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Saturday, November 10, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bellevue officer had reason to fear in fatal police shooting, inquest jury says

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Bellevue Police Officer Mike Hetle had reason to believe his life was in danger when he fatally shot domestic-violence suspect Nelson Martinez in August, an inquest jury ruled yesterday.

But one juror said the six-member panel had concerns about the controversial shooting that couldn't be answered in the limited yes-or-no format of the inquest.

"We had a lot of discussion about the question of whether Officer Hetle thought his life was in danger and I can speak for the entire jury," said Deborah Nelson of Seattle. "We all felt limited by the narrow scope of that question."

Whether the Aug. 8 shooting was justified will now be determined after two separate, simultaneous investigations by the four-person Bellevue Police Department shooting review board and the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

The weeklong inquest was only a limited fact-finding procedure.

Martinez was fleeing the scene of an alleged domestic-violence dispute with his cousin at the Palisades apartment complex in Bellevue when he encountered Hetle in the parking lot. Hetle shot Martinez after a confrontation.

After listening to 21 witnesses testify, inquest jurors were asked to answer 16 questions. Only one dealt with whether Hetle had reason to pull the trigger: "Would Officer Hetle have had a reason to be fearful that Nelson Martinez posed a threat of death or serious bodily harm to Officer Hetle at the time he fired his weapon?"

All six jurors answered yes.

Nelson was the only juror to comment after the verdict. The others left soon after the 3-1/2 hours of deliberation.

Rolf DeDamm, one of three attorneys representing the Martinez family, said he was not surprised or even disappointed by the jurors' decision, given the narrow focus of the questions they were asked.

DeDamm said he expects to file a wrongful-death lawsuit against Hetle and the city of Bellevue next year.

"There are many more details that will be brought into the equation then," he said.

For example, DeDamm questioned Hetle's documented contentious dealings with two motorists as well as his psyche after another fatal shooting less than a year earlier. In September 2000, Hetle exchanged gunfire with a bank-robbery suspect at a Bellevue Square cafe. That shooting was ruled justified.

The inquest also revealed that the Bellevue police dispatcher gave Hetle erroneous information that Martinez could be a repeat domestic-violence offender, which possibly increased Hetle's anxiety, DeDamm said.

"Police are allowed and required to carry firearms, and the possibility of death is paramount to their job description," DeDamm said. "Then we have to raise the operational standards of how the police executes its job."

Attorneys representing the Police Department and Hetle argued that he acted within the parameters of a police officer's job description, given the stressful, fast-moving circumstances. Only 25 seconds passed from the moment Hetle heard the suspect's description to the moment he fired.

In between, the jury agreed, Martinez fled the potential crime scene. Hetle stopped Martinez' car with his police cruiser, got out of his vehicle and commanded Martinez, in English, to get out of the car and then, in Spanish, to raise his hands.

Martinez, a Guatemala national, did not comply and began to reach for something in his waistband. A search later showed it was probably his wallet. Hetle, four to six feet away, according to forensic evidence, thought his life was in danger and fired twice.

"If Officer Hetle had known he was reaching for a wallet, he would never have shot him," said Anne Bremner, the attorney representing the Bellevue Police Department. "There are times when police officers have a duty to use deadly force."

And that will be the focus of the department's review board, made up of a deputy police chief, the patrol and training commanders, and the department's legal adviser. They will consider Hetle's actions with respect to the department's very specific policies and training procedures regarding the use of deadly force.

Chief James Montgomery will decide what disciplinary action, if any, Hetle faces.

Meanwhile, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng expects to announce in the next two weeks whether his department's investigation determines criminal charges against Hetle are warranted, said his spokesman Dan Donohoe.

Hetle has not volunteered information about the incident since the shooting, invoking his right to remain silent. He did not testify at the inquest and remains on paid administrative leave.

The review board could order Hetle to speak, but under law that would be considered a coerced statement; those statements could not be used in any criminal proceedings against Hetle.

Michael Ko can be reached at 206-515-5653 or mko@seattletimes.com.

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