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Regional Interests

Family of Jenoah Donald announces lawsuit against Clark County over fatal traffic stop

Josh Shorthill, left, talks to reporters while Sue Zawacky, right, looks on. The family annouced June 24 they intend to sue Clark County over Jenoah Donald's death.
Josh Shorthill, left, talks to reporters while Sue Zawacky, right, looks on. The family annouced June 24 they intend to sue Clark County over Jenoah Donald's death.

Family members of Jenoah Donald announced on Thursday they intend to sue Clark County. It would be the second lawsuit this year involving the death of a Black man by county deputies.

The family is alleging wrongful death. Attorney Mark Lindquist asserted Clark County Sheriff’s deputies’ traffic stop on Donald that February evening was illegal, citing a 1997 court case that he said prohibits Washington police from using traffic stops as cover to investigate drug crimes.

“The deputies believed Jenoah was leaving a drug house, but they did not have probable cause to pull him over for a drug crime. So, instead, the deputy pulled him over using the excuse of a defective rear light,” Lindquist said.

A tort notice filed with the county provided to media shows the attorneys are seeking $17 million.

Donald died after three Clark County Sheriff’s deputies stopped him for a broken tail light north of Vancouver on Feb. 4. Investigators said the deputies had been responding to a complaint of a “drug house” in the area. One deputy at the scene thought she saw a weapon in Donald’s car, leading another to attempt to forcefully remove the 30-year-old from the vehicle.

When the car began to move forward, according to investigators, one deputy fired his gun and struck Donald in the head. Donald spent more than a week on life support, then died on Feb. 12.

Seated at a fold-up table at the same two-story office building where, three months ago, sat Kevin Peterson Jr.’s family, Donald’s mother and brother said they hoped to dislodge more facts through the lawsuit and to hold the Clark County Sheriff’s Office accountable for Donald’s death in February.

“One of my hopes is that the truth and justice comes out, people are held accountable, things change,” said Sue Zawacky, Donald’s mother. “What happened to my son is not supposed to happen.”

Donald was the second Black man killed by deputies in a four-month span. On Oct. 29, 2020, less than a mile from Donald’s stop, a law enforcement task force attempted a drug sting involving 21-year-old Kevin Peterson Jr. It ended with three deputies firing at Peterson as he ran away while carrying a gun.

Peterson’s family announced its lawsuit on March 18. Tacoma-based Herrmann Law Group represents the families in both cases.

In a statement, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins noted the legal review of the shooting is still ongoing. He did not comment on the lawsuit, and wished condolences for Donald’s family.

Most of the information from that evening has been released by way of an investigation by local law enforcement. In Washington, police shootings are currently investigated by neighboring agencies. Two non-law enforcement citizens join the team, too, to audit conflicts of interest.

Around 7:40 p.m. Feb. 4, dispatchers alerted patrol deputies after receiving a 9-1-1 call. The caller was concerned about suspicious activity near a reported “drug house” in Hazel Dell.

In that vicinity, Deputy Sean Boyle stopped a bronze-colored sedan for a broken tail light near the intersection of Northeast 68th Street and Northeast 2nd Avenue, according to investigators.

Donald, the driver, reportedly provided identification during the stop. When Boyle went back to his vehicle to run the ID, another deputy, Holly Troupe, had arrived and saw what she described as a “ball-handled” sharp object — later determined to be a screwdriver. A third deputy, Greg Agar, also arrived.

Investigators said Troupe ordered Donald to show his hands but he “did not comply,” and instead “produced a cell phone and a pair of metal pliers” from his back pockets, investigators said.

“I said, ‘Really? I just told you to show me your hands. Keep your hands out,’” Troupe later recounted to investigators. She said she told Donald to “chill out” and he said the same back to her.

When Boyle returned, he threatened to use a police dog on Donald. He eventually punched Donald in the nose, investigators said, and Troupe attempted “pain compliance” techniques with her hands under Donald’s jaw.

Meanwhile, the engine of the sedan Donald drove remained on. During the scuffle, deputies said they heard the engine revving. Boyle told investigators Donald grabbed him by the ballistics vest and pulled him toward the car. No body camera footage exists from the encounter, so investigators relied heavily on the accounts of the officers involved.

While wrestling with Donald inside the car, Boyle said he pulled out his firearm and warned he would shoot. Boyle then fired twice, striking Donald once.

Neighbors to the scene told OPB they did not hear anything until the car idled forward across the lawns of two homes and struck a nearby fence.

Thursday’s press conference marked the first public appearance by Zawacky and Donald’s older brother, Josh Shorthill. The two touched on Donald’s childhood — as a gifted tinkerer who struggled in school due to a learning disability — to an adult life that seemed unmoored at times.

“He struggled with drugs, we know that. When it comes to who he was, the drugs wasn’t who he was. It’s what he did,” Shorthill said. “Who he was was one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.”

The two said Donald battled substance abuse issues, a criminal history and behavioral health challenges. They said he was on the autism spectrum and, while high-functioning, prone to withdrawal when over-stimulated by sights and sounds.

The time since the shooting hasn’t made it easier, Zawacky said, though they have grown closer. The week Donald was on life support at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center went fast. When faced with the reality he wouldn’t survive, they hurdled through hard decisions about funeral arrangements, organ donation and eventually pulling him from life support.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to see,” Shorthill said. “You see what used to be your younger brother, your friend, your colleague, deflate into nothing. And he’s gone. I was in shock.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting