DULUTH – St. Louis County prosecutors said two sheriff's deputies were justified when they fatally shot a 19-year-old man in Mountain Iron, Minn., late last year, County Attorney Mark Rubin said Monday.

In a news release, Rubin said the use of deadly force "was reasonable, necessary, justified and authorized" under Minnesota law.

On Dec. 5, St. Louis County deputies Ryan Smith and Matt Tomsich shot Estavon Elioff, who was in a wooded area after fleeing law enforcement earlier. Rubin said in a separate letter, addressed to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the St. Louis County sheriff, that Elioff was removing a folding knife from his pocket that the officers believed was a gun.

Rubin said retired prosecutor Vernon Swanum conducted reviews of the BCA's investigation. Swanum's findings were reviewed by Washington County Attorney Pete Orput; both concluded that the deputies' actions were lawful.

Robert Bennett, an attorney retained by Elioff's family, said he is concerned about "unanswered questions and inconsistencies" in the former prosecutor's analysis. Bennett said he plans to review all relevant information himself to determine next steps, which could involve a lawsuit.

Law enforcement had identified Elioff as a suspect in a drive-by shooting on Dec. 4 in the Iron Range city of Virginia, according to Swanum's report.

Officers responded to a call the following morning that a man — suspected to be Elioff — had shoplifted a can of spray paint from a Mountain Iron store. A deputy tried to talk to Elioff while he walked on a road near the store, but he ran into nearby woods, according to Swanum's report. Because his hand was in his pocket, the officer believed Elioff was armed and did not pursue him alone.

After searching with a K-9 for 40 minutes, Smith and Tomsich encountered Elioff, who was standing on a fallen tree about 6 feet off the ground. According to Swanum's report, the officers gave several commands for Elioff to show his hands and get down. The St. Louis County Sheriff's Office does not equip its deputies with body cameras.

Tomsich's attempt to bring Elioff down with a stun gun had no apparent effect. While his partner was near the tree where Elioff stood, Smith said he saw the young man punch out his right hand with a black object in it, lowering his head "as if to sight down his arm in preparation to fire a pistol," Swanum wrote.

Smith yelled to Tomsich, and both deputies fired their weapons and struck Elioff five times. An autopsy identified active methamphetamine in Elioff's blood, Swanum wrote.

Rubin said that while the shooting was "a tragedy," when considering "the totality of circumstances," he determined the officers' responses were done in self-defense. Rubin reiterated that Elioff was suspected of firing shots into a home 24 hours earlier.

Bennett on Monday called Swanum's report "a mess," referencing confusing descriptions of the bullet trajectories and raising questions about why neighbors reported hearing gunshots but no shouts.

"First of all, you have to have a good investigation," Bennett said. "Second of all, you have to have a fair-minded review of the evidence. I'm not sure we've had either."

The attorney in 2019 helped an unarmed Moose Lake, Minn., man, who was paralyzed after being shot by a Carlton County sheriff's deputy, reach a $6.2 million settlement that may be the largest payout given over alleged law enforcement misconduct in greater Minnesota.

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478