- Old mugshot of Craig Boehler
For one, the transcripts are filled with drama, from family squabbles to the blow-by-blow of police being fired upon and scrambling to respond. They also shed light on Boehler's unstable mental state and battles with addiction—an all-too-familiar storyline when it comes to Portlanders caught in violent confrontations with police.
Boehler, you might recall, died a few days before Thanksgiving after a fight with relatives that escalated into a standoff with police. Boehler was eventually shot three times by police sniper and dosed with tear gas, but was found to have died of smoke inhalation from a fire that broke out during the standoff, wrecking most of his mother's house.
The grand jury cleared police of any criminal wrongdoing, but the transcript of interviews with Boehler's family, police officers, state medical examiner Karen Gunson, and a city fire investigator raise interesting questions about what happened in the wee hours of November 23 on a quiet East Portland street.
Among them, fire investigator Jason Anderson said he didn't know yet whether tear gas rounds fired by officers contributed to or caused the fire. And while Gunson says that the wounds Boehler suffered wouldn't be fatal, she says there was a slight, but unprovable chance that they may have incapacitated him, leaving him susceptible to smoke. (For good measure, she apologetically showed jurors a photo of Boehler's excised, soot-choked vocal cords.)
I am worried that the one that went through his abdomen—and I talked about how close it passed by the spinal cord—whether or not that might have caused what we talked about, the cord shock, where he would have been temporarily incapacitated so he couldn't move his lower extremities. And certainly—it also depends on the tolerance to pain and so forth, because this wound in his arm would have—obviously caused a shattering fracture of the humerus, which would have been extremely painful and might have caused him to lose consciousness as well.... But I can't say any of that for sure.
One another wound, causing some blood to pool near Boehler's bowels:
It really would have been considered pretty innocuous if you were talking about a trauma case they were taking care of at Emmanuel or something.
Click here for your own 315-page copy of the transcripts. Or keep reading for excerpts.
The transcripts start with Boehler's younger sister, Corina Berna, describing her brother. He's painted as an alcoholic and meth addict who has slipped through the system's cracks, living on the streets at various times when he wasn't quarreling with family. When he was younger, he served in the Army and had NRA training and would hunt.
Berna, who has a terminal illness affecting her kidneys, lived at her mother and stepfather's house on Cherry Blossom Drive, and Boehler was visiting there after a medical procedure in Portland and ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.
I smelled alcohol on his breath. Also my mom, she drinks occasionally, and he had a couple of fifths of vodka that she hid. And he kept going to the office, and I found this kind of odd. And I followed him into the office, and when I followed him in the office I caught him glug, glug, glugging down this fifth of vodka. And I'm like what are you doing. He's like, well, he goes, shh, it's your mom's and mine secret. She just doesn't want Gary to know about it.
Asked what he's like when he's drinking, she says:
He's an asshole. He's very violent, very mean, that's about all I can say about him. Um, people are afraid of him.... He gets drunk, he is like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, okay? When he gets drunk, he would call me a fucking bitch or a spoiled, fucking bith, or I get everything on a gold platter or this or that. Let me see, he sniffed paint in front of my kids. These are things he does when he gets drunk.
Later she said:
I have seen him sniff paint. I have seen him do meth, I have seen him play Russian roulette. I have seen him do a lot of crazy things and that's why I do't care for my brother.
Their father had died a little more than a year ago, and Boehler was upset about how his father's stuff was being handled. He wanted a place to live—their dad's house in Willamina—and was mad that his sister and mother had sold off his dad's gun collection for what he felt was a song.
His mother, Judy Hart, confirmed to jurors that she had tried to hide her vodka from Boehler, but said he had been agitated, asking about the gun transaction, and also complaining that there wasn't any 7-Up in the house and that all there was to drink (without alcohol) was grape Kool-aid.
I said no, I had been meaning to get some, but I hadn't. And he wanted to go to the store. And I finally said, no, we can do it tomorrow. There's some grape Kool-aid things to drink in the fridge.
Hart and her husband, Gary Estes, went to bed early. Boehler and Berna stayed awake and eventually, Berna says, he began to taunt her over her medical condition. After a couple of hours of bickering, Boehler eventually started preaching from a Bible and tried to push Berna off a chair where she was sitting in the garage, having a cigarette. She tried to get away from him, but he followed and eventually mentioned a sex-abuse incident that Berna says she tried to block out. Overcome, she had a seizure.
I passed out. I had a seizure. ... Let's see, I'm drooling, I'm spitting, choking, wailing, I hit my head against the closet probably about five, six times.
Estes and Hart, by this point, had been disturbed by all the fighting and came out. Estes says he had long had a frayed relationship with Boehler, telling jurors about how one time Boehler bragged about slashing tires on seven police cruisers and that Boehler had recently been jailed for fighting with police officers in Willamina.
He grabbed his rifle and told Boehler to get out, and then fired, hitting Boehler in the abdomen. (He says he slipped and fired accidentally). Berna by this point had come out of her seizure.
My brother didn't even flinch when he got shot. I mean, he didn't flinch at all. You know, you get a bee sting, most people go, ouch. He didn't flinch. ... And he says, it's going to take more than one fucking bullet to put me down.
He ran from the room, and Estes went upstairs to stash his rifle (one of several in the house) and call 911. Soon after, police arrived and managed to extract him, Hart, and Berna. Boehler, with a blood stain spreading across his T-shirt, began drawing the blinds shut and blocking windows with furniture.
At this point, the transcripts dive heavily into the police response. Several cops cars, carrying uniformed officers, descended on the area, with officers being told to fan out and cover the house—a dangerous proposition given that officers knew a high-powered rifle was in the house.
Officers and neighbors all testified that eventually as many as dozens of shots could be heard from the house and that initially they thought Boehler had shot himself. A group of officers crawling through brush and neighbors' yards to keep an eye on the rear of the house eventually had to retreat when the bullets began "whizzing past" their ears.
Officer Mary Anne Toops, standing near a tree, describes what it was like before she felt tree-bark debris on her face:
Just a loud boom, and I felt like something go past my head. I could hear wood cracking.... It's possible that, you know, either he saw us and took a shot at us, or he randomly cranked around off out of the house.
Soon, because of the barrage of bullets, the Special Enforcement Response Team (SERT) was called in, showing up in an armored truck that immediately, cops say, became a target. SERT officers in camouflage were sent out to relieve blue-uniform officers in a perimeter around the home.
That wasn't easy. The house was constructed into the side of a hill, meaning the house had more levels to watch depending on which side of the house you were on. And strange lot shapes made it hard to put armor in place on all sides.
Sergeant Mike Lieb, a SERT commander offered some urban planning criticism:
Madison Street across the back is one of those strange twisty streets and one of those, I guess, like 70-ish subdivisions where the lots are all pie-shaped, you now, unusual shapes and then everything is very sloping there.
To stun Boehler, SERT officers in the front of the house, a pair of brothers, Todd and Chad Gradwahl, are ordered to fire tear gas rounds into the open garage and windows. Tear gas is very nasty. The cops who deploy it and who occasionally have to work around it during calls DO NOT have nice things to say about it.
Todd Gradwahl has this to say:
The purpose behind deploying gas is, one thing, it obstructs the subject's vision. It impairs them, makes them start coughing, their nose run.... Their skin kind of burns, not like bubbling burn, but you know, it's hot. We go through some training and, yeah, it's an irritation at that time. So once you are exposed, you probably want to take a shower if you got a big dose of it.
Officer Pete McConnell, the AR-15-wielding sniper who eventually shot Boehler:
For me personally, it's a horrible experience. No matter what mindset I take—I'm going to try to defeat this gas—I can't do it. I give up. I run away from it as fast as I can. I can't see. It has a horrible reaction to me.
There was a lot of discussion about where the gas was shot and where the fire started, and whether the gas used could have been responsible. The gas itself—an aerosolized liquid like pepper spray—is not supposed to be flammable. But sometimes the canisters generate heat. The hottest kind of canister—the one that cops use when they want to start a fire—was not used.
Lieb, the SERT commander says that gas has never been used in his year on SERT. But while he said the canisters the cops did use are "designed to be flameless and not fire-starting," he also said "there is potentially some ability to cause a fire."
Fire investigators are still plumbing the issue, but know enough so far to pinpoint where the fire started: a mattress in a bedroom where Boehler at various points had been holed up, right underneath where a charred, dead dog was found. They don't yet know what caused the fire. It could be that he canisters fired into that room allowed a new source of oxygen to rush in, and re-energize what had been smoldering flames.
McConnell testified that after making his way to the rear of the house, after initially having a partner kick in the door of a neighboring home where he tried to get a position, that he saw Boehler emerge from the gas cloud with a rag in his hand and make a motion as if he were trying to light it on fire.
He put that report out on the radio, and worried Boehler had opened up natural gas lines in the house. But it was the shots that Boehler was firing from the front of the house that led him, he says, to conclude he had to shoot Boehler when he did, after watching him run from room to room with what he believed was a gun in his hand.
Immediately what went through my mind is that was a suspect and he just shot at officers in the front of the house. And I had a horrible feeling that the next transmission would be, 'Yeah, we've got an officer down.' Luckily, that didn't happen.
He said he was too far away to use a Taser, which would have been "inappropriate," and details the moments before he pulled the trigger:
Because I didn't want him to get to the front of the house and have the ability to shoot at officers again, I felt he was an immediate threat, I fired at the suspect. I fired three times. The suspect stopped and then dropped straight down below the window.... I didn't see in the brief time I had to make my decision any options that I could do or that the team could do that would prevent the suspect from potentially harming officers or citizens other than what I did.
Soon after, flames burst through the wall of the house. McConnell, beginning to taste tear gas, went to get a gas mask. He made his way to the front of the house, and firefighters coursed in from a nearby station and began a delicate dance with SERT officers concerned that more bullets might yet be flying if Boehler was still moving.
Boehler was found not far from where he went down, his body ravaged by intense heat and smoke, but not by flames. A still-working blue cigarette lighter was found beneath his corpse, a loaded .22 nearby. The dead dog that was found on the consumed mattress was sent off for a special necropsy.
Detectives said the crime scene was among the most difficult they'd worked, complicated by the fire damage and the water dumped in to try to quell the flames and keep them from spreading to other evacuated homes. Mark Sponhauer, a detective discussing pictures of the aftermath said this:
The problem with the residence, there was so much fire damage and so much stuff there, you would almost have to like take a mining pan for gold or something and have to go through that finely and sift through things to find stuff.