|Donald Frank Smith|
Special to the Tribune
The Yavapai County Attorney's Office has declined to file charges against Prescott Valley police officers in the April 17 shooting death of 54-year-old Donald Frank Smith.
The decision came after the office reviewed an Arizona Department of Public Safety Special Investigation Unit report on the shooting that occurred after Smith came at three officers with a knife during a physical domestic violence call in the 5200 block of Stetson Drive.
"These types of situations too often end in tragedy, and Donald Smith's death is no exception," Dennis McGrane, chief deputy Yavapai County Attorney, wrote in his letter to the DPS detective who led the investigation into the shooting. "However, upon review of the case file, it is readily apparent that no evidence exists to indicate any wrongdoing on the part of the involved officers from the Prescott Valley Police Department."
Smith's widow, Cheryl Meloche, who was the victim of the original domestic violence incident, said she feels differently.
"The three officers had vests and guns. My husband had a steak knife," Meloche said Wednesday. "They shot him six times. I don't know how they think it was justified."
When Meloche called 911, she said she hoped police would calm her husband down. She never thought Smith would be killed.
"My life changed in a New York second," Meloche said.
By 3:57 p.m. on April 17, three officers answered a 911 call from Meloche who said her husband grabbed her by the hair, pulled her to the floor, threatened her with a taser and told her he was going to kill her, said Sgt. Brandon Bonney, spokesman for the Prescott Valley Police Department.
According to the DPS shooting investigation report, Smith and Meloche had argued the night before over financial and personal issues. The next morning, Smith taught an alcohol awareness class and Meloche visited a friend.
When Meloche returned to the home, Smith, who had been drinking beer earlier and was intoxicated, attacked her and said he was going to get a knife to cut her tongue out, according to the report.
"'Smitty' had never been violent to me before," Meloche said. "When he threw me on the floor, threatened me, I was scared for my life. That was not the Smitty I know. When he went to the kitchen to get a knife, I knew I had to leave and ran out the door."
Meloche ran to a neighbor's home and called 911.
Smith followed her to the neighbor's home and knocked on the door, but they refused to answer, and he left, Bonney said.
According to the DPS report, two people also told officers that about two months before the shooting, Smith had told them that if police ever came to his home, he would "take out" as many police officers as he could by stabbing them.
Dispatch called Smith at his home and noticed he sounded intoxicated, but Smith claimed he was someone else and said that Smith had left the home 10 minutes earlier, Bonney said. Dispatchers repeatedly called back, but kept getting a busy signal.
At 3:59 p.m., a lieutenant arrived and determined there was probable cause to arrest Smith, so Sgt. Jake Jackson knocked on windows to the bedroom, family room and near the front door, identifying himself as a police officer and requesting that Smith come outside, but he received no response, according to the DPS report.
Officer Keven O'Hagan saw Smith's two dogs inside the home, realized he couldn't send his K-9 inside the home and brought the K-9 back to his patrol car.
While Officer Tyran Payne got a key to the home, Jackson and O'Hagan heard a fire alarm go off inside.
The lieutenant parked his patrol vehicle in the driveway, activated the flashing lights, and asked Smith to leave the home or answer the phone over a public address system for about 10 minutes, but received no response.
When Payne used the key to open the front door, he felt pressure on the lock as if someone held the lock on the inside to prevent it from opening, according to the DPS investigation report.
"There's somebody behind the door," Payne told Jackson.
Payne pushed the door open with his foot and saw Smith just three and a half feet away holding a knife in his hand at eye level in a downward stabbing position, Bonney said.
O'Hagan yelled "Knife, knife, knife!" and tried to deploy his taser at Smith, but it malfunctioned as the cartridge shot forward, but not the taser probes, and separated from the taser, according to the DPS report.
Smith charged at officers with the knife, while officers repeatedly told Smith to drop the knife and backed away from him, Bonney said.
Smith continued to advance toward the officers who were convinced he was going to stab or critically injure one of them, according to the DPS report.
Jackson and Payne, fearing for their lives, fired several shots at Smith, who dropped the knife and fell to the ground backward into the threshold of his home, according to the DPS report.
"Training shows that an officer with less than 21 feet between them and a person with an edged weapon can be killed before they can defend themselves," Bonney said. "The officers had only three to four feet between them and Smith. They were trying to back up to create a safe distance between them, but unfortunately Smith advanced on them quicker."
Officers told dispatch there was an officer-involved shooting, requested immediate medical assistance, and rendered aid to Smith, Bonney said.
While the officers tried to help Smith, he told them "I just want to (expletive) die - why don't you just leave me alone and let me die," Bonney said.
When an officer asked Smith why he came at them with a knife, he told them he had been fighting with his wife and just wanted to die, Bonney said.
At 4:19 p.m., Central Yavapai Fire began treating Smith. By 4:30 p.m., Native Air flew Smith to Flagstaff Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 5:22 p.m. from multiple gunshot injuries to the chest, torso, hip, forearm and hand.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Smith chose that outcome," Bonney said. "Officers took all precautions to save him and prevent this outcome, but they had to react to the threat he presented."
McGrane also wrote that "Mr. Smith simply would not comply and forced Sgt. Jackson and Officer Payne to discharge their firearms, because Mr. Smith would not obey repeated commands to drop his knife. By failing to do so, Mr. Smith placed all three approaching officers in reasonable apprehension that each was going to be stabbed if they did not act with immediate and appropriate force."
"Therefore, the evidence shows that Sgt. Jackson and Officer Payne's actions in discharging their firearms at Mr. Smith were a justifiable response to an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon being committed by Mr. Smith upon themselves as well as upon their fellow officers including Officer O'Hagan," McGrane wrote.