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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.

Estavon Elioff.jpg
Estavon Elioff
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Family and friends of a 19-year-old Virginia man fatally shot by St. Louis County authorities Dec. 5 are speaking out in search of answers.

The family of Estavon Elioff took part in a rally Monday in Mountain Iron, where roughly two dozen people challenged the prevailing silence since the shooting by two St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office deputies.

Elioff’s first cousin, Maria Krulich, 20, of Virginia, attended the protest and told the News Tribune it was only the beginning.

“We’re going to protest until we have our answers, honestly,” she said.

The family has been joined in its effort by a Hibbing-based advocacy group that was founded earlier this year in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis police custody.

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“They feel like (Estavon) got murdered,” Nathaniel Coward, co-founder of Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness, told the News Tribune. “I understand their pain. I do. All my life being a minority, I hope that maybe we can do something different — that was one of the purposes of forming this group.”

Together, family members and Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness are pressing the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office and state investigators to further understand what drew deputies to fire on Elioff, who died in a wooded area of Mountain Iron . Deputies first deployed Tasers before shooting Elioff with their service weapons. Elioff had fled on foot after being suspected of shoplifting, leading to an hour-long pursuit.

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St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman told the News Tribune that he expects the state's investigation into the Dec. 11 shooting by deputies of Estavon Elioff in Mountain Iron to conclude soon. (Bob King / 2018 file / News Tribune)

The deputies, Ryan Smith and Matt Tomsich, are on standard administrative leave while the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigates the circumstances of the fatal encounter.

Both deputies have declined to be interviewed by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

“It should not be inferred that the silence means nothing is happening,” Sheriff Ross Litman told the News Tribune. “This investigative and legal review process will take some additional time. I am appreciative of the call for answers and accountability by the Elioff family and the public.”

The BCA said it is prohibited by state law to provide further details during an active investigation.

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“When the investigation is complete, the BCA will provide its findings without recommendation to the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office for review,” spokesman Bruce Gordon said.

It will fall to County Attorney Mark Rubin to review the case and apply the legal standards.

“Ultimately, he will make a determination as to whether or not the deadly force used by deputies Tomsich and Smith was justified,” Litman said, adding that he expected state investigators to conclude their work soon.

The family is struggling to understand how a person of Elioff’s stature, described as about 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 130 pounds, could have posed such a threat to deputies.

"Why was he treated so differently for shoplifting?" Krulich said. "None of that is adding up to me."

His body was found with a pocket knife — something he carried all of his life since he developed a love for hunting as a young boy on the Iron Range, Krulich said.

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SEE ALSO: Duluth police say officer violated policies; defense calls shooting charges 'untenable'
“He loved animals and loved being outdoors in general,” she said, also describing Elioff as Hispanic.

Elioff struggled with his mental health and to get clean from substance abuse. He had just been through detox, and was planning to move shortly to be near family in the state of Washington, where he’d arranged to enter a treatment program, Krulich explained.

A brother to four sisters, Elioff had recently started work at a local big-box store — his first job.

One of his sisters corroborated details shared by Krulich, but immediate family is not speaking with the media since retaining an attorney in the case.

Earlier this week, roughly two dozen family members and others rallied in front of the Mountain Iron Community Center, which houses a sheriff’s office and City Hall.

Read more stories about crime in the Northland

They called for justice on poster-board signs aimed at traffic on U.S. Highway 169, and shouted things such as: “What’s his name? Estavon!”

Organizers could be seen in a Facebook video.

“We want answers,” Coward said in the video. “It’s very silent on what happened — nobody’s upset. I don’t understand that.”

Another co-founder of Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness, Seraphia Aguallo, could be heard saying officers were “protecting each other rather than holding each other accountable.”

Coward said he doesn’t understand why the authorities can’t acknowledge the impact to the family and community. There were no representatives from the Sheriff’s Office at an earlier candlelight vigil for Elioff, Coward said.

"Police, deputies, the sheriff — they try to talk and say this is our community and that they want to work with us," Coward said. "But then when a community member gets killed like this, nobody from the office shows up to say, 'We understand the effect on our community.'"

Pastor Kevin Olson, of Our Saviors Lutheran Church in Hibbing, is a member of Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness.

He said the group gives voice to those who are unheard.

“But we also live in a society where we need order and structure and where people need to be safe and people need to be held accountable for their behavior,” he said.

He said the family wants people to understand their pain.

“It’s a very unfortunate incident and does deserve to be fully scrutinized, and a transparent conclusion needs to be brought to the community,” Olson said. “It’s a continuous job to build trust and build transparency and not rush to judgments on either side.”

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