Officer charged in Forest Grove case used Taser in fatal encounter
Weeks before a Forest Grove police officer allegedly harassed a family on Oct. 31, 2020, over a Black Lives Matter flag on their house, he used a Taser stun gun on a man who later died, Pamplin Media Group has learned.
After finding 44-year-old James Eric Marshall suffering what appeared to be a mental health crisis — seemingly trying to kick open the door of an office on the premises of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church — Officer Steven Teets tasered Marshall at least one to three times during a struggle early in the morning of Oct. 8, 2020, according to police records.
The unemployed logger stopped breathing. Officers attempted life-saving efforts and Marshall was transported to a hospital for care, but he died the following day.
Teets and other officers involved were placed on paid administrative leave — standard procedure after police use lethal force or a person dies after an encounter with police — for three days. Teets, a 10-year veteran of the Forest Grove Police Department, was back at work but not on duty when he came across a house flying a Black Lives Matter flag early in the morning on Oct. 31.
Homeowner Mirella Castaneda called 9-1-1 to report that Teets, whom she did not know was a police officer, pounded on her flag, was banging on her door and challenging the house's occupants to come out and fight. Teets also allegedly destroyed Halloween decorations on the porch before leaving.
In early November, prosecutors charged Teets with criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.
The officer has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer earlier this month said, "Steven is addressing a personal issue for which he deserves support and understanding rather than condemnation."
The lawyer, Derek Ashton, did not respond to questions about Marshall's death.
Parallels and perpendiculars
The two October nighttime incidents bear similarities. Both involved flags and individuals acting erratically.
And both incidents left people who were affected voicing frustration about official barriers to learning what really happened.
Earlier this month, Pamplin Media Group published several articles and columns detailing the struggles of Mirella Castaneda to figure out who had made her family fearful for days.
Now Marshall's widow, Sara, says it's her family that can't get the information it needs. A longtime local mail carrier, she says it's no coincidence her husband was waving the U.S. flag at officers shortly before he died.
"We were a Blue Lives Matter family, and it's really hard for me not to be so much that way anymore," she said. "We support our armed forces, we support police."
Sara Marshall says her trust has been shaken as a result of the struggles she and her family have faced to figure out how her husband died.
"My whole outlook on life has changed," she said.
It's done more than that. To make up for her husband's death, Marshall now has to work more than full-time, allowing less time for parenting.
"I have to work six days a week, 12-, 18-hour days," she said.
Meanwhile, the need for parenting has only grown, thanks to newfound fears, including about their teenage son, who is autistic and loves to talk to police.
"Is that something I have to worry about for the rest of my life? Is my son going to die by the hands of police?" she said. "I can't let him out of my sight anywhere in public now, because of what happened."
Death sparks questions
In January, the family had to pay $12 to secure a highly redacted police report that contained some details of about James Marshall's death.
To obtain official copies of video from the officers' body-worn cameras that night, they've been quoted an estimate of $1,100.
Meanwhile, they have obtained a six-page autopsy report, dated Oct. 11, 2020.
The autopsy cites a toxicology test finding methamphetamine in James Marshall's blood, says he had a bad heart, and concludes his death was caused by "excited delirium," a controversial condition that is often invoked to explain deaths of individuals in police custody.
The family has hired a lawyer, Barry Fifth-Lince of Clark Law & Associates, who has submitted a notice of a potential lawsuit to the city over James Marshall's death.
Sara Marshall said her husband had been acting oddly at times, often paranoid, ever since the previous July when he had a major seizure. She never knew him to use any meth.
But still, the family has questions: How many times did Forest Grove police tase James Marshall before he suffered a cardiac arrest and stopped breathing?
Did Officer Teets tase James Marshall in the chest as hospital staff told the family occurred, despite manufacturer's warnings that shocking the chest risks cardiac arrest?
Why wasn't Washington County's mental health response team, which pairs a deputy with a mental health specialist, called in instead?
Police Chief Henry Reimann told Pamplin Media Group that he isn't sure why the county mental health team wasn't called. He said the department didn't conduct a full internal investigation of the matter, instead deferring to the criminal investigation conducted by Hillsboro police detectives. But Reimann says the officers tried to de-escalate the situation and likely sought to prevent Marshall from harming himself once he started kicking at glass doors and windows.
"If he breaks the window, does he go through the window? Does he get cut up?" Reimann said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeff Lesowski, who reviewed the case to see if the officers should be prosecuted, said he can't speak to questions over whether the officers properly followed internal policies. But he said it wasn't hard to determine the officers had engaged in no criminal wrongdoing.
"They spent several minutes trying to calmly talk this guy into dropping his flagpole, telling them his name and de-escalating it verbally," Lesowski said.
He added that video from the officers' body worn cameras "was pretty clear … it makes you glad that we've got body-worn cameras."
Video shows struggle
Body-worn camera video reviewed by Pamplin Media Group at the district attorney's office, combined with the report of the investigation of the incident that summarizes church security video, provided new details of the struggle leading to James Marshall's death.
At just before 11:54 p.m., James Marshall shows up in the courtyard of the church, which is named after the Catholic saint of lost things. He's carrying the 10-foot flagpole, which came from his yard, according to his widow. He eventually stands in an alcove.
At midnight, the first officer shows up on camera. Others start arriving four minutes later. The body-worn camera footage shows the situation quickly devolve.
Marshall, who at times can't be understood on the video, refuses to tell officers his name. He is looking side to side and appears intent on getting past the office door that lies inside the alcove.
When Teets asks him what he's on, Marshall says, "Winning."
"Winning?" Teets asks.
"Yeah, Charlie Sheen — winning," Marshall responds.
Teets asks him where he lives.
"The United States of America," Marshall replies in a proud tone.
Teets again asks him what drugs he is on, and Marshall asks Teets the same question.
Marshall starts kicking at the door to the office and the window next to it. Teets warns him to calm down or he's going to be tased, pulling his Taser from a holster on his chest.
Marshall fumbles with what appears to be a piece of a light fixture, and when it hits the ground and rolls away, he rushes to pick it up, gesturing with his flagpole at one officer to his left, thrusting it like a spear at Teets' face to his right.
Teets curses at Marshall and orders him to put the pole down, the officer lifting his Taser.
As Marshall turns to his left, turning the flagpole toward the other officer, Teets rushes at him, leading with his outstretched right hand, which holds the taser. The red laser sight of the taser is activated, and it flickers across Marshall's red pajama pants.
Though the camera shots don't capture everything, Marshall and Teets appear to grapple, and Marshall goes to the ground. Marshall turns onto his stomach and someone — possibly Teets — warns, "He's got a Taser."
After some more struggling, with three officers grappling to subdue Marshall, one of the officers — it's unclear who — curses and says "kick his ass."
Teets recovers his Taser and asks another officer to remove the spent cartridge from its tip. Then he applies the Taser to Marshall's back.
An officer secures a plastic zip tie around Marshall's ankles to stop him from kicking.
They turn him to his side and immediately realize he's stopped breathing. One begins chest compressions to try to keep blood moving, until paramedics arrive.
Marshall's heart stops twice, but the paramedics report they are able to restore a pulse.
By the time Marshall reached the hospital that morning, however, the brain damage he suffered when he stopped breathing was too much, and he had fallen into a coma. He never woke up and was pronounced dead late on Oct. 9.
Police investigation appears incomplete
Sara Marshall and her cousin, Cricket Henry, say it nags at them that police say Teets only tasered him once.
The police report says Marshall punched Teets in the face as Teets rushed him, then grabbed the taser from Teets during the struggle and tasered himself in the wrist.
Later, after Teets gets a fresh cartridge in his taser, he reloads it according to the camera video. He pressed it to Marshall's back for a total of 20 seconds, according to the investigation of the incident conducted by Hillsboro Detective Pat LaMonica.
Each Taser cycle lasts five seconds.
Two hospital staffers allegedly told Marshall's mother he died because police tasered him in or near the heart. That would be significant because, after dozens of people died after being tased, the manufacturer of the weapon issued a warning to not use the weapon to administer a shock in the chest, due to an elevated risk of cardiac arrest."
The police report contends investigators "dispelled" that "rumor" of a taser to the chest.
However, marks captured in photos of Marshall in the hospital show what appears to be a mark on the left side of his chest that appears to bear the "signature" of a Taser shock or burn, said Ron Martinelli, a Taser expert contacted by Pamplin Media Group.
Martinelli, a former San Jose, California police investigator, is now a forensic criminologist. For years, he served as an expert witness for the city of Portland and its police.
Martinelli said he can't say for sure without studying the evidence in his laboratory, but he believes "it's definitely a close-contact tase."
Segments of the body-worn camera video from before police say any Taser was delivered show a light in view, when Teets and Marshall first grappled hand-to-hand, Teets' taser-bearing right hand close to the left side of Marshall's chest.
Martinelli said the light is likely from the Taser, which uses a bright white light to alert officers the safety has been turned off. Martinelli also believes that a crackling and clicking noise heard on the video at the same time is that of a Taser.
"I can hear the Taser crackle," he said.
Though some critics contend the term "excited delirium" is used to explain away police culpability in deaths, Martinelli said he suspects the autopsy is correct and Marshall was in a state of excited delirium, which put him in danger because of his bad heart.
"He's definitely agitated," Martinelli said. "He's definitely chaotic. And he's violent, because he resists arrest, he's involved in a struggle. All of those things are going to take the pre-existing basal metabolic rate, which is already very high, and are going to catapult that through the roof."
Even without the Taser, he added, "That guy could have died."
Echoes of a national tragedy
Could the trauma of an incident like James Marshall's death have contributed to Officer Steven Teets' actions three weeks later?
Generally speaking, it's possible, said Forest Grove Chief Henry Reimann.
He said all four officers listed as involved in the Marshall encounter were offered counseling, but he's not sure if any took advantage of it.
"We can't mandate officers to go to counseling, and I wish somehow we could change that," he said. "Things, perhaps weeks later, may have (had) a different outcome."
Sara Marshall and her relatives say they take hope in the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis ex-cop who was convicted last week of murdering George Floyd in May 2020.
Chauvin's defense had raised the prospect that Floyd died as a result of excited delirium, rather than the actions of Chauvin. Two autopsies concluded Floyd's death was a homicide, and a jury agreed, convicting Chauvin of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Sara Marshall is not calling for a criminal trial. But she does think police actions led to her husband's death.
She said she felt it in her gut when she first read the headlines in November about Teets' Halloween incident. And the feeling has grown now that she's read the police report.
Teets was the officer in charge that night, Marshall said, and she feels "he is the one that is responsible for my husband's death."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the charges against Steven Teets in the headline. He has been charged with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief and is facing a civil complaint of negligence trespass and invasion of privacy. The headline has been corrected.
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