Drug War

Who Started That Deadly Shootout in Ogden?

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The chain of events that led to a January 4 shootout in Ogden, Utah, that left one police officer dead and five others wounded apparently began, as these things often do, with an informant's tip. Last September, The Salt Lake Tribune reports, the informant told Ogden police that Matthew Stewart, a 37-year-old Army veteran who worked at a local Walmart, was growing marijuana in his house at 3268 Jackson Avenue. According to a September 15 police report obtained by the newspaper, the tipster "stated that she has personally seen a hydroponics grow in [Stewart's] basement." She claimed that "it produces approximately 12-15 marijuana plants," that Stewart "keeps the marijuana in a freezer," and that "he also sells some." Neighbors told the Deseret News they never noticed suspicious traffic at Stewart's house, and his father told the Tribune that Stewart used the pot instead of prescription drugs to treat depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But let's say the informant was right that Stewart sold some surplus pot from his modest hydroponic setup. Let us also note that his home is located across the street from a Mormon meeting house, which means it is inside a state-designated "drug-free zone." It is still hard to make sense of the armed assault that resulted in "a scene not unlike a war zone," as the Associated Press put it.

According to the official police account, a dozen or so officers and deputies went to Stewart's house between 8 and 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 4. Six members of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force knocked on a side door, identifying themselves as police officers. When there was no response, they broke down the door about 8:40 p.m., again announcing that they were police officers serving a search warrant. Police say Stewart emerged from a hiding place about five minutes later, while they were searching the house, and began firing at them with a 9mm Beretta pistol. They say he kept shooting at them after they retreated from the house, then escaped through a bedroom window when they returned fire. He ran inside a metal shed in the backyard and continued firing from there, surrendering after he was wounded.

Stewart, who worked the night shift at Walmart, told the Tribune that he was asleep when the police arrived and that after he was awakened by an alarm clock he heard the sound of glass breaking and surmised that he was being robbed. He said he did not hear the intruders identify themselves and did not realize they were police officers. "When you're convinced that you are getting robbed and most likely killed by a group of armed men," he said, "your instincts kick in."

Is Stewart's account plausible? It is hard to tell from the various press reports how long the shootout lasted, but it's conceivable that someone in the situation he describes could have remained confused for several minutes at least, especially if people were shooting at him. The Tribune says the police affidavit supporting the case against Stewart "goes to lengths to demonstrate Stewart knew, or should have known, he was firing at police officers." Not only should he have heard the announcements, it says; he should have seen flashing lights when he looked out his front door at the retreating officers, and he should have noticed the "standard police uniform" worn by one of the wounded officers, Michael Rounkles. Perhaps so, but that detail suggests that Rounkles, who arrived as backup and entered the house after the shooting had started, was the only police officer in the house who was clearly dressed as one. The most damning part of the official police account is the claim that last summer Stewart told an unnamed acquaintance that if police ever raided his house looking for pot he would "go out in a blaze of glory and shoot to kill." Assuming he really said that, it might have been bravado, but it certainly does not make him look good.

Almost all of the information that has emerged so far comes from the police or prosecutors. The defense attorney hired by Stewart's family complains that police still have not allowed his investigators to visit the scene of the shootout and that prosecutors (who apparently have a grudge against him based on his past work in death penalty cases) are ignoring his discovery requests. To solicit money for Stewart's defense, his family has created a website that describes the shootout as "a tragic misunderstanding."

At least some of the official claims about Stewart seem dubious. Last month, the Tribune reported, Weber County Attorney Dee Smith, who is seeking the death penalty for Stewart, "said officers searching Matthew Stewart's house had found a photo of Stewart dressed 'as a terrorist' with 'some kind of bomb device.'" According to Stewart's father, however, "the photo actually shows his son in a Halloween costume that he wore three or four years ago." He went as Osama bin Laden. Investigators also found a "suspicious device" that was detonated by a local bomb squad. But last month A.P. reported that Smith's office had "dropped a dangerous weapon enhancement included in the charges originally filed." The remaining charges against Stewart, whose most serious offense until now was driving without insurance: one count of aggravated murder, eight counts of attempted aggravated murder, and one count of marijuana cultivation.

That last charge sorta pales beside the others, doesn't it? Yet it was the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force's determination to hunt down a dozen or so pot plants that set the stage for this whole senseless tragedy. (Police say they found "multiple" plants, so that's at least two!) Stewart's father says police "botched" their raid, knocking down a door at night instead of, say, arresting the suspected pot grower at Walmart. If police had been familiar enough with Stewart's schedule to know when he was working, of course, they might have realized he was apt to be sleeping when they came knocking with their warrant. Smith said the cops made "a number of attempts to go to that house and do this as low-key as possible…to get him to cooperate" but got no response. It's not clear whether Stewart was at home and awake during these attempts.

Smith added that "if they had been expecting to find weapons, it would have been a different warrant and a different approach." Probably not a less violent approach, though; presumably Smith means police would have knocked down the door without anouncing themselves, and it's hard to see how that would have improved the outcome. In any case, there's a good chance a Utah homeowner will have a gun for self-defense, especially if he's worried about people stealing his pot.

These are all ultimately tactical quibbles, however. Stewart's father comes closer to the central issue when he says, "I'm hoping the citizens of this state can look at what's happened here and rethink the drug war." Once the government decides it will use force to stop people from consuming certain arbitrarily chosen intoxicants, once police officers see nothing wrong with charging into a man's home because he might be growing a few unapproved plants in the basement, this sort of thing is bound to happen. Whether or not Stewart is telling the truth about his state of mind that night, it's clear he was not the one who initiated the violence.

Lucy Steigerwald discussed the Ogden shootout and the response to it last month.

[Thanks to Ryan Ellis for the tip.]