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The Billings Gazette
By GREG TUTTLE Of The Gazette Staff
Published on Friday, August 24, 2007. Last modified on 8/24/2007 at 3:46
The first day of the inquest into the fatal March 18 standoff between dozens of officers and Taylor at his home at 1341 Naples St. included testimony from 19 witnesses, including numerous city officers who described the situation as among the most dangerous they have faced.
“I’ve never been shot at,” Sgt. Neil Lawrence told the seven-member inquest jury. “I was very scared when it happened.”
Despite taking gunfire from a darkened house, officers remained calm throughout the six-hour standoff, refrained from returning fire even when the gunman briefly showed himself at a window, and worked to secure the safety of residents in the area even as bullets smashed into nearby homes and vehicles, several witnesses said.
“We’re pretty fortunate nobody in the neighborhood got hit,” said Officer Steve Hallam.
One resident, Nathan Daem, said he was stopped by a police officer as he walked home around midnight. The officer told Daem he would have to find a safer way to his house. Just then, a gunshot sounded, Daem said. The bullet struck somewhere nearby.
“I can honestly say I’ve never been that scared in my life,” Daem said.
Taylor’s estranged girlfriend, Gail Rogeness, also testified Thursday, describing how her 10-year relationship with Taylor had come to a volatile end in the weeks before the standoff. Rogeness had recently moved out of the home she bought with Taylor, she said, and she described his behavior as threatening and erratic. She said Taylor had a “constant obsession with guns,” and owned several weapons he usually kept locked in a closet.
Taylor, 41, was also drinking heavily – as much as a half-gallon of whiskey in a day, he told one officer – and was mixing the alcohol with antidepressants. Officers had been to Taylor’s house several times in the days before he was killed, witnesses said.
The inquest is scheduled to continue today, with testimony expected from Officer Shawn Mayo, the SWAT team member who ended the standoff when he fired at Taylor from a nearby rooftop. A pathologist and an expert in police tactics also are expected to testify.
The jury of six women and one man will deliberate at the end of the hearing, rending an advisory verdict on whether the police shooting was justified. A Police Department internal review found in May that the shooting was justified by department policy.
A coroner’s inquest is required whenever someone is killed by a law enforcement officer. Prosecutors present evidence at the hearing, much like a criminal trial, but there is no defense attorney or cross-examination of witnesses. Jurors at an inquest are also allowed to ask questions of witnesses.
Big Horn County Coroner Terry Bullis presided over the hearing Thursday. Bullis will not be available today, and a coroner from another county will be brought in to oversee today’s proceedings.
Detective Blake Richardson was among the witnesses Thursday who described the voluminous evidence collected from the scene of the shooting, including bullet fragments found embedded in houses, vehicles and strewn across the neighborhood.
Richardson said the investigation determined Taylor fired 25 times, with the bullets passing through the interior and exterior walls of the house. Jurors were shown large cutaway sections of the walls peppered with bullet holes.
Using a “trajectory kit,” Richardson said he determined that most of the bullets were fired from the living room, most likely from a seated position at a small couch on the opposite side of the room from the front window. Taylor’s body was found seated on the couch, the semi-automatic pistol on the floor at his feet.
A police scanner tuned to the department’s main radio frequency was still on when officers entered the house after Taylor was killed, Richardson said. Near the scanner were two pistol magazines. The Glock pistol found at Taylor’s feet was not loaded.
Officer Matthew Brewer told jurors he was among the first officers sent to Taylor’s house in response to a call Taylor made to dispatchers shortly before midnight. Taylor told the dispatchers he had a weapon and feared he would harm himself.
Just one day earlier, two officers had visited Taylor’s house at the request of Rogeness, who called police when Taylor said he had shot her dogs. Officers Jordan Aguilar and Harley Cagle said Taylor was extremely intoxicated and handed over a loaded pistol while they were talking. Taylor was taken to the hospital, and the officers later put out a warning to other officers to use caution with the man.
Several officers gave similar accounts of approaching Taylor’s darkened house the following night. Brewer said he was concerned enough to call a supervisor before knocking on the door.
“I’m thinking ambush,” Brewer said.
Instead of approaching the front door, Brewer and four other officers backed away from the house, Brewer said. They were near the driveway when a string of about 10 bullets were fired in their direction. The officers scrambled for cover and radioed for help.
Taylor fired sporadically throughout the night. Efforts to contact Taylor by a police negotiator, Detective Rick Ballantyne, were unsuccessful until Taylor called a police dispatcher at about 5:25 a.m., Ballantyne said. The call was transferred to Ballantyne, who said no progress toward a peaceful resolution was made during the ensuing 16-minute conversation.
“We really gave it our best shot to do it in a peaceful manner,” Ballantyne said. “We really did.”
Taylor hung up on the officer.
When it was clear negotiations were over, and as dawn was quickly approaching, officers decided to try to force Taylor out with tear gas. Brewer, who is also a member of the SWAT team, said he fired 11 canisters of gas into the house. One canister is enough to clear the small courtroom at the county jail where the hearing is being held in about 20 seconds, Brewer said.
Instead of leaving the house, Taylor again opened fire in the direction of officers, witnesses said. Mayo ended the standoff a few minutes later when he fired twice at Taylor, striking him once in the head.