by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & nvestigation continues into whether a shop clerk in North Idaho was justified in shooting a would-be robber to death the day after Christmas. Questions remain as to whether the robber was holding a gun or had put it in a waistband or pocket when the shooting started.

Kootenai County Sheriff's officials said this week that other recent crimes -- most notably a road-rage incident that elevated into a citizen's chase with gunshots and a woman run over and killed -- have taken attention away from the Dec. 26 robbery and shooting at Lew's Smoke Shop in Stateline, Idaho.

The Idaho cases are among a spate of incidents in the Spokane area that have people taking the law into their own hands. An elderly Spokane man fired two shots at burglars in his house last month and may have wounded one. Another Spokane man, apparently drunk, trained a rifle on two people he accused of being drug dealers. The people turned out to be a mother picking up her child from a friend's house.

A Kootenai County Sheriff's Department spokesman says investigators in the smoke shop shooting expect to forward autopsy and forensics evidence to the county prosecutor by Jan. 17. Prosecutor Bill Douglas says he is eager to review the evidence, which will include information about how the victim was shot.

"There are still a lot of unanswered questions," Douglas says. "We need to put it to a full review. We need to see whether or not the shooter was in imminent fear of death or great bodily harm -- that's the test that allows a person to use deadly force in self-defense.

"We need to know: One, was there an imminent threat? And two, was the force equal to the threat?"

"We are in the evidence-analysis portion of the investigation. We are comparing evidence to statements made by the store clerk," says Det. Brad Maskell, who is assisting Al March on the case. "We have to look at where the threat was and whether a threat existed."

A little before 8 o'clock on the evening of Dec. 26, a hooded man identified as 47-year-old Joseph Kalani Hatchie of Otis Orchards, Wash., entered the store, displayed a handgun and demanded money.

The clerk, Jeffrey Hayes, 47, of Post Falls, complied with the robber's demand for cash, then reached under the counter for a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol and fired 10 shots, killing Hatchie.

Hatchie's weapon turned out to be a pellet gun, and it was not loaded. Hatchie was revealed in the days after his death to have been a father of five, a former military policeman with no criminal record, jobless and facing eviction. His family has said they believe financial pressures drove Hatchie to commit robbery.

At a press conference after the shooting, Kootenai County Sheriff's Capt. Ben Wolfinger (the department's information officer) displayed the pellet gun in an array of other handguns to show local media that the pellet gun did not look like a toy but appeared to be a real weapon.

So was the clerk afraid for his life, one of the reporters asked Wolfinger. "Wouldn't you be?" Wolfinger replied.

This statement has raised hackles in Kootenai County's small criminal justice circles. "Does that statement raise or diminish the public expectation if [Hayes] will be charged or cleared?" Douglas asks. "We don't want to give the appearance that this was a righteous shooting before the investigation is done."

A source close to the investigation who requests anonymity says, "We don't have any evidence [at the time of the statement] and already we are out in public seemingly supporting the action. What that does is promote vigilante justice."

The answer as to whether or not Hayes' actions were justified rest largely upon his own statements to investigators.

The video surveillance system at Lew's had apparently stopped recording images on Dec. 20, nearly a week before the robbery. The video monitor continued to show images, Maskell says, but nothing was being stored on tape or disk. Detectives continue to search for a way to retrieve imagery and are also checking to see if any data was erased.

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