A $35 million federal lawsuit claims a Carlton County sheriff’s sergeant shot an unarmed man who had his hands in the air, leaving him paralyzed after a raid last year in Moose Lake.
The lawsuit filed Thursday against Sgt. Jason Warnygora, Carlton County and the cities of Moose Lake and Cloquet claims multiple civil rights violations and wrongful injuries in the July 2019 shooting of Shawn M. Olthoff, 35, who was left paralyzed from the chest down.
Warnygora was found justified in the shooting by Carlton County Attorney Lauri Ketola, who stood by her decision.
“My job is to consider whether a crime was committed,” she said Thursday. She noted that she hired an independent outside attorney to investigate the case, and both of them found the shooting justified.
The lawsuit was filed by attorney Robert Bennett, who has represented many alleged victims and their families in major police shooting cases and has won large settlements ,including $20 million last year on behalf of the family of Justine Ruszczyk Damond, who was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer in 2017.
The suit alleges that a sheriff’s deputy was following a vehicle on July 27 last year after observing a driving violation. Olthoff was a passenger and the driver was a woman. The vehicle was registered to Olthoff’s mother.
The deputy activated his emergency lights to make a traffic stop. Olthoff’s vehicle slowed and a male exited. The deputy saw a “male point what I believed to be a handgun at me.”
The man fled on foot. Olthoff was not found, nor was a firearm. “A holster containing 9 millimeter ammunition and Olthoff’s cellphone was located,” the lawsuit said.
Two days later, the Carlton County Sheriff’s Office spoke with Olthoff’s mother who said her son was at her mobile home in Moose Lake, was unarmed and there were no weapons there, the suit said.
A raid included 25 officers from various jurisdictions, and Warnygora headed one of the teams in the raid. Olthoff’s mother was escorted out of her home and reported her son was sleeping on the couch.
The officers entered, saw Olthoff sleeping and Cloquet police officer Nate Cook threw a “flash bomb grenade,” pointed his rifle at Olthoff and demanded he show his hands. The lawsuit said Olthoff put up his hands before Warnygora shot him twice. He was the only officer who fired.
Cook told an investigator with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, “I have my rifle pointed at him or right below him and I yell ‘let me see your hands,’ he lifts his hands and then I hear two gunshots.” He said Olthoff’s hands were “by his face ... by his ears. ”
Cloquet officer Darrin Berg told the BCA, “I didn’t see a gun. I didn’t see anything.”
Warnygora later told the BCA he heard “a pop or a ting” or “some noise that was not a boom” and saw Olthoff’s “left hand holding a gun swing toward himself, Officer Cook and Detective Berg.”
Two and a half hours after the 4:30 p.m. shooting, Warnygora told a BCA agent “that he had consumed two beers that day ... he believed at noon.” Then he said “he may have consumed the beers around 1 p.m.”
Last October, County Attorney Ketola noted that Olthoff’s criminal history included convictions for third-degree burglary, theft, felony escape and third- and fifth-degree assault.
Bennett said Olthoff is living in his mother’s mobile home in a trailer park and is being cared for by his mother and wife, who he married this year. He said Olthoff told him “he’d rather be dead than living in his condition.”
Joseph Flynn, the attorney representing the deputy and other defendants in the lawsuit, said in an e-mail Thursday that the officers were executing a felony level arrest warrant for Olthoff, who was accused of assaulting a uniformed police officer with a firearm before fleeing on foot.
During a search for Olthoff, a holster and ammunition were located, but no gun was recovered and Olthoff was not located, Flynn wrote.
“As a result, law enforcement believed Mr. Olthoff, who has an extensive felony criminal background including assaulting an officer, remained armed and dangerous.”
“The entry involved a high level of danger and risk to the officers,” Flynn wrote. “Sgt. Warnygora fired in response to a reasonable belief that Mr. Olthoff was armed and threatening the officers with great bodily harm or death.”