The state agency investigating the fatal shooting of a suspect by St. Louis County sheriff's deputies say its agents are facing several challenges as they pursue details about the encounter over the weekend on the Iron Range.
The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said Tuesday that the Sheriff's Office does not equip its deputies with body cameras, there is no squad dashcam video of the shooting and the deputies declined at the outset to be interviewed by BCA agents. Meanwhile, there are no surviving witnesses to the encounter other than the deputies themselves.
Estavon Dominic Elioff, 19, of Virginia, Minn., was suspected of shoplifting early Saturday afternoon at L&M Fleet Supply in nearby Mountain Iron shortly before deputies chased him into the woods, tased him and shot him. The deputies said they also believed Elioff had a role in a drive-by shooting the day before in Virginia, Minn.
Authorities have yet to say what prompted the deputies to shoot Elioff several times. The BCA did say Tuesday that a knife was recovered at the scene but did not elaborate on the weapon's significance.
Also Tuesday, the agency identified the deputies who fired at Elioff as Ryan Smith, who has been with the Sheriff's Office for 11 years, and Matt Tomsich, an 11-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office. Both are on standard administrative leave.
In lieu of agreeing to speak with BCA agents in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, attorneys for the deputies provided "unsolicited written reports" to investigators, a statement released by the agency read.
However, their attorneys told the Star Tribune on Wednesday that their clients chose to submit reports in writing first and said they now welcome being questioned in person by investigators.
"The BCA agent didn't want a written report and only wanted an oral interview," said attorney Aaron Morrison, who is representing Tomsich.
Smith's attorney, Paul Rogosheske, said his client is following union guidance in offering face-to-face questioning only after giving a written account.
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, backed the decision to start with a written report, saying, "More and more, our officers feel as though they are under criminal investigation. It is not uncommon for our officers [to] be asked to surrender their phones, their weapon, their clothes, and their blood. All the while, they cooperate."
Bruce Gordon, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said that in "the vast majority of cases the BCA has investigated, officers have submitted to an interview about the incident" and the agency was still waiting for deputies to agree to be questioned.
Once the BCA investigation is complete, the agency will send its findings without recommendation to the County Attorney's Office for determination of whether the deputies were justified in shooting Elioff.
Both attorneys also defended their clients' actions leading up to Elioff's death, with one calling the deputies "very courageous" during the encounter.
After the BCA does its investigating, "it will be my expectation that [the deputies] were justified in their actions," Morrison said.
"They weren't going after [Elioff] for shoplifting; they were going after him for the shooting," Rogosheske said. "You're tracking a [felony suspect] out in the woods, and it's a dangerous situation.
"Based on what I know, the officers were very courageous, followed procedure and did everything right."
Elioff's mother, Jacqueline Martinez, questioned why the deputies had to shoot her son and has retained noted Twin Cities attorney Bob Bennett to represent her and her family.
Bennett scoffed at the notion that the deputies believed that the man they were pursuing matched the description of Friday's drive-by shooting suspect in Virginia, where police say gunfire hit a home's rear door.
Bennett said he suspects the deputies used the drive-by incident — as opposed to the far less serious shoplifting report — as an excuse to go after Elioff so aggressively.
"There's no evidence he was involved in the drive-by shooting, in fact he wasn't," Bennett said. "He matched the description. What? Human? Male?
"That's the kind of coloration that's put on these sort of cases. … It's sort of like the old days, when [officers] hit you with a nightstick, they hit you in the head, and they said they aimed for your clavicle and you moved."
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482