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Published: Friday, April 27, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

County cleared in fatal weed-control conflict

A judge tosses the suit in the case of a Verlot man who was shot after a conflict with a noxious weed inspector.

  • Dan Wasilchen

    Dan Wasilchen

VERLOT -- A federal judge has handed Snohomish County a big victory by throwing out a civil lawsuit filed in connection with a 2009 police shooting that left a Verlot man dead.
The county and its noxious weed inspector, Sonny Gohrman, were accused of violating Daniel Wasilchen's civil rights under various theories. They also were accused of negligence and breaking weed control laws.
A Snohomish County sheriff's deputy fatally shot Wasilchen, 44, outside his Verlot home May 29, 2009 after the Boeing worker refused to drop a gun and pointed the weapon at deputies and county workers.
The deadly encounter arose out of a heated dispute over knotweed.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robart on Wednesday denied the plaintiffs' motion to find in their favor without a trial. The judge went on to dismiss the lawsuit against the county and Gohrman. The deputy who killed Wasilchen was dropped from the lawsuit earlier.
The judge sided with the county and Gohrman on all fronts. He concluded that Wasilchen's constitutional rights weren't violated and Gohrman didn't break the state's noxious weed statute or breach any county policy to de-escalate the conflict.
"The county is pleased with the court's ruling. I think the judge's decision confirms that the actions of the county employees that day were consistent with the requirements of the law," said Jason Cummings, the county's chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney.
The judge's ruling may not be the last word.
Seattle attorney Ray Dearie said on Thursday that he plans to appeal the decision with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"My clients, Dan's mother and sister feel strongly about continuing to fight on behalf of Dan," Dearie said. "We will exhaust all measures we can to find justice."
Wasilchen, a Boeing worker and former U.S. Army Ranger, was working on refurbishing an old Jeep when his stepfather and uncle came by for a visit. Gohrman and a seasonal employee stopped across the street from the property. Gohrman said he intended to get an agreement that would allow his crew to come back in a few months and spray for knotweed, an invasive species.
The men weren't going to spray that day.
Wasilchen ordered Gohrman off the property. He eventually shoved the man.
Gohrman and his partner left and returned with sheriff's deputies.
The deputies testified that Wasilchen came outside with a handgun. They ordered him to drop the weapon more than once, but he continued to aim at the deputies, prosecutors wrote. The deputies testified that they were worried Wasilchen was going to shoot. Deputy Greg Rasar fired three rounds. Wasilchen was hit in the chest, arm and neck. He died at the scene.
"Wasilchen was shot and killed because he armed himself with a firearm, pointed it at law enforcement officers and refused to drop it when lawfully ordered to do so," Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Michael Held wrote in response to the civil lawsuit.
Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe concluded in 2010 that Rasar was legally justified in shooting Wasilchen. The deputy did everything he could to avoid lethal force, Roe said.
Wasilchen's family filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court.
The lawsuit alleged that the county-paid weed inspector violated Wasilchen's right against unreasonable search and seizure. Gohrman also was accused of violating the law when he returned to Wasilchen's property without a warrant.
Dearie argued that Gohrman provoked the violence by overstating his authority to deputies, and convincing them to join him in returning to Wasilchen's property.
Gohrman's employment history with Snohomish County came under fire as part of the federal lawsuit. Questions were raised about whether he was being properly supervised and whether he'd been adequately trained.
Gohrman has been the coordinator for the Snohomish County Noxious Weed Control Board since 1999. His salary is paid by the county, but he reports to the county-wide weed control board, a separate entity.
County attorneys successfully argued that Wasilchen's civil right's weren't violated because in part no county employee entered his property. The dispute and shooting happened on county right-of-way.
Wasilchen had no expectation of privacy in that area, the judge concluded. Gohrman didn't need to get a warrant because he wasn't searching any private property, Robart wrote. He also never attempted to seize or detain Wasilchen.
The evidence shows that Gohrman's goal was to speak with Wasilchen regarding future efforts to control noxious weeds. He wasn't there to spray weeds, the judge ruled.
"The court, however, need not reach the issues whether Mr. Gohrman acted improperly or whether the violent confrontation was reasonably foreseeable. The fatal deficiency with the plaintiffs' argument is that it neglects to establish any direct violation of Mr. Wasilchen's constitutional rights," Robart wrote in his 49-page ruling.
Robart also concluded that Gohrman's call to the deputies was reasonable as he was reporting an assault. The deputies also were justified in returning to Wasilchen's property to investigate a possible assault.
Robart also threw out a wrongful death claim, finding that his mother and sister weren't financially dependent on the slain man.
County officials on Thursday said that since the shooting the noxious weed program has been brought under the supervision of the county's Public Works Department. That change was in the works before the shooting and was not in response to the lawsuit, Cummings said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » PoliceHomicideVerlot

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