Deputies cleared in fatal Mountain Iron shooting

Estavon Elioff refused commands to surrender before producing a knife that officers mistook as a gun, according to a report detailing the final hours of the "troubled young man" killed in the Dec. 5 encounter.

Estavon Elioff.jpg
Estavon Elioff

Two St. Louis County sheriff's deputies were justified in fatally shooting a suspect after a pursuit in Mountain Iron on Dec. 5, prosecutors said.

Estavon Elioff, 19, of Virginia, was killed in a wooded area of the city about an hour after allegedly fleeing on foot when deputies responded to a shoplifting report at a nearby store. Authorities said he matched the description of a suspect involved in a gunfire incident in Virginia the night before.

The deputies, Ryan Smith and Matt Tomsich, fired at Elioff in a confrontation that was not captured on any video or seen by any witnesses — leading to questions and protests from Elioff's family and activists over the following months.

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin announced the decision clearing the officers of any criminal wrongdoing Monday. He said he concurred with recommendations of two outside attorneys, retired prosecutor Vern Swanum and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who first reviewed the case.

A report states that Elioff was shot after refusing commands to remove his hand from his pocket and then gesturing with a black folding knife that the deputies believed to be a gun. Rubin also noted that a Taser was first deployed, but was unsuccessful.


PREVIOUSLY: Family wants answers in Mountain Iron police shooting that killed 19-year-old Estavon Elioff St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said he appreciates the call for answers and accountability by the family and public.
Elioff was struck five times, according to a medical examiner's report, which also concluded that he was under the influence of methamphetamine at the time.

"This was a death following the pursuit, confrontation and attempt to take into custody a young man suspected of firing multiple shots into a home in Virginia, with a 9 mm weapon, a little more than 24 hours earlier," Rubin wrote in a letter announcing the decision.

"A tragedy? Yes. Especially because indications point to young Elioff feeling caught, trapped and hopeless … and in all likelihood knowing that his gesture towards the deputies would force a professional response and cost him his life."

The group Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness, which previously organized protests with Elioff's family, said in a statement that "due to several inconsistencies in the report and the presumed ideas in regards to the validity of the officers’ statements, we strongly disagree with Mark Rubin’s decision that the shooting of Estavon Elioff was justifiable."

Sheriff Ross Litman declined to say whether the deputies have returned to work after being placed on administrative leave.

According to a 40-page report prepared by Swanum:

The series of events started around 7:45 p.m. Dec. 4, when gunshots were reported in the area of 12th Street North and Eighth Avenue West in Virginia. A house had been struck several times and neighbors reported hearing a car "peel out."

A man at the residence told police that the masked suspect had showed up, asked for a different resident and then started shooting when told he was not there. The interview subject, who also fired a shot during the incident, was described in the report as being "not totally candid" with officers, who discovered drugs and more than $3,500 in cash at the house.


Authorities checked various sources for surveillance video and identified Elioff as a suspect.

The following day, around 12:30 p.m., a man was reported to have stolen a can of spray paint from L&M Fleet Supply, 8497 Enterprise Drive N. A St. Louis County deputy who was first on scene encountered Elioff outside and told him to stop, but he instead took off into a wooded area. The deputy requested backup, but did not give pursuit because she believed the suspect to be armed.

Smith, a K-9 handler, was called in to track Elioff, with Tomsich providing cover. They walked more than a mile over the course of nearly 40 minutes before finding him standing on a partially fallen tree.

The deputies told investigators that Elioff seemed to be digging in his jacket pocket and refused numerous commands to put his arms up. Tomsich twice attempted to subdue him with a Taser, but it had "little to no effect."

Smith said he then saw Elioff raise his right hand and point a black object directly at him. He later told investigators he was "100%" sure it was a gun, and yelled warnings to his partner. Smith, who briefly tripped to the ground while retreating, said he saw Elioff point the weapon toward Tomsich and then back at him.

Smith fired several shots, as did Tomsich, who said he did not personally see the weapon but was responding to his partner's shouting. The deputies attempted lifesaving measures before other officers and EMTs arrived on scene.

Elioff was soon pronounced dead from gunshot wounds to his torso, pelvis, arm and foot. The deputies reportedly fired a combined six or seven shots.

PREVIOUSLY: BCA: St Louis County deputies not talking after fatal Mountain Iron shooting The two veteran officers "provided unsolicited written reports" rather than taking part in standard interviews, the BCA said Tuesday.
Smith and Tomsich. who have been on the job 11 and 12 years, respectively, eventually sat for interviews with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension after initially refusing and submitting written statements instead. The report states that other evidence, including recorded radio traffic and ballistics, was consistent with their accounts.


Elioff was described as a "troubled young man with a history of drug abuse" who had most recently been staying with his great-grandparents in Virginia. The family told investigators he had boarded a bus bound for Washington state, where his mother lives, on the morning of Dec. 5. But he insisted on getting off almost immediately in Mountain Iron, near the L&M store.

Elioff's statements and actions in his final hours "could reasonably lead one to conclude he was experiencing suicidal ideation," Swanum said.

This story was updated at 6:54 p.m. Feb. 8 with additional context and again at 8:24 p.m. with a statement from Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness . It was originally posted at 3:04 p.m. Feb. 8.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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