An expert panel of attorneys could not reach agreement on whether a Clark County sheriff’s deputy should face criminal charges for shooting and killing an off-duty Vancouver police officer – a rare circumstance for Washington law enforcement officers who have used deadly force.
The five members of the panel – all prosecuting attorneys from other counties in Washington state – were tasked with reviewing the extraordinary events of Jan. 29, 2022, that left Donald Sahota dead on his own front porch, shot three times by Deputy Jonathan Feller.
Their conclusion: They were “unable to reach consensus as to the reasonableness of Feller’s actions under the circumstances.”
After the investigation by the Lower Columbia Major Crimes Team concluded last year, Clark County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Golik asked the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys for an outside review because his office also was prosecuting Julio Cesar Segura, the 20-year-old robbery suspect who stabbed Sahota at the off-duty officer’s Battle Ground home before Clark County sheriff’s deputies arrived.
The review panel has been used at least five times since 2021 for analyzing and consulting officer-involved shootings and deadly-force investigations in Washington. It’s out-of-the-ordinary for one to fail to reach a judgment.
Golik, who did not immediately respond to an inquiry from The Oregonian/OregonLive, has not said when he will decide whether to pursue charges against Feller.
The violent end to that night last January began when a Chevron mini-mart in the Orchards area of Clark County reported a robbery at gunpoint.
Segura, who is from Yakima, later told investigators that he had stolen a Mercedes from a Yakima dealership and used a fake gun to rob the convenience store. He fled after a chase, ditching the car and ending up, by coincidence, at the residence of a police officer.
Dispatch audio, aerial footage and a distraught 911 call from Sahota’s wife, Dawnese, revealed the chaotic scene in the front yard of the property as Sahota tried to apprehend Segura. The robbery suspect knocked the officer’s handgun to the ground and stabbed him three times.
As Segura ran inside the house, Sahota picked up the gun and ran after him. That’s when Feller, the first responding officer on the scene, arrived. He shot Sahota with his department-issued rifle, mistaking him for the armed robbery suspect and believing he was protecting the people inside the home.
Sahota was 52 and had spent 28 years in law enforcement, most recently working in the Vancouver Police Department’s armory.
In this case, the panel focused on the legal issue of whether Feller’s actions were in “good faith” and “necessary,” given what he knew in those moments and the scope of the Washington Law. For both particulars, they could not reach a consensus.
“Without question, the events leading up to Officer Sahota’s death were, at best, chaotic,” wrote Joanthan Meyer, the Lewis County prosecuting attorney and member of the panel.
Though the information coming from radio dispatch was sparse and haphazard, Feller knew there was an off-duty Vancouver officer at the scene who was armed. Sahota was dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans; he wasn’t wearing anything that indicated he was a police officer.
The review board noted that the description of the robbery suspect did not match Sahota’s appearance. Even in the dark of night, it was clear Sahota was not a “24 to 28 year old ‘darker-skinned’ white male with a white long sleeve shirt with a black undershirt, blue jeans, a white, flat-billed ball cap, glasses and shaggy hair,” as the last radio call relayed as Feller pulled into the Sahotas’ driveway.
Sahota had short hair and facial hair, and he was visibly much older than the man described over dispatch.
As such, Feller failed to properly identify the intended target before firing multiple times, the reviewers concluded.
Feller’s actions could have been justified, the prosecutors wrote, given that he believed there was an imminent threat to anyone inside the house.
The panel’s report added that two other Battle Ground police officers who were next on the scene said, in later interviews, they also believed Sahota to be the robbery suspect. One of them said he feared a hostage situation or barricaded subject when he saw the man heading for the door. The other Battle Ground officer said he had his rifle pointed at Sahota, too, when Feller said “show me your hands” and fired. That officer said he didn’t shoot because he didn’t have a clear shot.
But t The prosecutors put the ultimate blame on Segura and said his crimes could not be considered mutually exclusive from the tragic night’s outcomes. In fact, Segura caused the chain of events that led to Sahota’s death, they wrote.
“But for the actions of Segura, Officer Sahota would not have been shot to death on his own doorstep,” the report said.
Segura is already facing charges of first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, first-degree robbery and possession of a stolen vehicle.
Some members of the panel believed Feller should have taken the time to verify his target’s identity. Others concluded that, given the limited information Feller had, it was reasonable for him to believe lethal force was immediately necessary and that the man at the front door was the robbery suspect.
Segura is still in Clark County custody with a $5 million bail. A trial has not yet been scheduled; a few months ago, Segura’s defense asked the court for more time preparing the case.
Feller was on paid administrative leave from February to July of last year. He returned to work at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office as a fraud investigator – a desk job in the county’s major crimes unit.
“We continue to provide support to Deputy Feller through this review process,” the sheriff’s office wrote in a news release.
It’s not the first time Feller has been through this process.
Feller was among three Clark County deputies who fatally shot a drug-investigation suspect on Oct. 29, 2020, in Hazel Dell, an unincorporated community northwest of Vancouver. Kevin E. Peterson Jr., 21, of Camas died at the scene.
A similar review board of Washington state prosecutors concluded that Peterson’s shooting was “justified and lawful” because, they said, Peterson was armed, ignored commands and pointed a gun at the deputies.