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By Everton Bailey Jr. | The Oregonian/OregonLive The Oregonian
on April 11, 2015 at 6:00 AM, updated April 11, 2015 at 9:15 AM
Colton man with hatchet fatally shot by Clackamas County deputies
Clackamas County deputies fatally shot Bruce L. Steward, 34, on Feb. 15 at a home in the 29700 block of South Wall Street after he allegedly approached deputies while holding a hatchet and refused to drop the weapon. Pictured is the front of the driveway leading to the home where deputies responded.
A Colton man fatally shot by Clackamas County deputies when he approached them with a hatchet and knife in February had battled depression throughout his life and likely wanted to end his life after being accused of child sex abuse, police reports indicate.
In a rare decision, the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office found that Bruce Steward’s manner of death amounted to suicide. Dr. Karen Gunson, the state’s chief medical examiner, said she can remember only two or three other cases in 30 years when the office made a similar ruling.
Authorities point to Steward’s monthslong downward slide, including his own attempts to kill himself at least twice. Steward, 34, also talked about provoking police into killing him and lured deputies to his mother’s Colton home for that purpose, investigators said.
“Under the totality of the circumstances, I do not find evidence that a crime of homicide has occurred,” said Clackamas County Senior Deputy District Attorney Michael Regan in a memo on the case. The county DA’s Office decided against presenting the shooting to a grand jury for further investigation because of the suicide ruling.
Dain Eichel, Steward’s uncle, said the 34-year-old “just never had a chance at life.”
Eichel as well as other family members and friends interviewed by police claimed Steward was molested and abused as a child, had an unstable childhood and that his depression crippled him.
Steward was making progress to improve his life two months before he died, including attending mental health counseling twice a week, said Eichel, 56, of Damascus.
But Steward was “clearly disturbed” when he learned that one of the mothers of his children had filed a report with the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services accusing him of raping her teenage daughter.
Steward learned of the allegations two days before police shot him.
“We’ll never know why he did what he did and I don’t know if this claim against him was true,” Eichel said. “But he was a good human being with the potential to offer a lot to other people. It was just a situation where we were just too late to help him.
It was about 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 15, a Sunday, when Bruce Steward called 911 to report that a man had a gun and that someone had been stabbed, according Canby police who reviewed the shooting.
Steward gave the address of his mother’s house, a 1.3-acre property in the 29700 block of Wall Street, and described the armed man as outside the home wearing a black hoodie and green cargo pants.
The description matched what Steward was wearing at the time. He hung up 30 seconds into the call and emergency dispatchers couldn’t reach him again, the police report said.
County deputies and Molalla police officers soon gathered at the Colton Market on the opposite end of the street. A half-hour after the 911 call, seven deputies broke into two groups and approached the home.
One group of three cut though neighboring property, skirted a fence line and first encountered Steward. He was outside holding a foot-long hatchet in one hand and a 7 ½- inch serrated knife in the other. The second group went through the woods down a trail near the property’s long gravel driveway.
At least one of the deputies from the first group told Steward to drop the hatchet and another radioed asking if anyone had a less-lethal weapon to use on Steward, according to the police report. But Steward walked up the driveway toward the second group of deputies in the woods.
Steward ignored an air horn and repeated orders by deputies to drop his weapons and stop walking. He did stop briefly before continuing to approach the four deputies with the hatchet and knife. He was 15 to 25 feet away from the second group when three of the deputies fired, investigators said.
Deputy Mark Nikolai fired once with a rifle, Deputy Scott McBride fired at least three rounds with a handgun and Deputy Joshua Eagle fired his handgun twice. Steward was hit three times: one bullet went in his neck and out his chest, another hit one arm and was found in one of his lungs and the third went through his other arm, the autopsy results showed.
Steward died at the scene with $1.35 in change and his driver’s license in his pants pocket, according to police reports. Authorities did not find the stabbing victim mentioned in the 911 call.
The boyfriend of Steward’s mother told investigators that he could see Steward from the kitchen window walking quickly up the gravel driveway toward the deputies and heard them warn Steward about six times to drop the blades. Steward’s mother was in the shower when the shooting occurred.
Deputy Nikolai told investigators that Steward appeared to be “walking with a mission right towards” them. Deputy Eagle said he and others tried to get Steward to surrender when he paused briefly. Nikolai said he asked Steward his name and told him, “Hey man, you don’t have to do this. It doesn’t have to end this way.”
The deputies said it was clear their words had no effect on Steward. When he kept coming, they fired.
Eagle initially drew his Taser, but later dropped it in favor of his gun because he was concerned the probes could get caught on brush in the woods or wouldn’t go through Steward’s hoodie. In hindsight, he told investigators that a beanbag-loaded shotgun would have been the best option, but none of the deputies had one with them.
In police interviews, Steward’s aunt, a longtime friend and his most recent ex-girlfriend describe Steward as nonviolent man who enjoyed playing World of Warcraft, collected knives and swords and had mental struggles that spiraled out of control during the last two months of his life after a breakup.
The friend, Grady Brown of Vancouver, told police that Steward claimed sometime before his death that he spent 20 hours a day thinking of different ways to kill himself. Brown said he didn’t think Steward meant to hurt anyone when he encountered the deputies, but had gotten “to a point that it seemed like the best way to go out.”
Brown and Steward’s mother declined to comment for this story.
Steward had four children with three different women, according to the police reports. He also helped raise another child from one of the three women.
Steward’s most recent girlfriend told investigators they broke up in November or December and didn’t have any children together. She told investigators that Steward texted her a picture of pills and alcohol in December and threatened to kill himself.
Another ex-girlfriend told police Steward had tried to slit his wrists in December. He also drove to the Barton Park boat ramp in Damascus that same month and tried overdosing on pills, police said.
Eichel, Steward’s uncle, said his nephew had called his mother’s boyfriend, told him he was at the boat ramp and that he wanted to tell everyone that he was sorry.
The boyfriend called 911 and then called Eichel. Eichel said he found Steward in his car and stayed with him as emergency workers revived him.
“I think we saved his life that day,” Eichel said.
After he was released from a hospital, Steward moved in with Eichel and his wife, Melody, in Damascus. The aunt told police that Steward had been living in his car after his recent breakup.
Steward began attending counseling soon after and was taking prescribed antidepressants every morning, said Melody Eichel, who attended the twice-weekly mental health sessions with her nephew.
During one of his sessions, Steward mentioned getting a toy gun and having police shoot him, she said. He also told his counselor that he felt like killing himself daily, but wasn’t going to act on those emotions, she said.
Steward appeared to have been doing well, his uncle said. “He was just so thankful for the time he spent with us,” Dain Eichel said. “He was smiling again.”
Yet in January, Steward mentioned during a Facebook conversation with his brother’s girlfriend that he was getting worse and thought about provoking a police officer, according to the DA’s memo.
“I’m dying inside more and more every day,” Steward wrote in the message.
Steward learned of the child sex abuse accusations on Feb. 13 while at work in Vancouver, said Brown, his friend. Steward appeared stunned and claimed he didn’t know anything about the accusations, Brown told police.
Steward tried to overdose on Tylenol PM pills later that night and relatives took him to his mother’s house, police said.
“The accusations are what put him over,” Melody Eichel told investigators.
Before he died, detectives were just beginning to look into the abuse allegations. After he died, investigators reviewing the shooting searched Steward’s tablet and found pornography in his Internet history, including incest videos, according to a Clackamas County sheriff’s report.
Steward died of the gunshot to his chest, the autopsy showed, but the medical examiner also must determine the manner of death – distinct from the cause.
In fatal shootings involving police, it comes down to evidence found during the investigation tied to possible intent, such as a suicide note, a toy gun made to look real and the person’s background, said Karen Gunson, the state’s chief medical examiner.
“There have to be very, very clear and numerous indicators found that they intend to have the police aid them in a suicide attempt — it doesn’t have to do with the act itself,” Gunson said.
Steward had spoken to others of being killed by police and had tried to kill himself in the past, said Dr. Larry Lewman, the medical examiner who performed Steward’s autopsy and determined his manner of death. Though Steward was armed, he wasn’t lunging at the deputies or swinging the blades, Lewman said.
“It seemed to be very clear that this man wanted to die and was looking for the cops’ help,” Lewman said.
The DA’s memo said the evidence supported the medical examiner’s conclusion “that Mr. Steward acted in a purposeful manner on February 15, 2015 to cause his own death” and the deputies’ use of force was justified.
— Everton Bailey Jr.