SPOKANE, Wash. – Shonto Pete’s story is a tragic example of justice gone wrong. His name is familiar throughout much of Indian country because of his participation in pow wows as a singer and a dancer.
“I have a YouTube post of me singing a Round Dance song and have over 500,000 hits,” he said. This article is not about his music and dancing, but about his near death at the hands of a Spokane policeman and the outcome of two trials.
Pete is a Navajo living in Spokane. This story began Feb. 26, 2007, and has remained in the headlines throughout the northwest since.
On that night he hit a bar or two and consumed more alcohol than he should have. City police officer Jay Olsen was drinking at another bar that same evening. Olsen was at Dempsey’s Brass Rail, during his off-duty time, but was carrying a concealed weapon. Later that evening, Olsen and a female acquaintance left the bar and were sitting in her car while his pickup was warming up nearby as Shonto approached.
Here the testimony of Shonto and Olsen disagrees. Shonto said he approached the car asking for a ride home. Olsen claims Shonto stole his truck.
The result of this meeting led to Pete running for his life as Olsen pursued him on foot over an embankment near downtown Spokane into a community known as Peaceful Valley. Olsen fired five shots from a .40 caliber handgun as he ran, one of which struck Pete in the back of the head and lodged there. The officer, who was also legally drunk, did not attempt to call 911 for assistance, and passed other officers as he chased Pete and didn’t ask for their assistance.
Shonto Pete and his wife, Venessa.
Pete was interrogated that same night at the hospital, and was surprised to find them asking him so many questions about the truck because he assumed they were looking for information about the man who shot him. It wasn’t until the questioning came to an end that he found out he’d been shot by a police officer.
The interrogation took place at the hospital with no lawyer present three hours after the shooting while he was still drunk, suffering from a concussion, and under the influence of medications administered during the removal of the bullet from his skull.
Olsen later turned himself in and was charged with one count of first degree assault and two charges of reckless endangerment. The assault charge stems from the shooting, while the endangerment charges are the result of firing toward occupied homes and striking one.
Pete was charged with taking a motor vehicle without the owner’s permission, also a felony.
Eight months later, in October 2007, Pete went to trial on the charge of attempting to steal Olsen’s truck. Pete said he approached the truck to ask for a ride and opened the door to find nobody inside and then approached the car where Olsen and the woman were sitting. They refused, swearing at him, and Pete left on foot. He soon realized the truck was following him and that’s when he began running toward Peaceful Valley. After being shot, he managed to find help at the third residence he went to.
Pete’s mother, Diana Cote, Bitterroot Salish, attended this trial and the second trial against Olsen later. “They went to so much expense to try to find that he (Pete) was in that truck, that’s how much they believed police officer Olsen,” she said of the first. “They had fingerprints and dog hair from the truck and on Shonto’s clothes.” But the fingerprints didn’t match up and the dog hair was from different dogs.
There were inconsistencies in the testimony of the woman in the car with Olsen about the type of clothing she observed and what Pete was actually wearing. Olsen invoked the Fifth Amendment regarding self-incrimination about how the night ended. He was suspended from the police force.
The jury found Pete not guilty of auto theft. As one of the jurors later commented, “There just wasn’t anything that put him in that truck.”
That phase of the story at least came to a logical conclusion.
Now jump forward to mid-March this year and Olsen’s trial for first degree assault and reckless endangerment. The same judge is on the stand that heard the case against Pete and Pete is present to testify. A jury of eight men and four women hear the case and come up with a verdict that Olsen is not guilty and that the shooting was in self-defense. How can this be?
The judge refused to inform the jury that Pete was found not guilty of car theft. The police dispatcher who received the call from Pete after he’d been shot claimed Pete said the shooting occurred after he’d stolen the truck; however the tape of that call had been erased. A copy of the tape listened to after the verdict failed to support the police dispatcher. The prosecutor failed to bring in the witness who let Pete use his phone to call the police who adamantly declared that he was standing within three feet of Pete at the time and that he did not say those words.
Pete commented that after the trial, “The jury spoke to KXLY and said my testimony wasn’t credible and they believed Olsen’s over me. They said I changed my story several times. It only changed once. The detectives admitted in my trial they shouldn’t have even interviewed me in that situation.”
The entire community and region were shocked at the verdict. A poll conducted by a local television station showed 82 percent felt Olsen was guilty. The Native American community was incensed and confronted city officials. They listed racial profiling by the police and the lack of cultural awareness and questioned their safety in the community after seeing other police officers cheering the verdict.
Since the verdict, Olsen has resigned from the police department. In mid-April it was disclosed that Olsen tried on several occasions to discuss his case with the judge he thought was going to preside at his trial, even flashing his police badge on one occasion in an attempt to gain access to the judge. He could have been charged with a crime at that time as well.
Pete has filed lawsuits against the City of Spokane and against Olsen for causing harm. It may be many months, if not years, before either are settled. Meanwhile, Pete has recovered from the shooting. “The only thing is that the peripheral vision in my left eye is not good. When I look straight I can’t see left.” He was even able to laugh about it. “When my mother-in-law came to see me in the hospital her first words were ‘now I know you’re hard-headed’.”
Jim Boyd, Spokane tribal member and well-known singer/guitarist, wrote a song about the situation. “I was so (upset) about the whole Shonto Pete thing. They should have investigated the investigation right away. The police force doesn’t get any better, that’s what’s so scary about it.”
He calls the song, “a goofy little thing.” Anyone can listen to it on the JimBoydBand MySpace page.