Who's to blame? 

City, county file for dismissal of fatal informant case

On a recent weekday morning, Juliena Darling cries inside her attorney's office while recalling the moment nearly three years ago when law enforcement told her that her 21-year-old son, Colton Peterson, killed himself.

"I remember going up to them," she says, "and screaming at them, 'I told you guys, you wouldn't help me!'"

It was July 27, 2010, when law enforcement informed Darling that Peterson shot himself at the O'Brien Creek Trailhead. All that day she had unsuccessfully tried to reach Peterson by phone, concerned about his increasingly erratic behavior. Darling says she was actually relieved when she received a call from a Missoula County Sheriff's Department deputy asking her to meet him at the Darling home. She thought they had taken Peterson into custody. They hadn't.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Juliena Darling
  • Colton Peterson shot himself July 27, 2010, just hours after his mother says law enforcement officers “harassed” him about providing information on local drug dealers.

In July 2012, Peterson's family filed a lawsuit against the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Sheriff's Department, alleging that law enforcement caused Peterson to commit suicide. This month, the city and county asked a federal judge to dismiss the case, arguing in legal filings that Peterson's own behavior—specifically, dealing drugs, engaging in excessive marijuana use and acting "like a 'gangster'"—ultimately led to his downfall.

During the days before Peterson killed himself he had threatened to take his own life. Juliena Darling's husband, William Darling, called the police and later the Missoula County Attorney's Office to inquire about what they could do to help Peterson. Darling recalls that the county attorney's office suggested the family call a mental health provider. She says the mental health provider said the only way to force an intervention would be through law enforcement. But first Peterson would have to get in trouble.

At the end of July 2010, it looked increasingly likely that Peterson was heading in that direction. On July 23, three men invaded his River Street home to collect what law enforcement says was a drug debt. During that altercation, Peterson pointed a handgun at one of the assailants. But when he pulled the trigger, the firearm did not discharge, leaving the men to severely beat him. Darling believes that head injuries Peterson sustained during the beating could have exacerbated his rapidly changing moods in the following days.

When law enforcement executed a search warrant at Peterson's home on July 26, Darling says she welcomed the news. Finally, she thought, her son could get psychiatric help.

A police report indicates that members of the Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force conducted the July 26 search after receiving information that Peterson, who was a registered medical marijuana provider, was growing more cannabis than legally allowed and that he had attempted to collect an unpaid drug debt by threatening someone with a gun. During the search, law enforcement found 15 freshly harvested marijuana plants and 14 large cannabis plants bearing maturing buds. They also discovered a brass knuckle knife and a snort tube.

As police searched Peterson's home, Darling shared with them her concerns, saying that she was afraid her son would kill himself. Darling says Missoula County Sheriff Deputy Jon Gunter promised he would assist in getting her son a mental health evaluation.

But Darling alleges no such help was ever provided, Peterson was not taken into custody (where she thought he would have been safer) and no effort was made to pursue those who had assaulted her son. Instead, she says law enforcement focused on pressuring Peterson to reveal information about area drug dealers."The reason they didn't want to keep him is because they wanted to use him," she says.

The Darlings' lawsuit alleges 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.

Law enforcement pressure is evidenced, Darling says, by a meeting Peterson had on July 27 with Missoula Police Detective David Krueger at Willard School. According to the Darlings' lawsuit, her son "expressed fear" at participating in a sting operation, but was still "harassed" in "a loud and intimidating manner" to offer more names. Two and half hours later, Peterson shot himself with a rifle at the O'Brien Creek Trailhead.

Grief-stricken and angry, Darling says she tried to channel her feelings by asking Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir and Mayor John Engen to scrutinize existing policies governing how law enforcement handles informants, especially those who are mentally unstable. When nothing came of those efforts, Darling filed the lawsuit.

Darling is part of a growing number of advocates calling for reforms in the way law enforcement and prosecutors treat informants. During the past two years, there have been efforts to reform such laws in Washington, Florida and Texas, as well as at the national level. According to data compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union, up to 80 percent of all drug cases in this country involve informants.

In Missoula, law enforcement officials and Mayor Engen's office all declined to comment for this article, citing pending litigation. The defendants note in legal filings, however, that law enforcement did try to facilitate a mental health evaluation for Peterson. "In discussions with Krueger, Colton Peterson denied being suicidal," court records say, "and refused Krueger's offer of an escort to St. Patrick Hospital for an evaluation."

The defendants argue further that Peterson was never an official "informant."

If the city and county don't persuade the federal court to toss the case, it's slated to go to trial in April 2014.

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