The police killing of Michael Veatch in Columbia County on Oct. 9 was justified and “commendable and almost certainly saved the lives of innocent civilians,” according to a finding by the Columbia County District Attorney’s office Tuesday.
Veatch, who was a 33-year-old Kalama resident, died when St. Helens Police officer Elijah Merkwan made a “split-second” decision to strike Veatch with his vehicle after numerous reports of a suspect matching Veatch’s description shooting at people, cars and property, according to the finding.
Police were “overwhelmingly justified” in using deadly force because Veatch “was actively trying to kill innocent civilians,” Columbia County District attorney Jeff Auxier wrote.
Merkwan had the “reasonable belief” that Veatch was “shooting people indiscriminately” and the public was in imminent danger, Auxier wrote.
The DA’s report is the first detailed description of events that led to Veatch’s death in St. Helens. Prior to his death, Veatch was a person of interest — although he was never criminally charged — in the aftermath of the shooting death of Cowlitz County Deputy Justin DeRosier in April. Michael Veatch’s brother Matthew Veatch is currently charged with criminally aiding Brian Butts, the man who investigators say shot DeRosier.
Besides Veatch’s death, no one was wounded in the Oct. 9 incident and police chase, Auxier said.
According to Auxier’s narrative, the incident began with a reported shooting at about 5:26 a.m. at the St. Helens Chevron convenience store on Highway 30. Witnesses reported that a man later identified as Veatch parked a truck in the Chevron parking lot and entered a restricted area outside the business.
When an employee told him he was not allowed there, Veatch said he was looking for his cat. The employee returned to the store, but Veatch confronted him in the doorway, pointed a handgun at his chest and yelled “I’m looking for my f——— cat,” according to the release. Veatch then returned to his truck.
Moments later, witnesses heard six to eight gunshots, shattering glass, and saw Veatch’s vehicle drive south on Highway 30. Veatch was apparently driving on a blown tire, according to Auxier’s report. Surveillance video also showed a person later identified as Veatch pointing the gun at the store employee, and detectives found places where bullets struck the convenience store and pump station structures.
Merkwan and sergeant Matthew Molden were the only officers on duty for all of Columbia County at the time, according to the release. As they were responding to the first 911 call, dispatchers received reports of more gunshots near McBride Elementary School in St. Helens. One caller said he was driving to work when he heard popping sounds and saw a vehicle matching Veatch’s truck’s description.
The witness said he followed the truck and noticed the driver was firing a gun randomly while driving. When the witness called 911, the driver — later identified as Veatch — stopped in the middle of the road, got out of the truck and began firing at least seven to 10 shots at the witness with an AK-47, according to Auxier’s report. The man escaped injury, but bullets did strike his car. (Investigating officers reviewed surveillance footage of the event and heard 23 rapid-fire shots.) Veatch then returned to his truck and fled, according to the report.
Merkwan and Molden caught up with Veatch as he drove down Gable Road toward the highway. Officers reported the vehicle was driving on a rim, kicking up smoke, and at times using the wrong lane. The driver was handling a box of ammunition, an officer reported.
The truck eventually stopped in the middle of the road. Merkwan saw Veatch exit, briefly return as if to retrieve something from the cab, and then flee on foot along the west side of the Highway 30, obscured by smoke.
Soon after, Merkwan reported hearing more gunshots, later determined to be from an attempt by Veatch to carjack the vehicles of two motorists on their morning commutes, according to the report. The vehicles were stopped in a lineup, although Auxier did not know exactly how large the lineup was.
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One victim said Veatch approached his car and pointed a semi-automatic handgun at him while trying to enter the car. As the victim sped away, Veatch fired two rounds into his vehicle, the report said, striking his dashboard console and front passenger seat.
The second victim said Veatch pointed a gun at his face through the windshield and tried to enter his front passenger door. That victim also sped off, and Veatch fired a bullet that struck his center console.
Merkwan saw a third motorist slumped over his steering wheel, whom he believed to be deceased, but later detective work revealed the driver was alive.
Merkwan “reasonably believed” Veatch had killed that driver, Auxier wrote, and further believed Veatch was going down the line of traffic and firing on people.
According to interviews with Merkwan, he knew he had a “brief opportunity to intervene.” It would take too much time to get within firing range of Veatch, Merkwan said, and he was also concerned about accidentally shooting an innocent person. He was also concerned Veatch would try to take cover behind a vehicle and use a bystander as cover.
Merkwan made a “split-second” decision to strike Veatch with his vehicle. Merkwan told law enforcement he did not intend to kill Veatch, and after striking him he applied handcuffs and began lifesaving measures.
Then Veatch’s brother Matthew Veatch arrived and approached the scene. Although he did not try to physically engage with the officers, he was upset and disregarded officer’s requests to remain by his vehicle, Auxier said. The officers continued to try to resuscitate Michael Veatch instead of detaining his brother.
“Merkwan and Molden exposed themselves to additional danger, disregarded the threats, and selflessly continued trying to save Veatch’s life,” Auxier wrote.
Michael Veatch died at the scene.
Officers found a 9mm semi-auto pistol and a box of 35 unfired rounds near Veatch’s body. In his truck, they found an AK-47 rifle, two 12-gauge pump-action shotguns, several empty rifle magazines and accessories and more boxes of unfired cartridges and ammunition.
Medical examiners noted tattoos that read “White Power,” “Aryan Nationalist Pride” and “White Pride” on Veatch’s body, as well as swastikas on his knees. Associates told investigators that Veatch had said he would rather die than go back to prison, according to the report. And Veatch’s girlfriend reported receiving a phone call from him the day he died in which he said he was being chased by police and was going to die.
Veatch was a suspect in a drive-by shooting in Beaverton in early September that injured one person and killed a dog, according to the report, and his former employer reported in late September that Veatch appeared to have broken into his truck and stolen items including a 9mm handgun.
The evidence in the case, Auxier concluded, “prove(s) beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant was intent on killing someone that morning, and Merkwan’s actions very likely saved innocent lives.”