A federal jury trial started on Feb. 4 in U.S. District Court, Anchorage, in the case of a Minnesota woman against the city of Homer and Homer Police alleging misconduct for their role in the March 2006 Homer Airport shooting. Cherry Dietzmann seeks compensatory damages for injuries to her son, Jason Anderson II, who was shot in the head and severely wounded. The boy has been under 24-hour care since then. Dietzmann also seeks damages for her daughter, Darla Anderson, and herself.
Judge Robert Bryan is presiding over the case.
The boy, then 2, and the girl, then 6-months-old, had been in a rental Jeep with their father, Jason Anderson, at the Homer Airport when two U.S. Marshals and four Homer Police officers attempted to arrest the father, a fugitive wanted on drug charges out of Minnesota. Marshals and police exchanged gunfire with Anderson.
According to a report by the former Alaska Medical Examiner, Dr. Franc Fallico, Anderson shot his son in the left cheek at close range with a .40-caliber Ruger semiautomatic pistol. Anderson then shot and killed himself. A Marshal also shot Anderson with a .223 caliber AR-15 rifle. Both children had been in child seats in the back seat of the Jeep. Darla Anderson was not shot.
Marshals had intended to lure Anderson into the airport to get keys for another rental car on the pretense that the Jeep he drove had a cracked windshield. Other Marshals were waiting inside the airport to apprehend him. About 100 members of a youth and adult choir group were at the airport waiting to board outbound planes. Homer Police were backing up the Marshals.
The plan went awry when Anderson told a rental car agent he didn't want to come into the airport because his kids were in the Jeep. Marshals and police then tried to catch Anderson by boxing in his Jeep with their cars. Anderson pulled his gun when Marshals and police approached.
Dietzmann alleges that Homer Police should have known Anderson was with his children. After the shooting, Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said his officers did not know there were children in the Jeep.
In her initial complaint, a federal tort and civil rights claim, Dietzmann also sued the U.S. Marshals involved, Kevin Guinn and John Olson Jr., and Robl, Homer Police Sgt. Lary Kuhns, Sgt. Will Hutt, Sgt. David Shealy and Officer Stacy Luck. In July 2011, the Marshals settled with Dietzmann for $3.5 million, with 95 percent of the proceeds from the settlement going to the boy.
Robl and Kuhns were dismissed earlier from the suit. Kuhns was involved in the shooting but did not fire his weapon.
Dietzmann originally sought from the U.S. government up to $75 million in compensatory damages for her son, $5 million for herself and her daughter, and for an amount to be determined at trial from the other defendants.
The city is insured by the Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Agency and is represented in the case by AML's attorney, Frank Koziol. In 2010 Koziol moved for summary judgment, arguing that Homer Police and the city had qualified immunity, a shield of liability from civil damages when government officials perform their duties provided their conduct does not violate statutory or constitutional rights.
Judge Bryan denied that motion. He said a jury should consider issues of fact, such as if the children were hostages in Anderson's car, whether the police had time to deliberate the decision to join the Marshals in the attempted arrest and if police actions were a reasonable use of force. The city appealed Bryan's decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but that court upheld Bryan in August 2012. That allowed the case to proceed to a jury trial.
Anchorage attorneys Phillip Weidner and Marion Kelly and Seattle attorney Timothy Ford are representing Dietzmann at the jury trial. The attorneys dispute that Anderson shot his son. Kelly said in August that two Homer doctors who treated the boy, Dr. Paul Raymond and Dr. Paul Sayer, believe the boy was shot in the back of the head, and that the boy was thus wounded in a crossfire. Dr. William Bell, the Homer Volunteer Fire Department physician on call who responded to the shooting scene, said he is 100 percent convinced the boy was shot from the front and not the back.
Kelly said she expects the trial to continue into early March.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.