A tale of two killings: what happened when Idaho police shot a dog and a pregnant woman in one day
By Paul Lewis/ The Guardian
Fourteen hours and 45 miles apart in rural Idaho, two stories began. A community campaign led to ‘justice for Arfee’ after a pet’s killing outside a coffee shop. But there is no justice yet for the family of Jeanetta Riley
Two fatal police shootings unfolded within 14 hours, both in lakeside towns in the same corner of north-west Idaho.
The first victim was Jeanetta Riley, a troubled 35-year-old pregnant woman, shot dead by police as she brandished a knife outside a hospital in the town of Sandpoint. Her death barely ruffled the tight-knit rural community, which mostly backed the officers, who were cleared of wrongdoing before the case was closed.
The second shooting, in nearby Coeur d’Alene, sparked uproar. There were rallies, protests, sinister threats against the officer responsible, and a viral campaign that spread well beyond the town and drew an apology from the mayor. The killing was ruled unjustified, and the police chief introduced new training for his officers.
The victim of the second shooting: a dog named Arfee.
Two weeks ago, the dog’s owner received a payout of $80,000. Jeanetta Riley’s husband and three daughters have not, so far, received as much as an apology.
Both shootings occurred within a 50-mile radius of remote woodlands and lakes not far from the Canadian border. Each raised complex but different questions over the decision by officers to use their weapons.
The divergent reactions to the police killings of Riley, a mother of three, and Arfee, a Labrador-hound mix, speaks to a disturbing indifference to some human lives lost during encounters with police.
A dramatic spike in awareness of US police killings over the past year has put a spotlight on the use of lethal force by police and brought into sharp focus the actions of officers when confronting unarmed black men, such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.
Yet each month there are dozens of police killings of disturbed individuals like Jeanetta Riley that barely register outside of the local news. A recent US government study concluded there are close to 1,000 people killed by police on average each year. Another piece of research estimated at least half of those shot and killed by police in America have mental health problems.
Animal rights activists say there is also an epidemic of needless police shootings of pet dogs: last year, according to figures compiled by campaigner Kristin Hoffman, 672 dogs were shot by police across the United States.
‘I decided to pull the trigger’
Jeanetta Riley was never going to be the kind of victim to elicit sympathy in a small, conservative town like Sandpoint. A Native American who was addicted to methamphetamine and alcohol, her life seemed in a downward spiral in the months leading up to her death on 8 July 2014.
Riley was tiny – five feet tall and weighing less than 100lb – and while she could be a caring, considerate mother, she was also prone to snap, sometimes violently, when drunk.
Her family said her troubles began as a young girl. Ray Foster, her first husband and the father of her first child, said Jeanetta once told him that she was forced to drink alcohol from the age of five on a reservation in neighbouring Washington. “They were doing it for fun, to watch the girl kind of clowning around,” he said.
jeanetta riley daughters idaho shooting Jeanetta Riley with her three daughters; Dayna, top, Dolly, left, and Hannah Photograph: Riley family
She had two more daughters, now aged eight and nine, with her second husband, Dana Maddox. In 2008, Riley was jailed for stabbing Maddox in the back.
In the summer of 2012, she married Shane Riley, a 44-year-old carpenter, and took his surname. Two years later the couple, who were injecting meth, gave up their newborn infant for adoption.
A few months later, the couple was homeless, living out of a 1996 Chevrolet parked beside a lake just south of Sandpoint. They were talking about divorce and quarrelling constantly.
Jeanetta and Shane were snapping at each other on the day she died, and doing so in front of her 13-year-old, Hannah, who had joined them camping for her vacation. The trio went fishing, panhandled beside a gas station and ate dinner at a shelter for the homeless.
But by late afternoon, the arguments were intensifying and Jeanetta was talking about harming herself. The couple dropped off Hannah at her stepfather’s house and returned to their camp beside the lake, picking up a bottle of vodka along the way.
After drinking half the bottle, Shane said, Jeanetta began threatening to kill herself. When Shane heard Jeanetta toying with blades, he decided to drive her to Bonner General hospital. He said Jeanetta sounded delirious, ranting about stabbing people and killing herself.
“This isn’t a joke,” Shane told his wife. “It’s not a game.”
Shane parked the van on the road outside the emergency room. Jeanetta took a fillet knife with a three-and-a-half-inch blade from beneath the car seat. Shane ran inside, pleading for help.
Rose Brinkmeier, who was behind the desk, later told police how a man in a white shirt came rushing in and said: “I need to you to call the police. My wife’s outside. She has a knife and she wants to kill people.”
Brinkmeier asked a nurse to hit a panic button, putting the hospital in lockdown, and then dialled 911 to pass the message onto Sandpoint police.
“Boom. They showed up pretty fast,” Shane recalled. Jeanetta was dead within 15 seconds.
Two body cameras and a third attached to a police dashboard leave no ambiguity over what happened when officers Michael Valenzuela, 27, and Garrett Johnson, 23, arrived in one car, and officer Skyler Ziegler, 29, in a second.
It was 9.16pm, the sky a dusky cyan. Jeanetta was in the van, holding the half-empty bottle of vodka and the knife, the passenger door open. Shane was next to the vehicle, trying to calm his wife. When the police arrived, Shane crossed the road, gesturing over his shoulder to point to his wife.
All three officers immediately took their weapons out and moved toward Jeanetta, who was 40ft away. She walked briskly toward them, the knife at her side.
“Walk over here,” Ziegler shouted. “Show me your hands.”
“Fuck you,” Jeanetta shouted. “No.”
Johnson, who had taken out his Glock 22 pistol, was stood slightly to the side.
Valenzuela had both hands clasping an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He would later tell investigators he picked up the firearm because it happened to have been dislodged from his vehicle’s weapons rack en route to the hospital.
Ziegler, who was beside him, seemed unsure which weapon to use; in the space of seven seconds he returned his handgun to its holster, replaced it with a Taser-style stun gun that cast a red laser dot on Jeanetta’s torso, only to put it away and switch back to his handgun.
Repeatedly, Valenzuela and Ziegler shouted at Jeanetta to drop the knife. She refused: “Bring it on! No!”
Jeanetta was stepping off the curb, into the road and toward the two officers, when it happened. In 0.8 seconds, five bullets were discharged from both firearms. Three hit Jeanetta in the torso; one penetrated her heart.
She was 10ft from Valenzuela, who later told detectives he believed she was “absolutely gonna thrust at me”. “I decided at that point to pull the trigger,” he said. Ziegler recalled how the knife looked “huge in her hands”. He said he saw Valenzuela’s muzzle flash and felt himself “like following through with my trigger”.
Jeanetta was slumped on the road, face-down, when Ziegler handcuffed her hands behind her back and asked in a panicked voice: “Ma’am, are you still with us?”
‘Justice for Arfee’
News of Jeanetta’s death was a passing item on the local radio news as Craig Jones, a 49-year-old jet-ski instructor, pulled his van into the Java on Sherman coffee shop in downtown Coeur d’Alene.
He had just taken Arfee for his daily swim in the lake, and was headed for breakfast. Jones left his white Ford van in the parking lot, making sure to leave down the window enough to keep the two-year-old dog cool.
It was 11am, 45 miles south of the Sandpoint hospital where Jeanetta had been killed the previous night. Jones didn’t hear the gunshot; he only realised something was wrong when he came out of the coffee shop.
“This girl comes running across the street and says: ‘You didn’t see that? They shot your dog and they took him.’”
It took Jones a few seconds to make sense of the scene. Police had left a business card in his vehicle, with a telephone number scribbled on the back. “There was a blood trail through my van. It wasn’t a kill shot,” he recalled. “He went to the back and bucked around and squirted blood all over my van.”
Jones was devastated. He had raised Arfee since the dog was a puppy. The Lab mix had accompanied him everywhere he went and slept beside him in bed.
“I got one of my friends on Facebook,” he said. “I was like, ‘Get media here, ’cause crazy shit is happening here.’ KREM TV news was there pretty instantly.”
The “Justice for Arfee” campaign was under way within hours. Fuelled by anger over a Coeur d’Alene police press release that described Arfee as a “vicious pit bull”, the outrage intensified when the circumstances of the shooting were made public.
Dave Kelley, the officer who shot the dog, had been responding to reports of a suspicious white van following children in the area.
His partner, officer Jason Weidebush, saw no reason to draw his gun as the pair approached the van. Kelley did, creeping up on the van from behind to maintain the element of surprise on the occupant.
Unable to see through the dark-tinted window, Kelley made his way to the front, the handgun by his side, when he said a barking dog’s head suddenly lunged out of the window.
“I had the split-second thought that this dog is going to bite me,” Kelley said in a statement explaining his decision to fire a bullet through the window.
Arfee’s death instantly struck a chord. Paw-shaped bumper stickers began appearing on cars in northern Idaho, and pet owners hung “Don’t Shoot Me” signs on their dogs’ necks. There were calls for a boycott of the Java coffee shop and repeated demands for Kelley to be fired. There was a protest rally one day, and a vigil in a dog park the next.
Three days after the shooting, the first video purporting to contain a message from the hacking collective Anonymous appeared on YouTube. “Yet another innocent, beloved pet has been shot and killed by a police officer,” a character in the trademark Guy Fawkes mask said, warning of retribution against Coeur d’Alene police. “We are Anonymous. You can expect us.”
There were profanity-laced calls to the police department and threats against Kelley, who was labelled a “murderer”. Fearing for the officer’s safety, Coeur d’Alene police arranged patrols outside his house.
Arfee’s death was turning into a national story, with complaints lodged with the city’s mayor from as far afield as Alabama, Florida and New Hampshire.
A week later, Coeur d’Alene police chief Ron Clark announced he had reassigned Kelley to desk duty and promised an immediate, thorough investigation, vowing to do everything in his power to avoid a repeat of the tragedy. The sentiment was echoed by mayor Steve Widmyer. “We, as a city, are truly sorry,” he said.
By September, less than two months after Arfee’s shooting, a “use of deadly force” review board concluded the shooting was unjustified, a finding echoed by two external reviews. Kelley’s pay was cut, and mandatory training on how to treat dogs was introduced for every Coeur d’Alene police officer.
The program, created by the Justice Department, teaches officers to remain calm and assess their surroundings, reading a dog’s body language to distinguish between a scared and dangerous animal.
“This event has shaken the community’s confidence in our police department,” Coeur d’Alene’s new police chief, Lee White, said at a press conference announcing a slew of internal reforms prompted by Arfee’s death.
That, seemingly, was not enough. The regional Spokesman-Review newspaper ran an editorial warning that Arfee’s death had left “a festering wound of public mistrust”.
‘She got what she deserved’
Back in Sandpoint, Jeanetta Riley’s death had faded from public view as quickly as Arfee’s death had become a national story. She was one of the roughly 500 mentally unstable people shot dead by police each year; few ever remember the names of the victims.
The US supreme court last week heard arguments in the case of Teresa Sheehan, a mentally ill 56-year-old woman who was shot by San Francisco police in 2008 and survived. She, too, had threatened officers with a knife, but her attorneys contend police escalated an already-volatile situation when they forced their way into her room with guns drawn.
In November, two months after Arfee’s death was ruled unjustifiable, the officers who killed Jeanetta were cleared of wrongdoing by a local prosecutor who reviewed the investigation conducted by the Bonner County sheriff’s office.
But not everyone agreed. Peter Reedy, an FBI-trained hostage negotiator and former sergeant, argues officers were wrong to rush into a tense stand-off with their guns drawn and ended up aggravating a situation they should have diffused.
“First of all, do nothing,” he said after reviewing the footage. “Keep your distance, try to talk to her, don’t even take your gun out of your holster, try to calm things down and work out what you’re up against.”
A retired expert witness who lives in northern Idaho, Reedy has testified in dozens of cases. “If they had not responded to the call they way she did, I truly believe she would be alive right now,” he said.
Another critic of police was Dan Mimmack, a Sandpoint businessman who had never met Jeanetta but felt her death raised disturbing questions about the treatment of people with mental health issues. The Sandpoint police department provides officers with Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), which teaches police how to handle individuals with mental illness. Yet neither Valenzuela nor Ziegler had been on the course.
Mimmack said he organised the vigil to push back against others in town who felt “she got what she deserved” and call for improved training for Sandpoint officers.
Those demands went unheeded. Unlike in Coeur d’Alene, there have been no changes to policing practices in Sandpoint, although three more officers, including Valenzuela, did receive CIT training last month. And in contrast to Jones, who received an $80,000 payout for Arfee’s death without having to even lodge a lawsuit in court, there has been no payout to Jeanetta’s surviving relatives.
Scott Campbell, the city attorney for Sandpoint, said their insurers were considering legal notices of claims from both Shane and Jeanetta’s second husband, Dana Maddox. He declined to speculate on the prospect of compensation, but insisted it was unfair to judge the officers with the benefit of hindsight.
Valenzuela and Ziegler made a split-second decision, confronted by a dangerous person, with limited information about why the hospital had been placed in lockdown. Campbell also disputed the characterisation of Jeanetta as mentally disturbed, saying there were no psychiatric reports to verify that.
“What you had was a drug addict high on meth and alcohol,” he said, speculating that Jeanetta may have been seeking out a fatal encounter with police – or trying to commit “suicide by cop”.
Shane Riley appeared to lend weight to that theory when he was interviewed later that night by detectives. “I did not think she would go at the cops like that,” he told them. “It was like she was walking into her own grave.”
Shane’s attorney, Drew Dalton, said his client no longer believes his wife was actively trying to kill herself in the encounter with police. But even if Jeanetta had wanted the police to kill at that moment, he added, “doesn’t mean they had to oblige”.
A death at Spirit Lake
Three weeks ago, there was another woman wielding a fillet knife in a confrontation with police, in another lakeside town in northern Idaho.
The 55-year-old woman appeared to have swallowed several pills and drunk alcohol when officers arrived at her home in Spirit Lake, which is just off the road that links Sandpoint to Coeur d’Alene.
Local police chief Keith Hutcheson told the press that the woman was yelling “kill me, kill me” and lunging at officers with her knife – and that she later confessed she had been trying to provoke them into shooting her dead.
Instead, they subdued her with a stun gun. “A family member told us that she recently lost a daughter due to overdose and she’s had a history of depression,” Hutcheson said. “But, of course, we didn’t know that until afterward.”
For information and support in the US, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255. For more information, contact the Samaritans.