Eyewitnesses Give Insight Of Hunt For Portland Suspect That Ended With His Death Near Olympia
BY CONRAD WILSON / OPB & BRYAN DENSON / ProPublica
This story is the result of a reporting partnership between OPB and ProPublica. OPB’s Sergio Olmos contributed to this story.
Late summer sunshine bathed a working-class neighborhood in suburban Olympia, Washington, on the first Thursday afternoon in September as Michael Forest Reinoehl left the Tanglewilde Terrace Townhomes, climbed behind the wheel of his silver Volkswagen station wagon and tossed a couple of travel bags onto the passenger seat.
It was Reinoehl’s fifth day on the run. Hours earlier, prosecutors in Portland, Oregon, had charged the self-described antifascism activist with second-degree murder in the Aug. 29 shooting death of Patriot Prayer supporter Aaron “Jay” Danielson, and a team of federal fugitive hunters armed with an arrest warrant gathered to plan a takedown at the nearby Lacey Police Department.
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At about 6:40 p.m., two silver SUVs gunned toward Reinoehl, tires squealing as they skidded to a stop in front of his VW, pinning his car in. Deputized U.S. marshals burst from the vehicles aiming military rifles at him. The official line is that Reinoehl jumped out of his car, his hand on the .380-caliber pistol in his pocket, defying a shouted command: “Stop! Police!”
What happened next remains unclear, even among law enforcement officials who participated.
One deputy U.S. marshal told investigators with the Thurston County sheriff’s office that Reinoehl pointed a gun at him. Another deputy marshal told detectives that Reinoehl had his hand on his pistol and was in the process of pulling the gun out of his pocket when officers fired. The gun was in Reinoehl’s right front pants pocket when detectives recovered it.
Civilian eyewitnesses interviewed by Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica and other public statements offer similarly inconsistent and sometimes conflicting recollections. They agree that they heard no warning from federal agents, and saw no flashing lights that indicated the arrival of law enforcement, just a fusillade that one neighbor likened to a scene out of the video game Call of Duty.
Reinoehl, 48, died in the street from gunshot wounds to his head and torso. The shots were fired by two Pierce County sheriff’s deputies, a Lakewood police officer and a Washington State Department of Corrections employee — all deputized by the U.S. Marshals Service and serving on a Tacoma-based fugitive task force, a common and standard procedure among local-federal partnerships. A U.S. marshal was also part of the team but did not fire.
Investigators haven’t said how many shots officers aimed at Reinoehl, but there were so many that the little yellow evidence markers used to identify and protect spent shell casings resembled a miniature tent village.
It might never be possible to determine exactly what happened in the estimated 15 seconds of gunfire that left Reinoehl dead, because the men who shot him were not wearing body cameras, the surrounding buildings lacked security cameras, and three people who witnessed critical segments of the shooting have not been interviewed by police.
That uncertainty matters.
The factors that lead to fatal police shootings are often second-guessed, especially in cases where there’s no clear-cut documented reason for lethal force, and questions about police accountability drove this summer of racial justice protests across the United States — including the dueling political rallies at which Danielson was killed.
Reinoehl’s ensuing death — justified or not — also raises questions about President Donald Trump’s tendency to talk about law enforcement as a political tool and to portray police as responding to his agenda rather than doing their jobs independent of politics.
An hour before Reinoehl died, the president called on Portland police to arrest the “cold blooded killer” of Jay Danielson. “Do your job, and do it fast,” he tweeted.
More than a week later, the president described Reinoehl’s killing as “retribution.” At the end of September, in his first debate with former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump claimed, erroneously, “I sent in the U.S. Marshals, they took care of business.”
A spokesman for the Marshals Service noted that the president had done nothing of the kind, and a statement issued by the service said that the fugitive task force had attempted to “peacefully arrest” Reinoehl.
A summer of protest punctuated by gunfire
Portland’s protests have frequently ended in violence and property destruction in the weeks since May 25, when a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, and they now serve as a barometer for America’s political divide.
Thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters have taken to the streets almost nightly since then, chanting for more police accountability and leaving parts of downtown Portland covered in graffiti and marked by boarded-up doors and windows.
Right-wing counterprotesters, angered by the vandalism and strongly supportive of police, have often clashed with the most extreme activists on the left. Those street brawls date back to Trump’s 2016 election; small but vocal groups on both sides have come to the protests to mix it up with their opponents, often bringing weapons.
For weeks this summer, tensions grew, first when federal law enforcement officers arrived to protect the downtown federal courthouse and used more force, and more quickly, than city police officers had. Then, on Aug. 29, a collection of flag-waving Trump supporters decided to convoy through the heart of the famously liberal city.
Reinoehl shot Danielson near the end of that Saturday of street skirmishes between antifascists and right-wingers. Danielson, a white man, was a Portland businessman and stalwart of the far-right political group Patriot Prayer, which has engaged in violence and has sometimes attracted white supremacists. Reinoehl, another white man, described himself as “100 percent antifascist,” and had shown up to many rallies over the summer to, as he put it, provide security to Black Lives Matter demonstrators. He believed fringe combatants in America’s left-right divide were headed for civil war.
“He was really on edge,” Deaven Reinoehl, the dead man’s high school-age son, told OPB and ProPublica.
Still, it remains unclear why Reinoehl shot Danielson. In an interview aired on VICE the day he died, Reinoehl said he had acted to protect “a friend of mine of color” who Reinoehl claimed would have been killed had he not fired. That purported friend, according to investigators, denied knowing Reinoehl, and said he did not witness the shooting and had no idea it would happen.
Prosecutors in Portland declined to indict the man for aiding or abetting the killing of Danielson, according to court records obtained through a public records request.
A security camera on a downtown Portland building captured video of Reinoehl entering a nearby parking garage as Danielson and a friend walked by. That camera, and videographers ubiquitous at the protests, captured the moment in which Reinoehl followed them into the street and fired two rounds from his pistol; one drilled through Danielson’s chest.
Danielson stumbled a few steps and collapsed.
On the run
Deaven Reinoehl recalls that his father went on the run after the downtown shooting, determined to evade the authorities.
“He didn’t plan on turning himself in at all,” he said.
Early on Aug. 30, about five hours after Danielson’s killing, several trucks drove past the Portland rental home that Reinoehl shared with his son and middle school-age daughter and opened fire, Deaven said.
“I heard the gunshots,” he said.
The teenager said he heard three rounds fired at the dwelling but did not phone 911. Instead he called his dad to report what happened. Michael Reinoehl arrived and removed his daughter from the home, Deaven said. Reporters who interviewed the teen at his doorstep saw what appeared to be bullet holes in the siding above his head. It remains unclear who fired the shots, whether the incident was connected to the shooting of Danielson — or whether the boy simply mistook what he heard.
Deaven Reinoehl said he spoke frequently with his dad in the days that followed. “He was just planning on trying to be on the run,” the younger Reinoehl said. “He didn’t know where he was going. He had people helping him find these safe houses or whatever. That’s why he was in Lacey, but I don’t know anything about, like, those people or anything.”
A safe house, but not for long
Reinoehl ended up 119 miles north of his Portland home.
Investigators are still piecing together precisely how he got there. Multiple former and current law enforcement sources not authorized to speak on the record said that during the time between the killings, a source in contact with Reinoehl passed information to law enforcement about his whereabouts. That eventually led them to Tanglewilde Terrace Townhomes.
One resident of the apartment complex, Nathaniel Dinguss, has been of particular interest to law enforcement. After the shooting, he consulted with lawyers who issued a news release about his observations. The release noted that Dinguss, who has so far declined to speak with investigators, claims that deputized U.S. marshals did not attempt to apprehend Reinoehl — or issue any commands — before shooting him. Further, the lawyers wrote, Dinguss did not see a gun on Reinoehl or see him make a move to reach for one. Dinguss, through his attorneys, declined multiple requests for an interview for this story.
What Dinguss’ lawyers and his press release fail to mention is that Reinoehl had been staying with Dinguss prior to the shooting, although authorities don’t know for how long.
“I don’t know whether they’re friends,” said Lt. Ray Brady, who is overseeing the shooting investigation for the Thurston County sheriff’s office and still hopes his team will get a chance to interview Dinguss. “That was the apartment where Mr. Reinohel was staying.”
Brady noted that Dinguss’s home was under surveillance by the fugitive task force. He said sheriff’s deputies searched the townhome after Reinoehl’s death. Officers were looking for anything related to the shooting in Portland, Brady said, and recovered a shotgun bag.
On the day that he was confronted by the marshals, Reinoehl packed his bags and, according to Dinguss’ account, was chewing a gummy worm as he made his way to his newly purchased VW. He stood 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, with a weeks-old tattoo of a clenched fist on his neck, the emblem of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It was a glorious bright day, and Garrett Louis’ 8-year-old son was pedaling his green BMX bike near the townhome complex’s carport. Two men tinkered with cars nearby. Louis’ 7-year-old played with a friend on a patch of grass across the street.
Within minutes, Reinoehl was dead.
Brady said that in the frantic seconds after deputy marshals opened fire, Reinoehl ran from his car and tried to take refuge behind a truck parked by his VW. As he lay dying on the ground, deputy marshals removed his hand from the pistol in his pocket, cuffed his wrists, and began CPR.
Investigators recovered an AR-15-style .22-caliber rifle from his car, along with a .380-caliber shell casing in the back seat. Deputies don’t know, and may never know, if Reinoehl fired at officers during their failed arrest operation.
Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Eric W. Wahlstrom, in Portland, said the agency would neither comment on the shooting nor make available for interviews members of the fugitive task force who took part in the incident.
Once the sheriff’s office completes its investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service is expected to conduct a probe of its own through its national Shooting Review Board. The intention of that investigation is to ensure policies were followed and determine if there were lessons to be learned from the incident.
Soon after Reinoehl’s death, eyewitnesses gave vivid yet wildly varying accounts of the shooting.
Garrett Louis witnessed part of the shooting from outside his home and across the street from Dinguss, and he has his own concerns about how officers behaved.
“There was no ‘drop your weapon’ or ‘freeze’ or ‘police’ — no warning at all,” he recalled.
Louis first thought the gunplay — a brief volley, a few seconds of silence, then a sustained barrage — was the work of rival drug dealers. “They just seemed like trouble,” he said. Confused by the shooting, Louis plucked his 7-year-old and a playmate off a nearby lawn and secured them in his home before dashing across the street to yank his 8-year-old off his bike and run him to safety.
In the hours after the shooting, he wrote a two-page account of what he saw. But he has not yet spoken to Thurston County detectives. Investigators did interview his 8-year-old one day when they came to talk to Louis, who wasn’t home at the time.
Another eyewitness offered a plausible explanation for why Reinoehl might have pointed a handgun at the deputy marshals who had come to arrest him. The witness, unnamed in this story because she said she fears reprisals, was pedaling her exercise bike in her apartment when she heard the first shots. She unstrapped her feet and hurried to her picture window.
She thought the shooters — buff white men dressed in khakis and ballistic vests and armed with rifles — looked less like law enforcement officers than members of a right-wing militia. Perhaps, she said, Reinoehl might have mistaken the lawmen for the far-right vigilantes he feared were hunting for him.
A moment after the shooting, Louis, the father of two, stared across the street, still bathed in late summer sunshine, and spotted Reinoehl sprawled on the pavement near a cluster of mailboxes. He walked over to a police officer and introduced himself as an EMT, having served in that capacity in the Army, he said.
“I was going to see if there was any sort of aid that I could offer,” he recalled. “He just told me to shut the fuck up and go inside, and that it was a crime scene.”
A livestream Facebook video posted at 6:59 p.m., well after the law officer rebuffed Louis’s offer to render medical help, shows a police officer in latex gloves performing chest compressions on Reinoehl.
President Trump celebrated Reinoehl’s death: “This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. Marshals killed him,” he said. “And I will tell you something: That’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have a crime like this.”
But those sentiments rang sour with at least some of those closest to the shooting. Jay Danielson’s friends, many of them Trump supporters, seethed when they learned that deputy marshals had killed Reinoehl. They weren’t looking for revenge, said Chandler Pappas, who was standing just behind his friend Danielson when Reinoehl shot him.
“We wanted to see him face a jury, we wanted to see him suffer in prison,” Pappas said. “I wanted to see him answer for what he had done in a courtroom.”
This story is the result of a reporting partnership between OPB and ProPublica. OPB’s Sergio Olmos contributed to this story.