SEATTLE — A wrongful death lawsuit was filed Tuesday against Pierce County, the city of Lakewood and state law enforcement officers for the 2020 slaying of an Oregon man who was under investigation for the fatal shooting of a right-wing activist during racial injustice protests in Portland.
Michael Forest Reinoehl, 48, was fatally shot in Lacey in September 2020 by a fugitive task force led by U.S. marshals. He was suspected of killing a pro-Trump protester in Portland days prior.
Reinoehl was a veteran of Portland summer protests. Citing military experience, he had told a reporter he worked security on behalf of Black Lives Matter protesters, and once described himself as “100% antifa,” or anti-fascist.
The lawsuit, brought by Reinoehl’s estate, names officers employed by the Washington State Department of Corrections, Lakewood Police Department and Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. Pierce County sheriff’s Deputies James Oleole and Craig Gocha are named with Lakewood police officer Michael Merrill and state corrections officer Jacob Whitehurst. The complaint and witnesses said the officers were in unmarked cars and opened fire without announcing they were police.
Pierce County, the city of Lakewood and the Washington State Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Reinoehl was suspected of killing Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a supporter of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer during clashes downtown. He claimed he was acting in self-defense. The officers had a court-authorized warrant for his arrest when they confronted him.
The two men’s deaths quickly became political fodder, and former President Donald Trump praised the officers for killing Reinoehl, calling it appropriate “retribution.”
“The actions of the officers, before, during, and after the shooting, show
that they either had no plan to arrest the man without injury, made no effort to follow such a plan, or planned to use deadly force from the start,” wrote attorneys with Seattle law firms Schroeter Goldmark & Bender and MacDonald Hoague & Bayless, along with Portland firm Levi Merrithew Horst.
‘Take him, take him now’
Reinoehl had fled to Lacey with his family due to threats and a drive-by shooting at his Portland home, the lawsuit said. It claims the officers did not have a cohesive plan for Reinoehl’s arrest or for how officers should communicate with one another.
According to the lawsuit, the officers relied on Pierce County radio frequencies while in Thurston County, making transmissions difficult to hear from the officers’ respective vehicles.
Shortly before 7 p.m., Reinoehl left the building and got into a silver Volkswagen station wagon. Officers boxed in the car and, less than two minutes later, gunshots rang out. Some witnesses said in their statements they didn’t heard police speak before or during the shooting.
One officer said over the radio they should wait until he started driving to contact him, according to the lawsuit.
“At that point, the chain of command governing the individual defendants, if there ever was any, broke down,” attorneys wrote.
An officer radioed: “Let’s go take him!”; “OK, we’re moving!”; “Take him, take him now!” Police erratically drove toward Reinoehl’s car, the lawsuit says.
“From the perspective of a reasonable person in Reinoehl’s shoes,
the aggressive driving, sudden and unprovoked shooting, and physical
appearance of the individual defendants,” attorneys wrote, “was indistinguishable from the armed and violent far-right extremists who Reinoehl feared had recently shot up his home (while his children were inside) and made true threats against his life.”
A regional team of police agencies tasked with investigating the shooting found at the time that Reinoehl pointed a handgun at officers, and Thurston County investigators later found a shell casing fired by his pistol.
The lawsuit claims Reinoehl did have a gun in his pocket but never pulled it out or fired it.
“The officers sprayed more than 40 bullets through the neighborhood, killing the man, grazing a child playing nearby, and striking cars, fences, backyard playground equipment, buildings, and residences,” the lawsuit says.
Reinoehl’s children were 11 and 18 at the time of his death.
Did Reinoehl shoot at officers?
Two witnesses cited in a law enforcement summary of the shooting released in 2021 believed Reinoehl initiated the gunfire. But one witness said he did not see Reinoehl shoot or pull a gun.
In their official statements, none of the officers involved in the shooting reported seeing Reinoehl shooting at them. They said their decision to use lethal force was due to Reinoehl disobeying their commands and repeatedly trying to reach into his right pants pocket, where the pistol was later found.
A state corrections officer said Reinoehl lifted his shirt and started to yank something from his right-front pants pocket. The officer said he raised his weapon and fired with others.
Reinoehl collapsed face down on the pavement. The officer said they found his hand around the pistol in the right-front pocket.