A nine-member jury unanimously deemed the May 29 shooting of Douglas Harper by Lewis and Clark County Deputy Matthew Reighard a noncriminal offense Tuesday.
Lewis and Clark County Coroner Mickey Nelson conducted a coroner’s inquest Tuesday to investigate the May death, which occurred after deputies responded to Moore Court off Canyon Ferry Road to perform a welfare check on Harper.
Harper was wanted in connection with the arson of his ex-girlfriend’s home in Musselshell County and multiple witnesses described the 62-year-old as suicidal and mentally unstable in the days prior to the incident.
Reighard, the second to last witness to testify, said that his use of force was prompted by, “The immediate threat and danger I was in from possibly being shot.”
Reighard was the first to arrive at the residence that day and video footage — shown twice in the court proceedings — show the deputy exiting his patrol vehicle and approaching Harper, all the while instructing him to show his hands.
“An individual’s hands and what’s in their hands is probably the most dangerous portion of a human body,” Reighard said in court. “He (Harper) would never raise both hands like I asked him.”
As Reighard continues to slowly approach the white 2000 Ford Expedition SUV, the footage shows an escalation in his tone as he realizes there is a semiautomatic handgun in the passenger seat of the vehicle.
“I’ve never been that loud in my life,” Reighard said in his testimony. “I just continued to give him commands to drop the firearm, to get his hands off the firearm.
“I next observed him, in my mind everything was slow, slowly move his hand over and grasp the handgun,” he said of Harper. “From that point, he started to raise the firearm … towards my direction.”
After Harper continued to refuse to comply with Reighard’s requests, Reighard shot six rounds into the vehicle, killing Harper.
The subsequent investigation into the incident revealed that Harper’s semiautomatic Smith & Wesson Sigma series handgun had five rounds left in the magazine. However, there was no bullet in the firing chamber at the time of the exchange with Reighard, meaning Harper would have had to manually load a bullet into the chamber in order to fire the weapon.
Butch Huseby, formerly second in command with the Montana Highway Patrol and currently an agent with the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, said this finding indicated Harper could be was probably committing “suicide by cop” at the time.
“To not have one (bullet) in the pipe is very suggestive of him trying to elicit a response from a law enforcement officer … knowing quite well he’s not ready to shoot that gun,” Huseby said of Harper, whose experience training for a reserve officer with the sheriff’s office and as a Vietnam veteran guaranteed he knew how to properly operate the firearm.
Bruce McDermott, another DCI agent who worked in the investigation, agreed.
He spoke with Harper’s ex-girlfriend Nov. 20 and during that interview, she told McDermott she believed Harper to be suicidal prior to the incident with Reighard.
“What stands out to me, she was saying that after that house was burned and for lack of a better term (Harper) went on the run … she fully expected that his vehicle would be found nearby or somewhere with him passed away inside from his own hand,” McDermott said.
Shawna LaRae Treib, whose father is Harper’s cousin, said she had a similar fear. She said she called him “Uncle Dougie” and that they had always been very close.
In her emotional testimony, Treib said that when Harper arrived at her parents’ house for Memorial Day weekend, “He was extremely agitated, scared and I just knew something bad was going on with him.”
She said he was saying things like, “I didn’t do anything wrong, it was nothing I did, I didn’t mean for it to happen.”
“I think he was referring to how he had set his girlfriend’s house on fire,” Treib said.
The day of the incident, Harper was at Treib’s house and, shortly before his death, asked her to tell his children he loved them, leading her to believe he was suicidal.
“He kept talking about his kids and so I told him you need to tell them that yourself, about how much you love them,” Treib said. “It was like he wanted me to pass on all this information about how much he loved them and how he was sorry.”
In addition to Reighard, Huseby, McDermott and Treib, six other witnesses testified Tuesday including Deputies Chris Cornish and Anthony Martin — who were the first to arrive at the scene with Reighard — and Sheriff Leo Dutton.
Dutton said that once he arrived on the scene, Reighard was relieved of his service weapon and complied with all the procedural tests required after an officer is involved in a shooting.
A psychological evaluation — required when any use of force by an officer results in a death — determined Reighard to be in good mental standing, Dutton said Tuesday.
“He was having an appropriate response to the situation that he was put into,” Dutton said. “He was mentally fit for duty.”
In June, an internal review board found that Reighard was justified in the shooting. Today’s inquest supported that finding.