A jury must now decide if a fugitive drug dealer killed in a gunfight with Homer police in 2006 shot his 2-year-old son or if officers fired the round that crippled the boy.
Millions of dollars for the care and compensation of the brain-damaged boy, Jason Anderson Jr., hang in the balance.
The boy's mother sued the City of Homer and its police department. Tuesday, after a monthlong civil trial in federal court, lawyers on both sides delivered their final arguments to the jury. They asked the eight jurors to carefully decide crucial questions still unanswered after seven years: Are the officers to blame? And how should the city compensate the boy, if at all?
The U.S. Marshals Service settled out of court with the boy's mother, Cherry Dietzmann, for almost $3.5 million in 2011. Dietzmann's attorneys said Tuesday the city should pay out more than $23 million to compensate Anderson, now 9, and his mother for medical bills, suffering and his future care. The final figure depends on estimates doctors made during the trial of how long the boy will live while confined to a bed, fed by a tube through his stomach and on a ventilator to help his breathing.
The toddler was shot March 1, 2006, when marshals and Homer police officers tried to arrest Jason K. Anderson, a violent Minnesota methamphetamine dealer on the marshals' top-15 most-wanted list, who was hiding in Alaska. The marshals' original plan was to nab Anderson, 31, inside the Homer Airport, where he would be separated from his two children while getting a new rental car.
The marshals had a federal arrest warrant for Anderson charging him with dealing methamphetamine in Minnesota. His past convictions included assault and kidnapping.
Anderson often kept two-year-old Jason Jr. and six-month-old Darla close to him. Their mother and Anderson's girlfriend, Cherry Dietzmann, told authorities Anderson had threatened to hurt the kids if they attempted to apprehend him, Dietzmann's attorneys said. Dietzmann, now 27, told the Daily News after the shooting she had been the target of Anderson's abuse before the shootout.
The lawmen got spooked when the airport was crowded with more than 100 people, including high school choir singers bound for Italy and their families. There were too many innocent bystanders to put at risk, so the marshals huddled with the city police and drew up an alternative plan: they would box-in Anderson's Jeep and arrest him at gunpoint.
The lawyers mostly agreed on those facts during their final arguments Tuesday, but what happened next, outside the airport terminal, remains in dispute.
Timothy Ford, one of Dietzmann's attorneys, attacked the decision to try to apprehend Anderson at the airport. The officers should have done more to find out who was in the Jeep and should have known the kids were with Anderson, said Ford and Dietzmann's other attorney, Phillip Weidner.
"Even if you give them that this was the right thing to do, they executed it completely ineptly," Ford said. "There were other things they could've done, but they went right out there and caused this catastrophe."
Frank Koziol, representing the city, said a marshal assigned to surveil the vehicle saw a child's car seat inside, but could not see the boy or his sister through tinted windows. The marshals failed to pass along that information to the officers about to approach Anderson with guns drawn, Koziol said, so the officers assumed Anderson was alone. If they had known about the car seat, the arrest team would likely have retreated and come up with a better plan, he said.
According to Koziol, Dietzmann had told the marshals that Anderson was using meth and was paranoid and violent. He'd been scratching at his face, she said, after imagining that bugs were crawling on him, Koziol said.
"Everything ultimately turns on what the bad guy's going to do. You can't predict what he's going to do," Koziol said.
Anderson apparently saw the marshals and police officers approaching and pulled a handgun from under his seat, according to lawyers on both sides. That's when the shooting started.
Anderson's first priority was to kill his children, Koziol said. In general, Anderson was a danger to the community, he said. He continued to deal drugs and, according to Koziol, Dietzmann told authorities he threatened to attack a pre-school with an assault rifle. Anderson needed to be locked up, Koziol said.
In court, surrounded by large poster boards and sitting in a chair in front of the jury, Koziol demonstrated his theory -- backed up by experts, he said -- that Anderson turned and shot his son in the face. Looking at pictures of the boy after the shooting, the experts identified a blackened and indented spot on his cheek that proved he'd been shot at close range by his father, Koziol said. Darla, the girl, was uninjured. As officers' bullets hit Anderson, crouched in the front seat, he fired a round into the Jeep's roof, then turned the gun on himself.
"It doesn't really matter why. His legacy includes guns, drugs, violence against women and previously hurting his son," Koziol said. "That legacy should not include blaming the officers trying to protect us."
Even if the jurors agreed with the lawyers on the other side, who said the officers shot the boy, Anderson deserved most of the blame for pulling a gun and refusing to surrender, Koziol said. That's what caused the deadly skirmish, he said.
The hired experts were wrong, Ford countered, arguing for the boy's mother. The doctors who treated the younger Anderson said the bullet appeared to have entered the back of the boy's head and exited his cheek, Ford said. That meant an officer firing through the rear passenger window, likely Homer police Sgt. William Hutt, hit the boy, Ford said. Bone fragments forced into the boy's brain from the back of his skull proved it, the lawyer said.
According to Ford, Sgt. Hutt said, "I may have shot the boy," several times just after the gunshots.
"We're not talking about a lack of courage," Ford said. "We're talking about collateral damage here."
The officers' stories changed from the time they were deposed under oath before trial to when they testified at trial, Ford said. Perhaps their memories had been affected by what they wished had happened, Ford said.
"I feel for these officers," said Weidner, the plaintiff's other attorney. "They made mistakes, and not just mistakes, but they broke rules about not asking questions and put this boy in the crossfire."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.