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Unanswered Questions 

A citizens panel cleared the deputy who shot Wayne Scott Creach, but the slain pastor’s family isn’t convinced.

click to enlarge Imogene Creach standing in the bedroom where she heard her husband get shot and killed. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Imogene Creach standing in the bedroom where she heard her husband get shot and killed.

The family of slain pastor Wayne Scott Creach say they have even more questions after two Spokane County Sheriff’s internal review panels found that Deputy Brian Hirzel was “reasonable and justified in his use of force” during a nighttime encounter in the parking lot of Creach’s Spokane Valley home and business that left the 74-year-old man dead with a bullet to the chest last August.

As lawmakers consider legislation inspired by Creach’s death, his family says their decision to file suit against the county is imminent.

But Chuck Parker, a Spokane elementary school teacher who headed one of those panels — a 12-member citizen advisory board that reviewed the matter for more than a month — says the process worked.

“I want to reiterate: We felt this is a very tragic incident and our sympathies go out to the Creach family. Nobody wants to have that happen,” Parker says of Creach’s death. “That’s why the 12 people on the board acted openly and honestly and we asked lots of questions. And when we were done, we felt the sheriff was transparent and honest with us.”

Alan Creach, Scott Creach’s son who has become the family spokesman, says he fails to see the transparency.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich “has talked about truth and transparency, but none of those boards came and talked to us about anything,” Alan Creach says. “I didn’t even know there was a citizens advisory board until I saw the press release.”

And, he adds, the news release came out of the blue. “It ticked me off,” he says. “You’d think a guy could at least call you about what it’s going to say. Then I get bombed by all the news reporters calling. I was surprised, and didn’t think it appropriate.”

In a late-April press release, the sheriff announced that two review panels — a deadly force review board and the citizen advisory board — had each concluded that Hirzel acted appropriately last summer when he shot and killed Creach.

On Aug. 25, Hirzel was in his dark blue, unmarked patrol car in the parking lot of Creach’s nursery, the Plant Farm, when Creach approached him carrying a handgun and a flashlight.

Hirzel’s use of an unmarked car on patrol and parking on private property, Alan Creach contends, are illegal and contributed to his father’s death.

“Dad didn’t go out there thinking it was an officer. Dad went out there thinking he had a thief out there,” he says.

“The only reason this happened is because that officer intruded into private space where he was not authorized to be.

“No one questions the facts that officers are stressed at times, and that their lives are in danger at times,” Alan Creach continues. “But to make the assumption that everyone they meet is a threat…” There is nothing reasonable, he says, about his elderly father being shot dead on his own property by a law officer who was not responding to any call from the property.

The shooting has even reached Olympia, where last week state Reps. Matt Shea and Larry Crouse, R-Spokane Valley, introduced House Bill 2113, which would restrict unmarked law enforcement vehicles on private property. The bill is not expected to be discussed until next session.

Numerous attempts to reach Shea went unanswered.

But in a Tuesday press release, Shea says Scott Creach “should not have been killed while protecting his own property. … In the interest of safety and private-property rights, I think unmarked police cars should not be parked on private property while the officer is doing administrative functions or routine reports.”

“We were never told we couldn’t [talk to the family]. We chose not to. We didn’t want any commentary.”

— Chuck Parker, sheriff’s citizen advisory board

County officials, including the sheriff and the prosecutor, say unmarked cars are clearly legal and are often quickly recognized as police vehicles because of push-bars, spotlights and multiple antennas. A parking lot for a business that’s not gated off is “open access” they say, similar to a grocery store’s parking lot.

Alan Creach cites two differences: a sign announcing the business was closed, and that it’s not a one- or two-acre paved, lighted lot attached to a busy big-box retailer.

Parker says he and the other 11 members of the citizen advisory board all volunteered to review the Creach shooting. The panel did not have powers akin to a grand jury so could not consider new evidence. He says they were given the 733-page investigative

report compiled by Spokane Police detectives on Feb. 14, they reviewed it for two weeks and then they met in early March for discussion.

“We all brought questions and thoughts. We put together a substantial list of questions we wanted extra answers for, and people we’d like to talk to,” Parker says.

At the citizen advisory board’s regular monthly meeting on March 14, they met with city detectives who were involved with the investigation, as well as sheriff’s experts, on use of force, training and other policy questions.

“It was pretty intense. They gave us very thorough information. When we left there, I think we were all very comfortable with the information we received,” Parker says.

That’s part of the problem, Alan Creach contends.

The reports are based largely on Hirzel’s account of events. There are no other witnesses. Detectives had to wait nine days before they could interview Hirzel because he was allowed to take a scheduled vacation after the shooting. Knezovich has since changed that policy.

Alan Creach and others say Hirzel’s own statements show that Scott Creach, while indisputably armed, was not acting in a threatening way.

“Hirzel’s own testimony says a citizen approached, he did have a gun at his side, was half-dressed, but says the person never pointed the gun at him and never threatened him,” Alan Creach says.

According to interview transcripts, Hirzel also told detectives that he did consider the elder Creach’s behavior to be threatening because he didn’t stop advancing when ordered, and that Hirzel drew his own weapon in alarm. Scott Creach, according to Hirzel’s interview transcripts, walked right up to Hirzel’s window, then put the pistol in the back waistband of his pants and stepped away from the car.

Alan Creach says it seems clear to him that once his father got past the patrol car’s spotlight, he recognized, for the first time, an officer in uniform, and put his gun away. The spotlight was on when other officers arrived — but Hirzel, under questioning, said he did not turn it on and doesn’t know how or when it came to be on. He was not asked about it further.

The biggest question the Creaches have is whether their dad, after repeated commands to get down and put the gun down, reached for the gun in his waistband to surrender it.

Hirzel told detectives that when he saw the older man begin to pull the pistol out of his back waistband, he was in fear for his life and fired one shot into Scott Creach’s bare chest from about five feet away. Creach crumpled to the ground and was later pronounced dead in the parking lot.

The volunteers on the citizens panel, which was formed by former Sheriff Mark Sterk, range in age from 30s to 70s, Parker says, and are almost evenly divided between men and women.

“We are a sounding board,” Parker says. “[The sheriff] brings things to us on a variety of topics if he has questions or concerns and is looking for how the community feels.”

When it came to reviewing Hirzel’s actions, as outlined in the SPD investigation, board members had questions about the nine-day delay in interviewing the deputy, and about the final sequence.

“We were given complete permission to ask any question. And we did. The Creach family was taken into consideration,” Parker says. “We felt this was a horrible tragedy.”

But the group felt that to remain impartial, it focused only on the investigative materials, Parker says.

“We were never told we couldn’t [talk to the family]. We chose not to. We didn’t want any more commentary,” Parker says.

The review was limited to SPD’s investigation and sheriff’s policy, he adds.

Knezovich says a final segment of the internal review is still underway — the Sheriff’s Office of Professional Standards will try to answer a list of about 70 questions they have gleaned from the family. Until this segment of the review is final, Knezovich says he will not release the findings of the deadly-force review board.

“Until we have those questions answered, it is sort of like we have an active police investigation and you don’t want certain things out there,” Knezovich says.

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