Under fire 

Newly released report questions task force operations

In June, a Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Task Force operation outside of the Magic Diamond Casino on West Broadway resulted in an unarmed suspect being shot. A separate November sting in front of Gold's Gym on Reserve Street erupted in gunfire, leaving another suspect and an officer wounded. In the weeks that followed those incidents, locals in message boards, news articles and meeting rooms questioned the task force's ability to safety do its job.

"I am concerned personally about the issue of where some of these drug sales take place," says Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, who serves on the task force's executive board, which helps shape the unit's policies. "It's kind of a scary thing, in terms of the potential for bystander injury."

These concerns—in addition to new and previously classified information about local task force operations—are again surfacing in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the family of 21-year-old Colton Peterson, who killed himself in 2010 at the O'Brien Creek Trailhead.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Juliena Darling blames the Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Task Force for her son’s suicide. A recently released report found significant deficiencies in the local unit’s operations, including a lack of training and no policy for dealing with informants.

On Jan. 16, seven attorneys debated before a federal magistrate in Missoula the merits of a lawsuit, Estate of Colton Peterson v. City of Missoula et al. The suit alleges task force members caused Peterson's suicide by pressuring him to inform on local drug dealers. During last week's hearing, the attorney representing Peterson's family, Quentin Rhoades, noted that Peterson killed himself just hours after being "dressed down" by Detective David Krueger.

"They made risks that already existed worse," Rhoades said.

After receiving a tip that Peterson had threatened someone with a gun over a drug debt and that he was growing more marijuana than permitted by his status as a registered caregiver, law enforcement searched Peterson's home on July 26, 2010. During the search, task force officers 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.

While law enforcement raided the home, Peterson's mother, Juliena Darling, told police that her son was acting increasingly erratic and threatening to kill himself. She pleaded with police to arrange for a mental health evaluation. Because her son was a legal adult, she couldn't compel him to seek help. She hoped that law enforcement would. Despite the assertion in her lawsuit that police "promised Plaintiff Juliena Darling to assist in getting a mental health evaluation," Krueger used "coercion," as Rhoades said in court, to compel Peterson to cooperate with the task force's efforts.

At best Kreuger's actions were negligent, Rhoades argued in court. At worst, he exhibited reckless indifference to Peterson's safety. Either way, Rhoades says the family is entitled to financial compensation.

Rhoades attributes Peterson's suicide in part to the fact that in 2010 the task force had no policies and procedures in place regarding the use of confidential informants. To bolster his argument, Rhoades submitted into the record a 2010 assessment conducted by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Task Force that offers an up-close look at the Missoula unit's typically secretive operations.

The report found significant deficiencies in the local task force, including a lack of training. The report notes that there's "no written task force policy and procedures to govern the day-to-day operation" and, most relevant to the Peterson case, "no consistency in approval for operational plans or use of an informant."

"There is currently no single supervisory authority responsible for providing daily oversight and managing resources effectively and efficiently," the report stated.

Rhoades said in an interview after last week's hearing that he believes the recent officer-involved shootings in Missoula are a byproduct of lingering problems inside the unit.

"My concern is that the problems they've had this past summer (and fall) with those shootings is consistent with the problems they've had all along," Rhoades said. "The results are more or less as troubling as they were with Colton."

While Van Valkenburg is also troubled by the locations of recent stings, his office, after reviewing findings from an external investigation conducted by the Ravalli County Sheriff's Department into the June incident, found that the task force responded appropriately to the situation. Van Valkenburg specifically notes that though the suspect, Harry Louis Steven VanPelt, was later found to be unarmed, he refused to raise his hands when ordered to by officer Jonathan Stineford. Even more frightening for the officer, VanPelt also appeared to be reaching for something in the vehicle when Stineford shot him, Van Valkenburg says.

Missoula Police Department Sgt. Ed McLean took over as the task force commander in October, assuming leadership responsibility from retiring MPD Chief Mark Muir. He echoes Van Valkenburg when saying that the task force acted appropriately during the recent shootings. McLean says further that current leadership is reviewing where best to hold future sting operations. "We have discussed that among the executive board," he says.

Regarding the Peterson suit, McLean says that the pending litigation prohibits him from commenting. Broadly, however, he says the task force is consistently working to improve operations and since 2010 has adopted "a whole new policies and procedures manual."

In court last week, Judge Keith Strong pressed Rhoades on how the task force should have handled the Peterson case.

"All the time, we see them working up the food chain," said Strong, referring to law enforcement using informants to catch high-level criminals. "It is repeated literally dozens of times a day in our state."

Rhoades responded that it's exactly because of this frequent practice that there should have been a formal policy in place during Peterson's interaction with officers.

Strong is expected to rule this week on whether the Peterson case will move forward to a jury trial.

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