The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Officers come under fire at mental health call

 

March 29, 2018

Diana Zimmerman

Wahkiakum County Road Department crewman Eric Schillios manned a barricade closing East Birnie Slough Road last week as law enforcement officers responded to a mental health call during which shots were fired at them. A string of law enforcement vehicles may be seen in the background.

Lee Wages, 54, of Puget Island has been charged in Wahkiakum Superior Court with three counts of attempted murder in the first degree.

According to the probable cause statement, Wages shot at three officers who had come to his home to do a welfare check after he threatened family members who wanted to move cows on family property where he lived.

According to the sheriff's report, a call came in at 11:11 a.m., on March 21 from Wages' brother, Don, who said that he and his father had been threatened.

"We've responded to his address over the last couple months several times," Sheriff Mark Howie said on Tuesday. "His behavior was progressively going downhill. He really needed help, he wasn't in a place to take care of himself at this point. The last incident that prompted the mental health department to bring us out there to do a check on him and decide whether to ITA (involuntary treatment) him, was that his brother and Don, Sr. had gone over there to turn out the cows. He was in complete distress and threatened to kill them if they didn't leave the property."

Wahkiakum County Deputy Brian Hornback reported that at 1:40 p.m., he, Undersheriff Gary Howell, and Washington State Patrol Sergeant Brad Moon arrived at the home on East Birnie Slough to assist Crisis Mental Health professionals.

"They weren't making a tactical entry, they were contacting someone with a mental health issue," Howie said. "We know it could escalate, that's why we have three people, to calm him down and get him contained."

Howell knocked on the door and asked Wages to come outside.

"Gary (Howell) announced who he was and tried to talk him out," Howie continued. "Wages went off through the door, telling them to get off the property. Gary tried to keep talking to him. About five minutes in, Brian heard the shotgun rack."

The three officers quickly moved to different corners outside the residence and asked Wages again to come outside. That's when they heard several shots being fired.

They later realized he had shot down through the door frame.

When the barrage stopped, the officers sought shelter behind their vehicles.

After moving, Hornback reported that he heard more shots fired from a smaller caliber weapon. When the firing stopped, the officers then moved their cars off the property and onto the roadway.

Howie was at a task force meeting in Kelso.

"Gary took command of the scene," Howie said. "They had backed out and were not going to engage with him, which was the right decision. Legally and justifiably, they could have plugged holes in the window, but they did not. They had the restraint to get out once those bullets stopped."

Howell contained the area, blocking traffic in the immediate area while Moon watched the home through binoculars from Hedlund Road. Public Works arrived and helped set up barricades.

"That was probably the longest, farthest code run I've ever done in my career," Howie said. "From Kelso, all the way through Longview, at every light, all the way down SR 4. All I could do was plead please, don't let anybody get shot."

Calls went out to several SWAT teams in the area. Finally, Lower Columbia SWAT responded and were en route.

Howie made contact with the family and tried to call Wages, but the only number he had said it was not accepting phone calls.

They set up a command post, and briefed the two dozen member SWAT with all the information they had including weapons, a mental health history, and a listing of everything that might be in Wages' home that could start a fire.

Why? Because they planned to use a flashbang, a device that is used to disorient people with a loud boom and a flash of light. If they had used it inside the home, it might have started a fire.

The megaphone hadn't worked. Wages came outside moments after the flashbang was detonated and officers were able to take him into custody.

"I was trying to protect myself," Wages told Hornback, according to the probable cause statement.

"We told you we were from the sheriff's office," Hornback had replied.

"I know," Wages told him, "but I didn't trust you either."

"In any of these situations, nobody wants to ever have to use their firearm to take somebody down," Howie said. "Even the guys who get shot at. As serious as the situation is, we still don't want to hurt this person. We want to take them in to answer for what they did, but not to have to hurt them in the process. Everybody did what they were supposed to do. Everybody went home. They all did a great job. Those three at the scene did what their training taught them and they made smart decisions along the way after being shot at. I'm really happy with that."

Bail has been set at $500,000. Wages has been appointed counsel and an initial arraignment has been scheduled for April 2.

 

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