the substation.

Ventura and Lawless parked behind Altheimer’s sedan, which was nose-to-nose with Troyer’s Chevy Tahoe. They were the first police at the scene.

“Both of them could have backed up,” Ventura said when asked by defense attorneys about vehicles being blocked in.

Ventura approached Altheimer’s rolled-down window while Lawless drew his gun. They inferred based on Troyer’s report that Altheimer could be a threat to responding officers.

“He appeared agitated, he was verbally yelling,” Ventura said. Before Ventura could explain why they were called, Altheimer began “saying that the reason we’re there is because he was a Black man in a white neighborhood. He was trying to explain his side.”

As Ventura got closer to Altheimer’s car, he testified he saw newspapers in the vehicle, matching his story about being a delivery driver. Ventura patted down Altheimer’s pockets for weapons and detained him for questioning, though he wasn’t handcuffed.

Baran and his partner, Zachary Hobbs, stopped behind Troyer and approached Altheimer from the opposite side of Lawless and Ventura. Baran said he drew his gun to cover Ventura and continued to assess Altheimer as a threat while the other officer spoke with him.

Baran has been with TPD since the summer of 2018 and before that worked as a Mason County deputy.

Prior to Troyer’s call, he and Hobbs had been on the north side of Tacoma investigating a flashing light in an apartment complex due to concerns it was a fire alarm. Then Baran heard the Priority 0 beeps on his radio. Hobbs drove them to the scene. They learned it was Troyer who needed help on their way.

Ventura said Altheimer calmed down as he explained the reasoning for the police response. Meanwhile, Lawless went to interview Troyer.

Altheimer told Ventura that Troyer lied about the threat to his life, according to video footage.

“I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass and say anything is going to be done about it,” Ventura said when Altheimer asked if anything would happen to the sheriff if his threat report was false. In his experience, Ventura testified police rarely take action on false reports.

Ventura and Lawless left around 2:40 a.m. after deciding to let Altheimer go.

“We determined through our investigation that no crime was committed and he could leave,” Ventura said.

About two hours after Troyer’s first call, around 4:04 a.m., Ventura and Lawless were again dispatched to Troyer’s house for a report that a newspaper was launched at his house, Ventura testified. He looked for evidence that a paper was thrown “maliciously” but only saw one lying in the driveway.

“I made the determination that we were not going to investigate further,” Ventura said. “Launching of a newspaper is not a crime.”

Bremner told Ventura during questioning that Troyer had reported to a TPD supervisor that Altheimer returned to his house, revved his engine, yelled and threw a newspaper.

In the weeks and months after responding to the call, some of the officers who were at the scene aired their grievances in a group chat, Baran said. He turned over 12 pages of text messages in response to a subpoena.

The defense asked Baran about two texts he sent: one where he called Troyer a “douchebag,” and another where he seemed to mimic a fighting video game announcer: “Troyer v. Lawless. Round 2. Fight.”

Defense attorneys said during opening statements that Lawless also sent text messages disparaging Troyer.

“There’s a level of frustration getting involved in a (high profile) situation like this” based on the sheriff’s actions, said Baran, explaining the thinking behind his texts.

Troyer’s call taker testifies

Shadel, who has been a dispatcher with South Sound 911 for about seven years, said he was alarmed when Troyer reported that the person threatening him knew who he was.

“In my mind, I’m imagining someone looking for him or sitting outside his house stalking him,” Shadel said.

The majority of the time officers ring the direct line to dispatchers, it’s a casual call, Shadel said. He gave examples of calling in sick or giving a roster of officers on duty.

Shadel said he had never experienced an officer asking for help on the direct line.

When Troyer called, Shadel said his voice was familiar. He had previously spoken to Troyer a few times about high-profile incidents while Troyer worked as the department’s spokesperson for the 20-some years prior to his election.

Prosecutors played Troyer’s nearly five-minute call with Shadel for jurors.

Shadel said Troyer spoke calmly about the incident, but officers are trained to keep an even tone for effective communication, as are dispatchers.

“They are constantly in stressful situations so the tone of their voice does not reflect what’s actually happening,” Shadel said.

Shadel said he was worried Troyer was downplaying the incident when he asked for only one or two officers to respond. Dispatchers are warned that police have a habit of understating the severity of a situation, he said.

“My understanding was there was some sort of active confrontation going on,” Shadel said, but he was confused about exactly what was happening.

Bremner pressed Shadel about why he didn’t enter into a computer dispatch system that Troyer only wanted a couple of officers to come.

“At the moment my concern was his immediate safety,” said Shadel, adding that there was other information he didn’t enter into the system for officers to read.

Shadel conceded that Troyer’s request was important context that he should have provided to officers.

Bremner also emphasized that it was Shadel’s decision to enter Troyer’s call as Priority 0.

“I was concerned that he was in danger,” Shadel responded.