The family of a woman shot by a Chaska police officer in 2014 is claiming that officers colluded before they testified in grand jury proceedings.
A grand jury declined to indict the officers who shot and killed Dawn Pfister, 34, of Elkhorn, Wis., and her boyfriend, Matthew Serbus, 36, of Brooklyn Center.
Now, nearly a year after Pfister’s family sued the city of Chaska and the Chaska officer who shot her, Brady Juell, the civil case has grown more complicated, with the family’s attorney arguing that the 11 officers on the scene colluded to help clear Juell by discussing their testimony in calls and text messages before the grand jury met.
In federal court documents filed in late December, officers denied that they had discussed among themselves details of the incident after the shooting. Attorneys for Juell and Chaska are asking a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit, countering that Juell used reasonable force. If the judge denies the motion, it’s likely a trial will take place this year.
In the transcripts just released, Juell said in a deposition last May that officers did discuss upcoming grand jury proceedings, but only in terms of logistics such as where to park or how they felt, not details of the incident.
“I have never heard that we’re not supposed to be talking. We work together,” Juell said then.
Minneapolis attorney Bob Bennett, who is representing Pfister’s family, sought copies of grand jury transcripts, which have been kept secret under state law. He got some released, which he said was the first time that’s happened in Hennepin County.
The grand jury process — which relies on secret deliberations to determine whether criminal charges are warranted — has been increasingly scrutinized, both nationally and in Minnesota, as to whether it can ensure a just outcome in controversial police shootings.
Last year, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that grand juries will no longer be used to review police shootings, calling their “secrecy, lack of transparency” and lack of direct accountability “problematic for a democratic society.”
And two months ago, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi opted not to use a grand jury in the Philando Castile case, making his own decision to charge the St. Anthony officer who shot and killed Castile.
‘A stunning accusation’
In February 2014, Pfister and Serbus led police on a chase from Chaska before they crashed their stolen car on Hwy. 212 in Eden Prairie. Serbus got out of the car with a 3-inch knife and was shot after repeated commands from officers to drop it. Juell then shot Pfister.
Police and the family disagree over whether Pfister posed a threat when she picked up the knife, and if Juell used reasonable force in shooting her. Bennett says Pfister was trying to get the knife after being threatened with it and that the officer closest to her in the incident didn’t even shoot.
But Juell told investigators later that he “had no choice” and said in the deposition that “she was getting up to advance on me” with the knife. Video of the episode shows that before the shooting, Pfister and Serbus were shuffling together in circles. According to recent documents, they had methamphetamine in their systems.
As to why none of the other 10 officers at the scene shot Pfister, they said in their depositions that they perceived Pfister as a threat but either weren’t close enough or didn’t have a clear line of fire to shoot her.
A grand jury later declined to indict Juell for shooting Pfister and the other officers who shot Serbus — Chaska officer Trent Wurtz, State Patrol trooper Mark Lund and Carver County Sheriff’s Cpl. Nathan Mueller. Grand juries don’t determine guilt or innocence, but rather whether there is evidence of probable cause that a crime was committed, justifying bringing the case to trial.
Pfister’s family is seeking more than $5 million in the suit, accusing Juell of improperly using deadly force on Pfister and the city of failing to properly train officers and discipline Juell.
Bennett argues that phone records and text messages between police officers before and during grand jury proceedings “would lead a reasonable person to believe that the involved officers continued to work together to tell a story that would lead only to a no bill.”
It may be a tough sell. A judge later said the evidence didn’t indicate the officers colluded. Attorneys for the city and Juell say that Bennett has no proof of collusion.
“This is a stunning accusation,” wrote Jason Hiveley and Jon Iverson, the attorneys for the city and Juell, in court documents last year.
In the case, Bennett also accuses the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), the agency that investigated the shooting, of “improperly elicit[ing] false police statements about” Pfister’s actions “and her unspoken and unknowable motivations.”
In interviews with the BCA after the shooting, officers described Pfister as acting threateningly with the knife and said they thought she “meant business.” State statutes justify the use of deadly force by law enforcement authorities to protect the officer or someone else from death or great bodily harm.
“The involved officers worked together to put forth their version of the events, rather than an objective version, to attain this goal,” Bennett wrote in court documents. “The BCA not only let them, but aided them.”
On Friday, the BCA called Bennett’s accusations “inflammatory and without merit.”
“After conducting a thorough and impartial investigation, the BCA turned over its findings and video of the event without opinion or recommendation to the county attorney,” the agency’s statement said. “The case was presented to a grand jury that considered the evidence and heard the facts of the case before making its determination.”
After the grand jury decision, the BCA released more than 500 pages of public documents from the case and grainy squad car videos that didn’t include the shooting. Bennett has since released the full video.