DA: Officer justified in using deadly force
The Grand Junction police officer who shot and killed a 24-year-old parole absconder during a November traffic stop gone wrong won’t face criminal charges, Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein announced Tuesday.
Officer Jacob Steele was justified when he shot Grand Junction resident Brian Gaither 10 times in the chest and abdomen Nov. 22 because Steele, who was trapped half-in and half-out of a car and had been dragged along a wall just before he opened fire, “was operating on the belief that using deadly physical force was his only option to defend against the force being used,” Rubinstein said in his written decision.
Gaither came onto police’s radar Nov. 7 when he was a passenger in a car that was pulled over. Police spotted a gun on the seat next to Gaither, pulled the female driver out of the car and held Gaither at gunpoint, Rubinstein’s letter said. But Gaither, who was already wanted on a parole violation warrant, jumped into the driver’s seat and fled.
A warrant was issued for his arrest on suspicion of possession of a weapon by a previous offender, obstructing a peace officer and reckless driving.
Steele spotted the car at C&F Foods, 859 Pitkin Ave, around midnight the morning of Nov. 7, he told investigators from the multi-jurisdictional Critical Incident Response team who looked into the shooting. Steele recognized Gaither sitting in the driver’s seat with his feet out, Rubinstein’s letter said. He told Gaither to get out of the car several times, and eventually tried to physically remove him from the car. Gaither somehow pulled Steele partially into the car during the struggle and hit the gas, pulling out “at a high rate of speed.”
Gaither drove toward the next building to the west of the gas station, Em Tech, 819 Pitkin Ave., driving over the raised curb without slowing.
“Officer Steele said his right boot was sticking out of the door and drug along the building,” Rubinstein’s letter said. “He said the vehicle crashed into the building and stopped.”
Steele, trapped between the car door and the frame with his head outside above the roof, told investigators he heard Gaither rev the engine.
“I thought, ‘This is getting worse really, really quick,’” Rubinstein quoted Gaither telling the investigators. “I’m pinned in this car and if we keep going … I’m going to die or I’m going to get hurt really bad.”
Steele said he pulled out his gun and shot toward where he thought Gaither’s chest would be. He thought he fired seven rounds before he felt “like he stopped struggling with me,” according to the letter.
Steele actually fired 11 times, investigators later found, 10 of which hit Gaither, Rubinstein said. When backup arrived — Steele had called for it before being trapped — they found Gaither dead and Steele still pinned to the wall.
“I believe that the actions of Officer Steele fall squarely within the self-defense justification for use of deadly physical force,” Rubinstein wrote in his letter.
Steele didn’t suffer any serious injuries. He was briefly hospitalized, treated and released, police spokeswoman Heidi Davidson said. Rubinstein said his file listed Steele as having sustained a number of cuts and bruises.
“He had what you would expect from somebody who was drug across the side of a building,” Rubinstein said.
Steele, an eight-year veteran of the department, returned to work in mid-December, Davidson said.