Video shows what led up to North Dakota trooper's fatal shooting of chase suspect
Morton County prosecutor Gabrielle Goter said in a letter that the shooting was justified and that the North Dakota Highway Patrol trooper acted in self-defense.
Editor's note: The video in this story contains footage that may be disturbing to some viewers.
MANDAN, N.D. — The North Dakota Highway Patrol officer who shot and killed a man last month will not be criminally charged or face internal discipline, according to documents released by the patrol on Tuesday, Oct. 5.
Trooper Steven Mayer fatally shot 45-year-old Craig Knutson on Sept. 7 after a vehicle pursuit about 13 miles west of Mandan on Interstate 94.
After reviewing an investigation by the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Morton County prosecutor Gabrielle Goter issued a letter outlining her decision not to pursue criminal charges against Mayer.
Goter wrote that Mayer was justified in shooting Knutson "in defense of self and others."
Patrol officials determined that Mayer "acted within department policy during the incident," according to a statement from the agency. Mayer, who had been on administrative leave, was cleared to return to full duty on Tuesday, said Tom Iverson, the patrol's chief of operations.
The evening of Sept. 7, Mayer and other officers responded to a report of a van driving recklessly. Knutson, the lone occupant of the van, did not stop when officers tried to pull him over, according to a BCI report detailing its investigation.
As officers pursued him, Knutson called 911 and spoke with a dispatcher.
Knutson told the dispatcher he had a gun and was going to shoot himself, adding that he would not stop when directed by officers. He repeatedly told the dispatcher to ask the officers to "back off," according to a recording of Knutson's 911 call.
He told the dispatcher he "had no intentions of harming anyone," but that he knew he wasn't "going to get out of this." The dispatcher repeatedly told him to pull over to have a discussion with the officers, but Knutson said he didn't know why officers were trying to pull him over and that he "can't go to jail."
Officers used spike stripes to flatten Knutson's tires. At one point, Knutson told the dispatcher he was about a quarter mile away from the nearest exit and that he would pull over there.
"Craig, when you get to the exit, please stop OK?" the dispatcher said. "Oh, yeah," Knutson replied.
A patrol vehicle then approached Knutson's van from behind, where it performed a "pursuit intervention technique" that caused Knutson's van to spin out.
Morton County Sheriff's Office Lt. Dean Murphy told investigators he was in a vehicle near Mayer's, and they were communicating through their open windows a short distance behind Knutson's van, according to the BCI report. Murphy said dispatchers told him Knutson intended to take the exit, but Murphy said he believed Knutson's behavior was "erratic" and that the public could be at risk. There were multiple homes near the exit, Murphy told investigators.
Murphy then gave the OK for Mayer to stop Knutson's van with the pursuit intervention technique, and Mayer's patrol vehicle ended up parked perpendicular to the front of the van.
None of the officers involved wore body cameras, but squad car video shows two Morton County sheriff's deputies approach Knutson's van from the back with guns drawn. Mayer is seen getting out of his patrol vehicle, and officers tell Knutson to "put your hands up."
One officer yells "he's got a gun."
The officers tell Knutson to put his hands up at least eight times in the video.
Mayer told BCI investigators that while in his patrol vehicle, he saw Knutson smoking a cigarette and holding a revolver in his other hand. Mayer said Knutson "waived the revolver around and then pointed it" at Mayer, but then put it down, the report states.
Mayer then got out of his patrol vehicle and tried to open Knutson's passenger door, but it was locked. Mayer backed away, and Deputy Johnathan Moll asked whether he should shoot a window out with a "less lethal" shotgun round. Mayer said yes.
Mayer told investigators he saw Knutson lift the revolver up while Moll fired the round to break the driver's side window. Mayer heard the shot and fired his gun, according to the report. He stated he shot his gun when Knutson's hand lifted the revolver.
"(Mayer) did not know (he) had struck Craig Knutson until seeing the glass come out of the window and fall," the BCI report states.
Mayer approached the van and saw the revolver in Knutson's lap, Mayer told investigators. The revolver held five bullets and was collected as evidence, the BCI report said.
Mayer told investigators that Moll fired his "less lethal" round to break the window almost exactly when Mayer fired his gun. Mayer said he remembered asking if Knutson had shot himself or if he was the one who shot Knutson.
Knutson had one gunshot wound to his right temple, according to the BCI report.
After the shooting, the video shows Mayer walk away from the van and kneel down in the interstate median. He appears to hold his head in his hands.
Mayer later told investigators he "recalled crying because of all the emotions, thoughts, and feelings going through (his) head at the time," according to the BCI report.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.