By Maxine Bernstein The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Videos from inside the CityTeam Ministries homeless shelter show John A. Elifritz, a knife in his right hand, running toward police officers before they shot and killed him on the night of April 7.
Elifritz collapsed about 15 to 20 feet from officers in the Southeast Portland shelter, his hands beneath him. When a sergeant rolled him over, a folding knife with a 3.5-inch blade dropped from his right hand. He had no pulse.
The shelter’s video images and 681 pages of police reports released Friday fill in some of the questions surrounding the high-profile shooting that culminated an afternoon-long crime spree by Elifritz, 48.
A group of officers initially stood with weapons drawn at the open door to the shelter on Southeast Grand Avenue after they received reports that a man armed with a knife had burst in and was threatening others.
Central Precinct Sgt. Roger Axthelm arrived, ordered the officers to “push in, push in” and they formed a semi-circle around Elifritz, who was cornered on the southeast side of the room.
Axthelm said he ordered officers, “Get in there and, you know, close the door.”
People attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting inside the shelter described chaotic, fear-filled moments as they scrambled to get away from the man with the knife while at the same time get out of the range of police guns.
One man attending the meeting said Elifritz walked in wearing jeans and no shirt and appeared “tweaked out.” Another witness said Elifritz was yelling, “I need a blanket or a jacket” as meeting attendees told him to “quiet down.” Elifritz grabbed a blue jacket from a donation barrel near the shelter’s entrance.
Elifritz paced inside by the front door of the shelter for several minutes, then pulled a knife from his back jean’s pocket and placed it to his throat, saying, “I’m gonna kill myself. I’m gonna kill everybody in here.”
The knife handle was black with an extended silver blade, witnesses told police.
Once officers had moved inside, they repeatedly shouted commands to drop the knife, as an agitated police dog barked loudly.
Two minutes and 46 seconds elapsed between the time Elifritz entered the shelter and ran toward police and was shot.
Officers initially fired six less-lethal rounds at Elifritz, then at 8 p.m. fired one more less-lethal round at the same time as lethal shots. Two more less-lethal rounds followed.
Two Portland officers fired all the nine less-lethal .40 millimeter rubber rounds. Five other Portland officers and one Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy fired at least 15 lethal rounds from their AR-15 rifles, a shotgun, a 9mm handgun and a .40-caliber handgun, according to police reports.
Elifritz had the knife at waist level in front of him when he ran at officers, they told investigators. Portland Officers Brad Nutting, Kameron Fender and Chad Phifer fired their rifles; Officer Alexander Martiniuc fired the shotgun and Officer Andy Polas and sheriff’s Deputy Aaron Sieczkowski fired handguns.
Elifritz suffered nine gunshot wounds. He was hit in the thigh, finger, wrist, shoulder, clavicle and twice in the chest and twice in the abdomen, an autopsy found. Deputy state medical examiner Cliff Nelson concluded, “The combination of gunshot wounds to the chest was fatal.” Nelson also found a deep wound on one side of Elifritz’s neck and three superficial cuts on the other side.
The police reports didn’t include toxicology reports, but a police source said the results showed a significant amount of methamphetamine in Elifritz’s system.
“This was happening so incredibly quickly, it wasn’t like we were able to make a plan at the beginning,” said police Officer Shawn Gore, who took his police dog Jasko into the shelter. “This happened so much faster than we would have liked that that plan wasn’t made.”
When Gore entered, he heard other officers yelling, “Drop the knife!” He also heard one officer shout out, “less lethal” and what sounded like a less-lethal gun being fired.
He said he told officers to surround Elifritz. “I wanted us to basically encircle the suspect because if we didn’t, he had access to all of these people and I felt that he could kill someone with the knife that he had and the state that he was in.”
The Police Bureau had just switched to the .40mm rubber rounds a week earlier and they didn’t appear to have any effect on Elifritz, Axthelm told investigators. One witness said he saw rubber rounds bounce off Elifritz, others bounce off a wall.
Officer Grover Robinson said he saw Elifritz pacing inside the shelter. “He had this look on his face that you know, you know dead stare.”
Officer Tim Ferguson said it appeared Elifritz was “just shrugging” the less-lethal rounds off. He said he tried to get people out who were jammed along a wall in the shelter, but they said there was nowhere for them to go safely.
Axthelm stood with officers gathered in a U-shape around Elifritz. He didn’t have his gun or Taser drawn. He described the moment he saw Elifritz rush toward officers.
“And then he started – coming chargin’ toward ’em, and then I heard the shots go out. He fell to the ground,” Axthelm said.
Axthelm said he heard one less-lethal round fired after the lethal rounds and told an officer, “Fire one more round at him” to see if officers would get a reaction from Elifritz.
With no reaction, Axthelm and other officers walked up to him. They found Elifritz face down and rolled him on his side. Elifritz was bleeding heavily from his chest and face.
“His hand swept out which kicked out a knife, which was a folding knife,” Axthelm said. “If I remember right, it had (a) circular thumb throw on it. And knife blade was open, kicked it out. ”
Axthelm said he saw an officer either reaching down or looking to kick the knife and he told him, “Leave it there. It stays there. Just leave it where it’s at.”
Axthelm allowed medics to enter to declare Elifritz dead, then ordered the officers who fired shots to be separated from the officers who were witnesses.
One man who had watched the shooting unfold told investigators, “It looked like he was gonna run at the policeman and next thing you know it was bam, bam, bam and the guy was on the ground and they told us to get out. That was it. I didn’t look back.”
The police reports redacted the names of witnesses who were attending the Alcohol Anonymous meeting.
Civilian witnesses were taken by bus to the Multnomah Building for interviews. Officers who fired shots were first led to an upstairs room in the shelter, while officers who witnessed the shooting were placed on a bus.
A Multnomah County grand jury earlier this month found no criminal wrongdoing by the officers. Elifritz’s ex-wife and 12-year-old daughter have filed a federal lawsuit, alleging police used excessive force.
None of the officers who fired their weapons were interviewed by homicide detectives, but likely testified before the grand jury and were ordered to be interviewed by internal affairs investigators. A transcript of their testimony hasn’t been released yet.
Police said before Elifritz ended up at the homeless shelter he was suspected in an attempted carjacking, then a successful carjacking and a road-rage encounter. He crashed the stolen car near the shelter.
(Noelle Crombie and Brad Schmidt of The Oregonian/OregonLive contributed to this report.)
©2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)