On July 27, 2010, 21-year-old Missoula native Colton Peterson committed suicide with a hunting rifle.
Three assailants had beaten Peterson in his home on July 23, 2010. Police found marijuana and drug paraphernalia at his house three days later.
According to a lawsuit filed against the Missoula Police and Sheriff’s departments July 6, Peterson’s mother, Juliena Darling, told police immediately after the marijuana bust that her son’s mental health was deteriorating. The suit alleges that law enforcement “promised Plaintiff Juliena Darling to assist in getting a mental health evaluation for Colton Peterson.”
Rather than evaluating Peterson’s mental health, the suit alleges, police pressured him to help set up a sting to lure local drug dealers.
The family asserts that Peterson’s suicide was the “result of the efforts of Missoula city and county law enforcement to force him to serve as a police informant.” The suit seeks damages to compensate for an alleged violation of Peterson’s constitutional rights, for loss of income resulting from his death and for his parents’ emotional distress.
Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir says that law enforcement acted appropriately. It’s not unusual for police to use smaller fish like Peterson to lure bigger ones, he says. Police were ultimately trying to give Peterson a way out of trouble in exchange for his cooperation. “If he had information that could have provided us with an opportunity to go after the bigger fish,” Muir says, it could have helped Peterson, too.
In light of the ongoing challenges law enforcement faces, Muir says, his officers are doing the best they can with the tools they have. “Dealing with folks in crisis is very challenging and sometimes a very disappointing circumstance.”