A Washington County jury on Thursday acquitted deputy Brian Krook of second-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of an armed and suicidal man in 2018, returning its verdict only a day after hearing closing arguments in the case.
The jury sided with the defense’s version of Krook as a hero who was “stone cold innocent” in Lake Elmo on the night of April 12, 2018, when the deputy confronted and then fatally shot — without warning — 23-year-old Benjamin Evans, a Lake Elmo firefighter upset about an ex-girlfriend, after lengthy negotiations.
Jury foreperson Susan Strandlof said she didn’t want to elaborate on the trial or the verdict. “It was a just verdict,” she said.
But Evans’ parents said they were devastated by the verdict, believing for the past two years that there would be justice for their son’s death. The evidence speaks for itself, said his mother, Kim Porter.
“We believed that Mr. Krook was most certainly guilty of the crime of murdering our son,” she said.
The jury made its decision after asking Thursday morning to review videos of the incident, including an enhanced version prepared by the prosecution that more clearly depicted Evans.
The videos were shown several times at trial, and the enhanced video, said Krook’s attorney, Kevin Short, very clearly shows “exactly what our client saw and perceived” — that Evans pointed his handgun at officers.
Krook’s trial was the third in recent memory in which a Minnesota law enforcement officer faced criminal charges for an on-duty shooting. Short said he believed the grand jury indicted Krook because of the way the case was presented, including expert testimony that Short said the defense impeached at trial.
“One of their experts said, said incredulously, this man, this young man, with this gun presented a risk of danger only to himself and to no one else. A categorically absurd statement,” said Short.
Speaking for Krook, Short said his client was “profoundly appreciative of what this jury has done from beginning to end in undertaking this service.”
Krook, who has been on paid leave since his indictment, can now return to work.
The trial, which opened last week, hinged on the question of Krook’s perception of danger: Was he justified in shooting a man who was kneeling in a public street while pointing a handgun at his right temple and negotiating with another Washington County deputy?
Even though he held the gun to his head, Evans also was pointing it at the deputies when he turned his head and torso from side to side. Krook, in the minutes before firing, noted the movement to another deputy: “Ramirez, I’m getting uncomfortable with him turning his head, just so you know.”
Krook fired two volleys of shots at Evans, the first while Evans was kneeling and the second about 20 seconds later. Krook and other deputies had rushed to the fallen Evans and were standing within a few feet of him when Evans, who was still holding the gun to his head while lying on his side, dropped his arm to the street. He was still holding the gun and its barrel pointed at the deputies again as his arm moved.
Short said the key evidence in Krook’s defense was the video that showed Evans’ final moments. Evans refused at least 50 commands to drop his handgun during his 39-minute encounter with police.
Evans’ mother said she felt that the law enforcement community banded together to protect Krook and that the prosecution was right to accuse three of Krook’s colleagues of perjury when they said in court that they felt threatened by Evans.
Those statements, Prosecutor Thomas Hatch argued, conflicted with what the deputies told the grand jury months earlier.
Short said after the jury’s verdict was reached that he took “great umbrage” at the perjury accusations. The officers’ statements to the grand jury were taken out of context by the prosecution, he said.
Washington County Sheriff Dan Starry said he was proud of his deputies and called for public healing after a difficult trial.
“The loss of life in any call we respond to is never the desired outcome, though I am glad that we have courageous men and women that are willing to put their lives on the line every day to protect our citizens,” he said.
Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, called it “unconscionable” that prosecutors put Krook on trial “for making a difficult decision, based 100 percent on his training.” Sean Gormley, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, the state’s largest law enforcement union, agreed.
“This was a terrible tragedy for the family and friends of Benjamin Evans — and extremely traumatic for the responding officers,” Gormley said. “We need to stop trying to make criminals out of police officers who are asked to respond to dangerous, no-win situations involving persons who don’t put down their guns.”
Evans had never had a mental breakdown like the one he had the night he died, his parents said.
“Never. That was one of the things that shocked us when we got the phone call,” said his father, Bill Evans. “We were like ‘What do you mean? You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”
Bill Evans, a retired firefighter from the West St. Louis County (Mo.) Fire Department, said Benjamin worked for several years as a firefighter in Missouri before moving less than a block from the Lake Elmo Fire Department, where he hoped to eventually get hired full time. He left behind a 3-year-old daughter.
Benjamin Evans grew up in the first responder culture. According to his parents, he spent his first Christmas at the fire station with his dad when he was just 5 weeks old and was riding on fire trucks after joining the Explorers at 14.
A hockey injury just before Benjamin’s senior year in high school in suburban St. Louis wrecked his chances of joining the Marines, and he was in basic training for the U.S. Air Force when he wrecked his knee. His parents said he pursued a firefighting and EMT work out of a dedication to public service.
“He lived to serve in any capacity that he could,” Porter said.
Bill Evans said he worked thousands of calls with police officers and responded to many people threatening suicide. He said things could have ended differently for his son if deputies had given him just a bit more time.
“We all run into situations in our life where we find it very, very difficult and need some help,” said Evans. “The part that hurts the most for me, I’ve done thousands and thousands of calls, and the one time that I needed the service for the first responders to step up for my child, they let him down. They failed him.”