Crime & Courts

Review finds Anchorage officers were justified in using deadly force in Hillside standoff

The state's Office of Special Prosecutions has found six officers who used deadly force against a barricaded suspect during a two-day standoff on Anchorage's Hillside in September were justified in their actions.

Special Prosecutions finalized its review Monday. According to the review, deadly force was used by six Anchorage police officers: Jason Penman, Robert Wurst, Matthew Barth, Daniel Henegar, Seth McMillan and Steve Childers.

"Based on our review of the investigation, and the given circumstances surrounding the shooting, we have determined that the involved officers were legally justified in their respective decisions to use deadly force against Mr. Musser," the review says. "Criminal charges against all officers are unwarranted."

Penman and Childers are sergeants and the rest are officers, said police spokeswoman Renee Oistad. She declined to comment on the findings.

Robert Musser, a 69-year-old Army veteran who showed signs of mental decline in the months leading up to the standoff, twice fired at officers during the drawn-out confrontation.

[Man in standoff showed signs of mental decline]

The State Medical Examiner found Musser had been struck by gunfire multiple times – at least once in the head and once in the torso – and that those wounds killed him. But the review does not clearly state whether those wounds were the result of officers returning fire on Musser.

According to a charging document filed against Musser during the standoff, Musser told a local tree-cutting crew to get off of his property. One of the men said Musser pointed a revolver at him before moving it to the side and firing. Musser fired twice more as the men retreated, the charges said.

Here's how the special prosecutions office described what happened next:

Police obtained an arrest warrant for Musser and a search warrant for his Ginami Street home, and a standoff ensued shortly thereafter once it became apparent Musser had no intention of surrendering, according to the review.

Musser opened fire on Anchorage SWAT the first day of the standoff as tear gas was deployed, the review stated. He fired at an armored vehicle; officers did not return fire, according to the review.

APD negotiators tried to speak with Musser as officers intermittently deployed gas, the review said. Musser was informed that officers did not want to further damage his house, according to the review.

"Various diversionary tactics were employed, but none were successful," the review says. "Mr. Musser continued not to respond. Due to the darkness and the fact that the gas was not dislodging Mr. Musser, it was decided that the perimeter would be maintained until the following day."

Announcements urging surrender and less-than-lethal tactics began again the morning of Sept. 22, the review continues.

Heavy machinery was brought in to clear debris away from the house. Police said at that time Musser had amassed old cars and other equipment around his house, which made the operation difficult.

Officers said they were concerned about their colleagues operating a front end loader that was used to clear the home's driveway and yard, according to the review. The loader reportedly was equipped with two handheld shields in front of the steering wheel. That piece of equipment broke down and a heavy excavator was brought in, the review says.

While heavy equipment worked in the driveway, officers told investigators they witnessed Musser giving them the middle finger and pantomiming shooting a gun at them.

The excavator eventually tore off the east-facing wall of a second-story room, creating an opening in the home, according to the review. Musser shouted at its operator to "get off his property" before firing his weapon at least twice in the direction of the excavator, the review says.

Officers Wurst, Barth, Henegar and McMillan and Sgts. Penman and Childers fired back.

"Several shots from APD SWAT hit the area where Mr. Musser was located," the review says; it does not assert that Musser himself was struck by any of the bullets.

The officer controlling the machinery, John Butler, was hit in the face by a bullet during the exchange of gunfire but was "able to self-extract," the review says. Butler was eventually taken to a hospital for treatment. Another officer reported that his hand was injured by shrapnel and numerous other law enforcement personnel reported being in fear for their lives.

The review notes that Musser showed no signs of giving up. Negotiators spoke to Musser's ex-wife, his former psychiatrist and friends to try to determine his state of mind. But at the end of the confrontation, Musser's remains were discovered at 3 a.m. Sept. 23.

[Hillside standoff suspect found dead in home]

"(E)ach of the involved officers clearly articulated that their use of force was in self defense or defense of others," the review concludes. The attorneys general who conducted the review agreed.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.

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