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Police interview of second subject at site of cop-involved shooting gives detail

Mar 18, 2015 By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has released an interview detailing events that took place immediately before the officer-involved shooting death of Pavillion resident Justin Philip Steele in July.

The interview was conducted just after the shooting, at about 9:35 p.m. July 29, in the back of a Fremont County Sheriff's Office patrol vehicle parked on the shoulder of Blue Sky Highway north of Ethete. The subject had been the driver of the 2005 Dodge Durango in which the 26-year-old Steele had been a passenger.

The BIA reports and interview transcripts related to Steele's death were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request from The Ranger.

'Out of Pavillion'

The interviewee first recalled the incident earlier in the evening that had initiated law enforcement involvement with Steele. At about 8 p.m. July 29, someone called police from Pavillion to say a man had shot out the window of a vehicle with a 9-millimeter pistol.

The interviewee was in the vehicle with Steele and one other person at the time. They had gone to Possum Pete's bar to give Steele a ride "out of Pavillion."

"Steele may have been involved in an earlier fight," the interview transcript states.

The interviewee said Steele was "hiding behind a dumpster" at Possum Pete's when they arrived. They offered Steele a ride to Riverton, and Steele got into the Durango's rear passenger seat.

The three waited in the parking lot until someone else arrived to give them $20 for gas. When the fourth individual got there, the interviewee heard a gunshot from the back seat of the Durango. He said Steele had shot a gun, hitting the interior portion of the Durango's rear passenger door and breaking the rear passenger window.

"Steele said he was sorry and claimed he didn't know the gun was loaded," the transcript states.

No one was injured as a result of the gunfire in Pavillion, but the interviewee said he and his other passenger were "scared and angry" that Steele had shot the gun in the vehicle. The other passenger told Steele to give him the gun, which was placed on the front passenger floor board.

Blue Sky Highway

The trio began driving toward the Wind River Casino in Riverton, using the Blue Sky Highway through the Wind River Indian Reservation in order to avoid road construction near Kinnear.

As they headed south, the driver said he saw a Fremont County Sheriff's vehicle traveling north with its emergency lights on. He pulled to the right shoulder of the roadway and stopped until the deputy passed.

The interviewee began to drive south again when he saw the Sheriff's vehicle turn around and get behind him. He pulled to the right shoulder and stopped.

In previous reports, officials said the deputy had been responding to calls about the gunfire in Pavillion. The deputy initiated contact with the Durango because the vehicle's window was missing.

When he stopped the vehicle, the interviewee said Steele told him he was carrying marijuana and an open container of alcohol.

Several other police vehicles arrived and ordered the subjects to "stick their arms outside the windows." The interviewee and his other passenger complied, but Steele did not.

The interviewee said he was afraid he might get shot because of Steele.

The compliant individuals were ordered out of the vehicle, handcuffed and seated in the back of separate patrol cars. The interviewee said he could see that Steele was "still refusing to obey" the verbal commands given by police officers.

"It looked like (Steele) was smoking a cigarette and using his cell phone," the transcript states.

The interviewee next saw Steele walk to the front passenger side of the vehicle, open the front passenger side door and pick up the gun that had been placed on the front passenger floorboard.

"He thinks Steele was holding gun in his right hand when Steele turned and pointed the gun in the direction of the officers," the transcript states. "That's when he heard the officer's gunshots."

The interviewee said he didn't see the entire incident because he looked down at times in an attempt "to process everything that was going on."

He was described as "very emotional."

"(He said he) could have been shot because of Steele's behavior," the transcript states. "He thinks the officers were right to shoot Steele because they probably felt their lives were threatened. ... He feels horrible. ... He was just trying to do the right thing by giving Steele a ride from Pavillion."

The interviewee recorded a blood-alcohol content of .00 at about 10:30 p.m. July 29.

BIA FOIA

The Wyoming U.S. Attorney's Office concluded that the BIA officer involving in Steele's shooting did not violate any federal law.

The agency previously released reports by officers at the scene who wrote narratives about the incident. The reports describe Steele in the back seat of the Durango talking on a cell phone. He eventually got out of the car and, instead of complying with commands to get on the ground and show his hands, walked to the front passenger door of the Durango, where he proceeded to make "suspicious movements."

When he got out of the car again, officials said he had a black handgun in his right hand. He turned his body toward officers, crouched down slightly and moved his right arm upward to the windowsill of the open rear passenger door, pointing the handgun at officers.

"It appeared Steele was preparing to fire the weapon at (us)," one special agent wrote.

A BIA officer fired three shots, and Steele fell back against the front passenger door. Officials were unable to locate his pulse at the scene. An ambulance was dispatched to the area but was later cancelled by deputies.

Autopsy reports show Steele had a blood-alcohol content of .302 at the time of his death.

The names of the individuals involved in the incident were redacted for privacy reasons.

RELATED STORIES

Dec. 11: BIA releases documents in officer-involved shooting death

Dec. 7: Man shot by police had gun

Oct. 14: No charges to be filed in police shooting

Sept. 12: Man killed in police shooting was drunk

July 30: Man shot to death in altercation with police on reservation

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