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Federal Way cop's second fatal shooting stirs emotional response

Shelly Stahl holds a poster of her son Jedidiah Waters during a vigil March 20 outside of the Regional Justice Center in Kent. Waters was shot and killed by a Federal Way police officer outside Walmart in July 2011. - Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror
Shelly Stahl holds a poster of her son Jedidiah Waters during a vigil March 20 outside of the Regional Justice Center in Kent. Waters was shot and killed by a Federal Way police officer outside Walmart in July 2011.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

The public inquest into a fatal Federal Way police shooting is drawing attention for being the officer's second fatal shooting within 12 months.

In both cases, questions have been raised about whether the officer went too far.

The latest shooting occurred in July 2011 at the Walmart parking lot on South 314th Street. Federal Way police were called after Jedidiah Waters, 29, was suspected of shoplifting.

Multiple witnesses described Waters running from police between cars in the parking lot. Federal Way Officer Matthew Leitgeb was among several police on the scene. Police yelled orders at Waters, who was carrying a plastic container, to stop.

Waters appeared to reach for an ankle holster containing a pistol, according to Leitgeb's official statement. Leitgeb fired 11 shots total at Waters, who died at the scene.

"I knew I was in danger of being shot by the male if I didn't act," said Leitgeb in his statement describing the shooting. "I continued to shoot at him until the male fell to the ground."

A county-ordered inquest into the shooting concluded Tuesday at the Regional Justice Center in Kent. An inquest is a public hearing of case facts, typically ordered in response to a death at the hands of law enforcement.

An inquest is neither a civil nor criminal trial. An inquest jury does not determine guilt or innocence. It is up to the King County Prosecutor's Office to pursue the case further after considering the jury's findings on whether the shooting victim posed an imminent threat.

At the inquest for the Waters shooting, the seven-member jury addressed 17 questions, based solely on evidence from the courtroom. Answers were given in a yes-no-unknown format. Two key questions yielded unanimous "unknown" answers from the jury:

• Did Officer Leitgeb fire his weapon at Jedidiah Waters while Mr. Waters was lying on the ground?

• Did Officer Leitgeb continue to fire his weapon at Jedidiah Waters after Officer Leitgeb no longer perceived Mr. Waters' behavior to pose a threat of death or serious bodily harm?

The incident marks the third shooting involving Leitgeb since he joined Federal Way police in 2003.

David Young, 23, was shot multiple times and killed by Leitgeb in August 2010. In that case, police attempted a traffic stop because they suspected Young of driving a stolen vehicle. Two sets of gunfire took place, according to reports.

In a March 2011 inquest, a jury agreed Leitgeb had reason to fear for his life when firing the first time at Young. The jury was split on whether that same circumstance applied when he fired the second set of shots.

In May 2005, Leitgeb shot and injured a mail-theft suspect. According to reports, the suspect drew a gun, and Leitgeb and another officer fired their guns. An investigation by Auburn police concluded the non-fatal shooting was justified.

Family, friends and supporters of people killed by police officers gathered Tuesday outside the courthouse. At the emotional scene, several folks carried posters of Waters and Young — including both of their mothers. Some attendees chanted "serial killer cop" and other invectives aimed at Leitgeb. The gathering was organized by the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality Seattle chapter.

Charissa Shamley, the mother of Waters' son, expressed frustration at trying to justify what she feels was excessive force, based on the number of shots fired at Waters.

"I feel really sad about this because I feel like the cop needs to be in jail," said Shamley, an Olympia resident.

Marie Young, mother of David Young, came to the courthouse to support Waters. She said the two incidents with Leitgeb have shattered her trust in police due to his perceived lack of self-control.

"I want that man, at a minimum, fired," said Young, a Puyallup resident. "Would he want someone to do that to his kids? This is ridiculous."

These shootings are not the first time Leitgab's behavior on the job has been questioned.

In 2007, Leitgeb's joke about a hand grenade set off a media frenzy. During a traffic stop, officers found a pineapple-style grenade inside a suspect's vehicle. A state trooper on the scene overheard Leitgeb joke with a Federal Way colleague that the suspect was on his way to the federal building with the grenade. The comment made its way up the chain of command, unleashing multiple inquiries from the press about a possible attack on the Federal Building in Seattle.

According to a police report, Leitgeb admitted to the untruthful comment. The case was closed, with a recommendation for counseling for Leitgeb.

Leitgeb has previously received a 30-hour suspension, according to police, with those records still awaiting release as of this writing. To read commendations from Leitgeb's personnel file, click here. In one letter, a citizen complimented Leitgeb's professionalism in handling a theft incident.

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