Backpackers Tokyo

In 2020, members of a task force led by US Marshals and consisting of members of several Washington State law-enforcement agencies killed Michael Reinoehl, a 48-year-old fugitive who was wanted for killing a member of the right-wing Patriot Prayer group at a protest in Portland, Oregon—something to which he all but admitted to VICE News shortly before he died. Documents newly obtained by Motherboard from the Marshals via public-records request depict the operation that resulted in his killing as poorly coordinated—in the moments before the shooting started, police were struggling to communicate over radio about whether they should even try to arrest Reinoehl—and the aftermath as chaotic. 

The documents—principally an investigative report by the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, which was not involved in the killing—show that police were primed, in a briefing given immediately before attempting to apprehend Reinoehl, to believe that they should expect violence from him. (They were specifically told that he said “he would not be taken alive.”) The documents also show that police fired roughly 40 rounds into his car, a police vehicle, and a nearby apartment unit occupied by children. In the aftermath of the killing, investigators focused on a single handgun shell found inside Reinoehl's car as potential evidence that he fired at police, but no police accounts in the documents obtained by Motherboard indicate that Reinoehl fired any shots, and an official report produced on the killing could not determine when that shell was fired. 

(Previous New York Times reporting appears to have been based on its journalists having access to unredacted versions of some of these documents; Motherboard is publishing the documents in full, with light redactions, here. The Oregonian also published a recounting of the events as described in a separate investigative report.)

Reinoehl’s killing, coming after a summer of protest against police killings of Black people and at the height of a federal election campaign, was immediately used as evidence to support various narratives. The most powerful came from the federal government. Donald Trump said , “There has to be retribution.” Attorney General William Barr exulted over the politically convenient death of an “admitted Antifa member.” (“The streets of our cities are safer with this violent agitator removed,” he said.) Even in the immediate aftermath of the killing , though, it was clear that things didn’t seem to add up, and that the agencies involved in the killing didn’t seem to quite have their stories straight. The Marshals, in particular, said that Reinoehl was killed only after they’d tried to arrest him—something that didn’t line up with what nearly two dozen eyewitnesses who spoke to the Times said. 

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(The involved agencies either did not respond to requests for comment or referred us to the U.S. Marshals, which did not respond to a request for comment. The law firm of a lawyer who represented the Reinoehl family but has since died also did not respond to Motherboard.)

The documents obtained by Motherboard offer contradictory and troubling information. A key Marshals witness declined to speak to investigators. Mysterious evidence was sent anonymously to investigators months after the killing. The accounts of law enforcement personnel involved were baffling and at times inconsistent, not always squaring on questions as basic as whether Reinoehl was carrying a rifle or had shot at them. A former combat medic for the U.S. Army who witnessed the killing—and tried to keep children, including his own son, from being shot as police sprayed dozens of bullets—provided an account that countered official narratives, but the lead investigator in the case didn’t speak to him for a month and a half after the shooting. 

The documents show that it was unclear that anyone had tried to arrest Reinoehl before shooting (some witnesses insisted they heard nothing before the gunshots); that police disagreed about where and when they should attempt to arrest him; that police didn't announce themselves to Reinoehl until they could see "the white in the suspect's eyes"; and that their radios stopped working immediately before trying to arrest him. The Thurston County Sheriff's Office, which fielded 911 calls from witnesses, was unaware there was any police activity happening in their jurisdiction at all until they were already on the way to the scene. 

"At first, the Thurston County deputies did not know the shooting involved law enforcement officers because they had never been alerted to the task force's presence in Thurston County," a prosecutor for Thurston County later wrote in his report about the event. "While enroute, they learned that law enforcement officers were involved as bystanders and reported that to the 911 center.”

(In a document explaining why he was declining to press charges, this prosecutor criticized the task force for not alerting TSCO it would be operating in its jurisdiction, questioned its decision to move in on Reinoehl at all, and wrote that it was a matter of luck that no bystanders were shot in the shambolic operation. “I feel compelled to say how fortunate it was that no bystanders were injured or killed as a result of this confrontation,” he wrote. “There is a distinct possibility that a small child was struck by some sort of object or debris during the shooting. He described being hit by one of the ‘sparks’ from the officers’ gunfire. We do know that one bullet struck a nearby apartment building, travelling through the exterior wall, through a room, and lodged in another interior wall. Fortunately, no one was in its path.”)

The documents further reveal that months after the shooting, an agency—which one is unclear—opened an investigation into possible evidence tampering, and that Reinhoel’s location was almost certainly revealed to authorities by someone close to him. (This can be surmised due to the level of detail in the information police had, which told them not only where he was and what kind of car he was driving—something the mother of his children seemed unaware of—but specifically what weapons he had.)

It is impossible to discern the truth simply from these documents, but they make two things clear. One is that a poorly-organized group of armed people representing various law enforcement agencies shot up a residential neighborhood without knowing what was happening. The other is that the entire truth of what occurred that night remains unknown.

On October 8, 2020, a deputy from the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office filed a report detailing the results of their investigation into Reinoehl’s killing.

When they arrived on the scene, this investigator was told that a U.S. Marshals task force based out of Pierce County, Washington had, acting on a tip, located and surveilled Reinoehl; that he had left the apartment in which he was staying and first approached a Honda and then entered a Volkswagen; and that after members of the task force attempted to take him into custody, “some kind of shooting took place.” Members of the task force said he had been carrying a rifle, which he may have placed into the Honda, and which they believed may have been moved back into the apartment.

(Other investigators, according to other documents released to Motherboard, searched the apartment, which had recently been fumigated and was cluttered, with household items having been moved into the center of the room. Several firearms were found there, but none were of apparent interest to investigators.)

After interviewing residents of the apartment in which the rifle had supposedly been stashed, the deputy observed the scene, which was already swarmed. (A different document describes a sheriff’s deputy getting into a confrontation with a man who insisted on flying a drone around the scene before agreeing not to do so.) The Volkswagen had bullet holes in it; so did at least one police vehicle. The deputy, working with the Lewis County Sheriff’s Department and Lacey and Grays Harbor police, talked with the involved officers, who were from Pierce County Sheriff’s, Lakewood Police, and the Washington State Department of Corrections. Three cops had seen the rifle case, but all gave varying accounts. Two said it was dark and elongated or rectangular; one called it a “sling backpack” of a kind pistols are carried in. One said he’d seen Reinoehl put something in the Volkswagen; the others hadn’t seen it at all. (Eventually, a disassembled AR22 was found in a backpack in the car.)

Interviews and round counts confirmed that four officers had fired at the scene: Two Pierce County Sheriff’s deputies, a Lakewood, Washington detective, and a correctional specialist from the Washington State Department of Corrections. At this point, the investigator returned to the scene and met with detectives from Portland, where they were told that officers had managed to shoot up a nearby apartment unit having nothing to do with Reinoehl. 


LACEY, WA - SEPTEMBER 03: Investigators work near a tarpaulin covering the body of a man who is reportedly Michael Forest Reinoehl after he was shot and killed by law enforcement on September 3, 2020 in Lacey, Washington. Reinoehl was being investigated by law enforcement for his role in a fatal shooting at a pro-trump rally in Portland on Saturday. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

“I was led inside and I observed one bullet hole which penetrated through the back yard fence, through the back or west apartment wall, traveled through the dining room area and came to rest in a wall of the kitchen. The apartment was occupied by a woman and several children at the time of the shooting, but no one was injured,” they wrote.

The investigator observed that in addition to the Volkswagen, two other vehicles had been hit by gunfire: A unmarked police Ford and a white GMC pickup truck. They also observed Reinoehl’s body. He had been repeatedly shot in the body and head. There was a chest seal on his torso, used to treat “a sucking chest wound,” and he had a .380 caliber pistol in his right hip pocket; the grip was covered in blood, and the pistol would have fit into a pouch on Reinoehl’s belt. 

The dead man was handcuffed behind his back.

Several days later, on September 9, the investigator attended Reinoehl’s autopsy. He had five gunshot wounds, and the pathologist removed three bullets from his body—9mm bullets from his back and head, and a .223 bullet “from back of his neck below his skull.”

Shortly after this, the investigator received written statements from the involved officers, with the notable exception of a U.S. Marshal who had, as of more than a month after the shooting, not provided one. (More than a year later, according to the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney, they had still not done so.) They synthesized these statements—which are at times hard to parse because of a lack of proper nouns, meaning in particular that it’s impossible to distinguish among several sheriff’s deputies—at length.

At about 9:00 on the morning of September 3, they wrote, a Deputy U.S. Marshal told members of the Pierce County-based Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force that they may have an operation later that day to arrest Reinoehl. The lead, apparently provided by the Portland Marshals, was quite specific. It located Reinoehl in Lacey and as driving a Volkswagen Jetta; described him as armed with a .380 or .38 caliber pistol, an AR22, and a shotgun; and said he had vowed not to be taken alive.

At 3:30 that afternoon, members of the task force and the PIerce County Sheriff’s office met for a briefing. Two U.S. Marshals, five members of the Pierce County Sheriff’s, a detective from Lakewood Police, and the Washington correctional specialist were in attendance. (Additionally, three members of the Pierce County Sheriff’s SWAT team—who were not part of the task force—were there.) Redactions make the plan described at this meeting largely unintelligible, but it was apparently to surveil the apartment in which they believed Reinoehl was holed up and take him into custody if possible. The officers were “made aware of social media posts indicating that Reinoehl believed he was at war with police. He was described at the briefing as a high threat to law enforcement officers,” an investigation report said.

Two hours later, the various members of the task force, who had been told by people surveilling the scene that vehicles described in the tip were at the apartment, armored up and moved out in six vehicles. Between 6:00 and 6:30, they took up their assigned positions, with three vehicles parked close enough to see the apartment in which they believed Reinoehl was hiding. A lengthy redaction obscures what happened next, but it’s clear that the members of the task force were struggling to communicate with each other, as their radios weren’t working properly. This is because they were not designed to work outside of the jurisdiction of the local police department that provided them, the documents say.

At about 6:44, three people came out of the apartment to smoke. The correctional specialist was able to identify two of the people from the earlier briefing, but not the third; none of them were Reinoehl. Three minutes later, the people went back inside. A minute after that, the correctional specialist said over the radio that someone had left the apartment and was sitting in a Honda. A minute after that, the correctional specialist said that they saw Reinoehl approach the driver’s seat of the Honda, carrying a rifle or a “rifle-type case.” A deputy said over the radio that Reinoehl was getting into the Volkswagen Jetta, and suggested that the task force should move in. At 6:52, they did so.

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LACEY, WA - SEPTEMBER 03: Investigators work the scene at Tanglewilde Terrace where law enforcement shot and killed a man who is reportedly Michael Forest Reinoehl on September 3, 2020 in Lacey, Washington. Reinoehl was being investigated by law enforcement for his role in a fatal shooting at a pro-trump rally in Portland on Saturday. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

One of the Pierce County deputies and the Lakewood detective told the investigator that they were trying to tell someone whose name was redacted that it was a good time to arrest the suspect because his car could be easily pinned. They were not sure they’d communicated this, though, due to garbled radio transmissions, and so decided—having seen him, they said, place a rifle case (which didn’t exist) in the passenger’s seat—that it would be best to move in immediately to arrest him. (According to the prosecuting attorney—who wrote, “It appears the decision to proceed with attempting an arrest was actually made by the two officers who simply decided to move in”—one officer said, “We’re too far, let him drive.” In the confusion, someone said, “Take him, take him now.”) 

At this point, three police vehicles drove toward Reinoehl’s car, boxing it in. A detective said, "I noticed Reinoehl’s eyes got wide and then he appeared to recognize us. I then saw him lunge forward in his car with his right hand going forward in the car.” One of the deputies said, “'I was close enough that I could see the white in the suspect's eyes and when he looked up at us his eyes got really big and he immediately looked back down. I could not see where his hands were, but he was making a movement consistent with his arms that based on my training and experience is consistent with the moves that someone makes when they are attempting to grab a gun they have on their person." 

A detective said he saw Reinoehl raise an object he believed was a gun; he then immediately heard gunfire and was hit with shards of glass from the windshield. A sheriff’s deputy in his passenger’s seat was shooting; a detective said his car was being shot at. (It is overwhelmingly likely it was being shot at by police.)

At 6:53, one of the deputies said over the radio that shots had been fired. (At that same time, a “frantic” person called 911 to report 10 white men in their 20s and 30s with guns. “We do not need those guns in our neighborhood,” she said. “I don't give a shit how dangerous somebody is.”)

Another deputy said that he had exited his vehicle and shouted, “POLICE. Stop or I’ll shoot,” and that Reinoehl ignored him and was attempting to draw something from his waistband. The deputy then began shooting.

Two deputies said “they were continuing to assess the threat as they were firing at Reinoehl and their shots were having no effect as he was continuing his movements.” According to all the statements, Reinoehl exited his car, crouching, and moved toward the back of the car.

In the telling of an officer and one of the deputies, Reinoehl was ignoring their commands and “attempting to manipulate the firearm near his waistline area.” Seeing him move toward the correctional specialist and some children who were playing nearby, two officers fired at him “to attempt to stop him from further flight, shooting at task force members, or taking civilian hostages.”

The correctional specialist said that as Reinoehl was moving toward him, he fell; Reinoehl, he said, ignored his commands and continued to try to take something out of his pocket, which he identified as a pistol. He then fired at Reinoehl, who stumbled and fell in the street.

As they approached Reinoehl, officers said, he was still breathing, but bleeding heavily. As they rolled him over, they said, they saw he had a pistol in his hand but that it was "still partially in his pocket." (The gun was later recovered from his pocket.) They handcuffed him and then “began performing life-saving efforts on Reinoehl.” After the fire department showed up and took over, the officers were all taken to the Lacey Police Department.

At this point, the investigator returns to their own activities. On September 11, they inspected the Volkswagen, and found that Reinoehl had in fact had an AR weapon in a backpack—not a rifle case—but that it was disassembled. They also found other weapons and ammunition, as well as a .380 caliber casing. “The presence of this casing,” they wrote, “indicates that it is possible that Michael Reinoehl fired at officers as they approached his vehicle.” The investigator also found that "a crime lab analysis later confirmed that the shell casing had been fired by the handgun found in Reinoehl's possession when he was killed. However, there is no way to determine when it was fired or how it came to be in the location it was found.”

The investigator continued to collect video of the shooting and eyewitness testimony. One person said that they had not heard any verbal commands or yelling, but saw shooting coming from the police SUVs. They also said they believed they’d seen an exchange of gunfire. Another witness “stated that he absolutely without a doubt believed that the first shot came from inside the Jetta towards the officers.” Another witness said, “It looked to me like the gentleman was next to the Volkswagen or right behind it and probably seen all these cars pull up, pulled out a gun and started shooting at the cops and the cops did what they had to do."

Getting eyewitness testimony was in some cases difficult. One woman said her child had seen the killing but she believed their testimony would be useless, due to the child having heard so much about the incident in the days that had passed. A child said “there were cops shooting at a guy and he was shooting back at them,” that he’d been hit by sparks, and that the man who’d been shooting at the cops had had a two-handed gun. A witness said “apartment management had told her not to talk to anyone.” 

Days later, on September 23, the investigator received a call from the mother of Reinoehl’s children. She believed he had been in Lacey to do an interview with VICE News —which took place September 2 and was published September 3, the day he was killed—and said, “Once you're into them, BLM and ANTIFA, you have no other way to go. You're pushed into doing things you wouldn't normally do." 

(The documents are clear that law enforcement agencies were very sure of where Reinoehl was located, who he was with, and what items he had with him, strongly suggesting that they had information from an inside source.)

On October 16, the investigator spoke with the father of the child who said that Reinoehl had been carrying a two-handed gun. A former combat medic with the Army, he had been contacted the night of the shooting by a detective whose name he couldn’t remember, he said, and had that night written down a statement so as not to forget the details.

At about 6:30 the night of the shooting, he said, he’d been watching his child ride a bicycle around outside and became concerned when SUVs, driving erratically, pulled up. “Because the neighborhood is what it is,” he said, “I thought it was a drug related crime about to happen." The former medic said that he had a great deal of experience around gunfire, and estimated that about five seconds elapsed between the time the SUVs pulled up and the time gunfire started. He was focused on protecting the children who were playing in the street, but said he heard no commands or yelling between the time the vehicles pulled up and the time the shooting started. He believed that all the gunfire was headed in one direction. He saw Reinoehl walking, he said, and he did not have a gun.

One heavily redacted portion of the report deals with a curious incident that’s hard to know what to make of. On February 8, 2021, someone contacted the investigator to tell them that they had come into possession of a shell casing related to this case. It was mailed somewhere, and a detective picked it up. 

“Due to a conflict of interest regarding this case [redacted] initiated a separate investigation regarding evidence tampering,” the investigator wrote. They later spoke to the person who had acquired the casing, an attorney representing someone involved in the case.

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Via Thurston County Sheriff's Office

The shell casing, according to another document, was from a .223 bullet. The outcome of this investigation is unknown; no involved agency had responses to Motherboard’s questions about it.

Most of the rest of the documents the U.S. Marshals released to Motherboard are relatively insubstantial. The most substantive, aside from the investigator’s report, is an “Officer Involved Shooting Review” from the Thurston Country Prosecuting Attorney, dated September 20, 2021. The unredacted portion generally reflects the earlier investigator’s document, though it quotes at greater length from witness statements given by involved officers.

Lengthy sections of the document titled “Jurisdiction to Review” and “Legal Analysis,” which explain why no charges were brought but call for a federal investigation—you can read them in full on the Thurston County website—were redacted.

Additional reporting by Jason Koebler.