Two Duluth police officers have been cleared of any wrongdoing in the June shooting death of a Duluth man.
Officers Matthew Hendrickson, a seven-year veteran of the department, and Jacob Peterson, a four-year veteran, used authorized force in shooting Zachary Premo, the St. Louis County Attorney's Office concluded.
"The officers' reaction in protecting themselves from apparent death or great bodily harm with the use of deadly force was justified," Gary Bjorklund, criminal division head for the attorney's
office, wrote in his report. "There is no evidence the officers had any motive to shoot Premo other than their reasonable belief of the immediate threat posed to them."
Both officers fired at Premo when he reached for a gun as they tried to take him into custody in his parents' backyard during the early morning hours of June 11, police said. The officers were placed on paid administrative leave, but they have since returned to work.
"It's a burden they're going to carry for the rest of their lives,"
Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said. "It's a tragedy not just for the Zachary Premo family, but for the officers involved and their families."
The report reveals that Premo's gun was unloaded at the time of the incident, but Ramsay said officers had no way of knowing that at the time.
An autopsy determined that Premo died from multiple gunshots to the head and abdomen area. His blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.221 percent, well over the Minnesota limit to drive of 0.08 percent, according to the toxicology report.
The decision marks the end of nearly three months of investigation following the shooting. The case was immediately referred to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for investigation. Once complete, it was turned over to St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin for review of possible charges.
Reached for comment Thursday, Premo's parents declined to comment and referred questions to their attorney, David Malban.
Malban said he and the family have not yet had an opportunity to review documents in the case, but said the family still considers Premo's death "useless and tragic."
"This decision will allow the family and its legal representatives to review the BCA report and all the other agencies' reports that have been submitted," Malban said. "We have been told some of what's in there, but not a lot of detail. At least we'll have all those reports available now."
Malban said the family isn't ruling out a civil lawsuit if they are left unsatisfied by the report.
"This is the end for the criminal side, but that's all it is," he said. "There is another avenue to this, but today's not the day for that. Today is the police's day, and we'll let them have that."
According to the report, Premo left his Piedmont home about 8:30 p.m. June 10, picked up friend Steven Gregg and went to Horseshoe Billiards, where they played pool and darts.
Gregg told police that he and Premo each had a tall glass of beer and said Premo drank most of two additional pitchers that they ordered. They left about 2:10 a.m. with Premo driving, he said.
Premo was "driving like a maniac," Gregg said, making him contemplate jumping out of the car at one point.
After dropping Gregg off at his house, Premo crashed the car into the ditch on the north side of East Orange Street, striking several trees and rolling over, according to the report. Several witnesses reported seeing a bleeding man escape from the car and flee.
Using license plate information, responding officers were able to determine that Premo's parents lived nearby, at 319 Locust St. Peterson went to the house to search for Premo and found him in the backyard holding a small, semi-automatic handgun, according to the report.
Peterson told investigators that he yelled at Premo to drop the gun and to keep his hands up for about 45 seconds without success, before telling him to get on the ground. Premo lay on the ground but the gun was easily accessible under his right chest, Peterson said.
Hendrickson, a canine officer, arrived at the scene with his dog at 2:32 a.m. to assist Peterson.
Peterson approached Premo, putting his foot on his shoulder, the officers said. Premo again lowered his hands toward the gun and Hendrickson sent the dog in. By releasing the dog, Hendrickson said he believed he'd be sacrificing the dog to save their lives.
Premo then lifted himself up, the officers said, and they again told him not to be move or he would be shot. Premo moved his right arm toward the gun and Peterson fired seven shots at Premo. Hendrickson said he heard gunfire and feared Premo was shooting Peterson. Hendrickson then discharged two rounds at Premo's midsection.
In audio released Thursday by Duluth police, Peterson is heard yelling to dispatchers, "Shots fired! Shots fired! Suspect down! Shots fired!"
Premo's mother, Patricia Premo, reported hearing police say, "This ain't worth dying over, Zach," and "I'm going to kill you, Zach" before the shooting. Neighbors also reported hearing police yell warnings. The entire incident took about three minutes from the time Premo was found by Peterson until the time he was shot.
"While Premo apparently initially complied with some of the commands, he became agitated and failed to keep his hands visible," Bjorklund concluded in his report. "Both officers feared that Premo was going to shoot them and this fear was reasonable and justified under the circumstances."