Spokane widow sues Bonner County in federal court over fatal police shooting of her husband

A Spokane woman is suing Bonner County and the Bonner County Sheriff's Office in federal court over the fatal shooting of her husband roughly two years ago, alleging constitutional violations through excessive force, use of deadly force and inadequate training.

The widow's husband, Craig Johnson, was shot and killed by a Bonner County Sheriff's Sgt. Shawn Deem on Sept. 26, 2017, after deputies attempted to arrest him on a warrant for felony assault at a cabin in Coolin, Idaho. The deadly altercation originally stemmed from a welfare check that Robin, his wife, asked for.

click to enlarge Spokane widow sues Bonner County in federal court over fatal police shooting of her husband
Courtesy of Robin Andrews
Craig Johnson played in the local bands Citizen Swing and the Mayfield Four.
"Craig Johnson was wrongfully killed, and his wife, Plaintiff Robin Johnson, suffered the loss of the care, comfort, society and support of her husband, as well as emotional and mental trauma resulting from the death of her husband," the lawsuit, which was filed in late September, 2019, reads.

Bonner County Undersheriff Ror Lakewold, one of the defendants named in the lawsuit, did not respond to the Inlander's request for comment.

Here's the details of what happened, per the 42-page filing: On Sept. 24, 2017, Robin called the Bonner County Sheriff's Office to request a welfare check on Craig after she hadn't heard from him in 24 hours; they had gotten into a verbal altercation the night before. Gary Madden, the responding deputy, arrived at the cabin around midnight, after which Craig emerged on the cabin's upper deck, holding a firearm. Craig instructed Madden to leave the property and allegedly gestured towards the exit, while Madden aimed his own gun at Craig. After roughly a minute, Craig re-entered the cabin. Madden eventually contacted Robin about the encounter, telling her that Craig was "in a bad place" and that she should stay away to give him time to calm down.

Madden and another deputy worked to get a warrant to arrest Craig for felon in possession of a firearm, but were informed by dispatch that he had no prior criminal history. Instead, Madden got an arrest warrant for felony assault on an officer. An emergency response team — including two snipers and an armored BearCat vehicle — was also assembled with the approval of Bonner County Undersheriff Ror Lakewold.

On Sept. 25, Craig called the Bonner County Sheriff's Office, but his calls weren't answered or returned, according to the lawsuit. He also called Robin, who believed after the phone conversation that the "issues with her husband were resolving" and that he had made the necessary contacts with the Sheriff's Office to "resolve any misunderstandings related to" the welfare check. She planned to join Craig at the cabin in Coolin later that week. Law enforcement had not informed her of their intent to use a tactical team to arrest her husband and Craig was allegedly unaware of the arrest warrant.

The following morning, the team, who allegedly originally intended to talk Craig into surrendering and coming out, assembled outside the Coolin cabin, while a detective began calling Craig's phone. (A loudspeaker system was also utilized to address Craig.) At 8:41 am, Craig texted Robin: "Cops are here guns pointed at me thanks."

Craig, according to statements given to investigators by the involved deputies, eventually walked out of the cabin towards where Sgt. Deem and Deputy Ted Swanstrom — both snipers — were positioned by the treeline. He was allegedly holding a black pistol.

The deputies' accounts of the moments leading up to Craig's death differ slightly. Swanstrom, in one version, told investigators that Craig was pointing the pistol at him. In another version, he stated that Craig was holding the pistol in an "unusual way" with the grip facing him, prompting him to shout "drop the gun." Sgt. Deem, meanwhile claimed that Craig was pointing the gun at Swanstrom and was "aggressing" towards the deputy "pretty quick," prompting him to fire two rounds at him. In contrast, Swanstrom said that Craig was walking slowly towards him until he stopped when he identified himself as law enforcement.

At 8:50 am, dispatch received a report of "shots fired, suspect down." Craig later died en route to a hospital. An autopsy later shows that one bullet entered through Craig's right shoulder and exited through his left shoulder, while another hit him on the right side of his abdomen.
A news release from the Idaho State Patrol — the agency that spearheaded the investigation into the shooting — released three days after the shooting stated that Craig "exited his residence with a loaded handgun and confronted deputies by pointing a handgun at them, forcing them to respond with deadly force."

The lawsuit accuses Undersheriff Lakewold and one of the involved detectives of excessive force for their decision to use a tactical team to attempt to apprehend Craig.

"Based on the totality of the circumstances, the decision to utilize the [tactical team] to serve the arrest warrant on Johnson, was objectively unreasonable and constitutes excessive force," the filing reads. "The conduct of Craig Johnson that lead to the issuance of the arrest warrant was an isolated incident in which Craig Johnson was surprised at his private residence at midnight by an unexpected visitor."

"At the time the decision was made to deploy the [tactical team], Craig Johnson did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the general public," the filing adds, claiming that Craig was unaware of the arrest warrant, wasn't actively resisting arrest or attempting to flee, and had "cooperated with law enforcement" previously by making a phone call to the Sheriff's Office. "The use of the [tactical team], which included six armed officers in an armored tactical vehicle and two snipers hidden off the front door of the Johnson residence, is an overwhelming and excessive show of force for purposes of apprehending a suspect who posed no immediate threat to officers or the general public."

Both snipers Swanstrom and Deemed are also accused of excessive of force in the lawsuit.

"There is no credible evidence that Craig Johnson raised a gun in the direction of sniper Swanstrom," the filing states. "The angle of the entry/exit wounds shows Craig Johnson was not positioned so as to be aggressing towards sniper Swanstrom. Craig Johnson was not posing an immediate threat to the safety of officers at the time sniper Deem shot him through his side and across his back."

The lawsuit also claims that not only was the tactical team that tried to apprehend Craig short-staffed, but the team's stated goal was to "surround the home and attempt to talk Johnson" into surrendering, not to conduct a "breach." Additionally, the trained crisis negotiator on the team was not used to communicate with Craig, the lawsuit claims.

We've embedded the full filing below:

The lawsuit comes after Kootenai County Prosecuting Attorney Barry McHugh declined to file criminal charges against the deputy who shot Craig in August, 2018, arguing that the deadly force was justified. (He stood by his decision in a August, 2019, letter after family friends of Craig urged him to reconsider the case.) Previously, Robin sued the Idaho State Police, who initially refused to release their investigative records concerning the incident. 

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Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.