The Plymouth police officer who shot an unarmed 31-year-old man having a mental health crisis in an Arby’s last summer won’t be criminally charged, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced Wednesday.
The decision comes almost 11 months after Officer Amy Therkelsen shot Derek Wolfsteller inside the Hwy. 55 restaurant after an altercation lasting fewer than 20 minutes.
According to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Wolfsteller didn’t immediately follow Therkelsen’s commands. The officer used a Taser twice before a fight broke out. Then Wolfsteller tried to take Therkelsen’s gun, and she shot him.
He was one of 13 people in Minnesota to be killed by police in 2015, and one of nine to be killed who had a history of mental health issues or was having a mental health crisis, according to a Star Tribune review published this week.
The Star Tribune found that at least 45 percent of the people who have died in forceful encounters with law enforcement officers in Minnesota since 2000 had a history of mental illness or were in the throes of a mental health crisis.
The Plymouth case didn’t go to a grand jury because of Freeman’s new policy, announced in March, to have prosecutors decide instead whether to charge police shooting cases in order to improve accountability and transparency.
In a statement, Freeman called the episode “tragic” and expressed sympathy for the Wolfsteller family.
“However, Officer Therkelsen attempted to use non-deadly force against a man having a psychotic episode and it did not slow him,” Freeman said. When the officer regained control of her gun, he said, “it was reasonable for her to conclude that she must shoot Mr. Wolfsteller in order to protect herself, the three employees and others in the restaurant.”
Lab tests showed that Wolfsteller’s DNA was on the officer’s gun holster and belt. Freeman’s office also released video, audio and photos from the investigation.
Wolfsteller’s family members said they would pursue a civil lawsuit against the Plymouth Police Department.
“We’re shocked,” said Chris Ritts, the family’s attorney. “But while there is sufficient evidence maybe not to prosecute a crime … she was negligent … and grossly inadequately trained.”
The family had been anxiously awaiting Wednesday’s news, he added. “They wanted answers,” he said. “What they’re angry [about] is … [that] it took so long.”
Wolfsteller, who was working as a chef, had a history of mental health issues. In documents released Wednesday, the family told police that he had struggled with drug use and mental illness for years and that he often was paranoid.
On July 23, the day of the shooting, Wolfsteller arrived at the Arby’s about 8:15 p.m. The restaurant manager later told police he looked “very nervous,” and asked for a cup for water and to use the phone.
In the 911 call released Wednesday, Wolfsteller talks to a dispatcher for nearly 6 minutes. “Hey coppers, come and get me,” he says, then laughs. “No, I’m just kidding.”
“Can I help you?” the dispatcher asks.
“No … I’m just a little crazy, you know?” he says.
The dispatcher asks if he needs an ambulance and for what reason. “For me … yeah, for a mental illness,” he says.
She asks if he has any weapons and he says no, but then says he has a couple knives. Later, he adds: “It’s just a mental illness. I don’t have any weapons or anything.”
Wolfsteller hung up and told the Arby’s manager that several people who left the restaurant were trying to get him, according to documents.
‘It happened really fast’
Therkelsen arrived, responding to a report of a psychotic issue. According to investigators, she took out her gun but holstered it and grabbed a Taser instead as Wolfsteller ran to a door.
Two Arby’s employees grabbed Wolfsteller around the waist, and Therkelsen told him to put his hands up and get on the floor, according to the county’s report. Therkelsen used her Taser on him, but the two continued to struggle.
Two other employees got on top of Wolfsteller and grabbed his legs. That’s when Therkelsen told investigators he tried to grab her gun. “I thought I was gonna die if he got that gun out,” she said later.
Bystanders heard two shots.
In a squad car video released Wednesday, another officer then walked Therkelsen outside. “He almost had my gun,” she said, sobbing. “I think I shot him twice. … [He] almost had it out of the holster.”
State statutes justify the use of deadly force by law enforcement officials to protect an officer or another person from likely death or great bodily harm. As a result, it’s not unusual for police officers to be cleared by a grand jury in a use-of-force death.
In Plymouth, Therkelsen — who had been with the department for eight years — had at least three training sessions on situations involving mental health crises or emotionally disturbed citizens, according to the county’s report.
“Clearly, more resources are needed for those in crisis and for those who are managing severe mental illnesses,” Plymouth Public Safety Director Mike Goldstein said in a statement. “While our officers have received training in this area, more training, funding and care facilities across the entire health care and criminal justice spectrum are needed.”