By Polly Keary, Editor
September 4 is an anniversary Tracy Von Butterfield will forever grieve. This year, it will mark the third anniversary of the death of her son, Adam Colliers, 25, in the wee hours of the morning, when an altercation with police, including use of a taser, concluded with Colliers’ death from heart failure.
And although an internal investigation of the fatal altercation resulted in no finding of fault against the officers involved, Butterfield doesn’t accept the police version of the event and questions the use of a taser in subduing her son that night.
So she has filed a lawsuit against the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Department seeking punitive damages against the officer she believes responsible for her son’s death, and said she hopes that the outcome will be that police stop using tasers on unarmed people.
Adam Colliers, a young man fond of golf, poker and playing guitar; rather hyper as a boy; small as an adult but a high school wrestler; a caregiver for a relative in Gold Bar, was in a state of agitation the night he was killed. Of that, there is no doubt.
Shortly after 1 a.m., there were two calls to the Sheriff’s Office (which provides police service for the town of Gold Bar) reporting yelling on 1st Avenue West. Two officers, Bryson McGee and Ed Whipple, responded.
According to the officers’ report, Whipple got there first. He saw Colliers standing in the doorway of a house, wearing shorts and a tank top. According to Whipple, Colliers yelled something and ran toward him. Whipple didn’t understand him and told him to stop, but Colliers was still running, flailing his arms, and making “some statement about the devil.”
Whipple ordered Colliers to sit, which he did, in the middle of the street, where he continued to speak incoherently and move from side to side.
Whipple called McGee and told him he thought Colliers was having a bad reaction to drugs. He then ordered Colliers to lie on his stomach and put his hands out to the sides. Colliers lay on his stomach but didn’t put his hands out.
McGee arrived and reported seeing that Colliers had glazed eyes and foam at the edges of his mouth, and that he was unintelligible. The two tried to cuff the young man, but he resisted, pulling his arms away. So McGee deployed a taser into Colliers’ chest. Colliers screamed and still struggled, lying on the ground and putting one arm out instead of both, and fighting the attempt to cuff him, so McGee deployed the taser again.
That didn’t work either, and the officer threatened to use the taser a third time if he didn’t take his hands out from under his body and place them behind his back. McGee said that Colliers was acting as if the officers “were not even there.”
When McGee thought it looked like Colliers was going to try to stand up, he put his knee on Collier’s back and applied the taser directly to his body. That time it seemed to work. McGee got the arm out from under Colliers’ body, punched him with a closed fist three times in the ribs, and the two officers called to report the use of the taser.
Then they noticed that Colliers wasn’t breathing. They rolled him over and administered CPR, but Colliers was pronounced dead at Valley General Hospital. An autopsy concluded that he’d died of heart attack.
A trace of meth was found in Colliers’ system.
A mother asks questions
Tracy Von Butterfield, Colliers’ mother, was devastated by grief. She also was confused. She wanted to know more about why the police had used the taser three times on her son, and if they’d known it could kill him.
She thinks her son began having a heart attack during the encounter and that’s why he was keeping his arms under his body.
“That’s what you do when you have a heart attack; you cross your arms over your chest. You are in excruciating pain,” she said. “How could he put his arms behind his back? They didn’t even give it a minute to see how he was reacting.”
And, she said, her son was a small guy; why did they need to take such extreme measures to subdue him?
“They said he was strong, that he was a wrestler, and yes, he was a wrestler, but that was seven years prior to that,” she said. “He weighed as much and was the same height as me, and I’m 124 pounds and 5’4″. And these two [officers] were both huge men; they weren’t small men.”
She also wanted to know what the officers had known about the use of tasers, so in August of 2011, nearly a year after Colliers’ death, she requested the training records for the use of tasers from the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
When the records didn’t arrive within the time allotted by law, she filed suit for failure to comply with public disclosure laws. The suit was filed in January of 2012, and in February Butterfield got the documents.
In the meantime, Butterfield had been researching the use of stun guns in law enforcement, and had learned that they are at least somewhat controversial.
“Amnesty International actually tracks taser deaths,” she said. “There’s a lot of different organizations like that that are trying to bring awareness and get regulations in place.”
She thought of suing the department, but didn’t have the financial resources to do it.
But then she won her public disclosure lawsuit. That gave her the resources to go ahead with the suit.
Seeking to change taser rules
In the complaint to the federal court of the Western District of Washington, she alleges that it was the use of the taser that caused Colliers to die, and that the Sheriff’s Office was aware that people exhibiting signs of excited deliriumhave over-exerted themselves in a struggle, or are under the influence of drugs, have a greater risk of death or serious injury when shocked by a stun gun.
Also, she alleges, the office knew that stunning a person on the chest is also more dangerous.
But the Sheriff’s Office never made a policy or established guidelines about those specific risks, including risks to the mentally ill, the exhausted, the chronic drug user or those under the influence.
There also wasn’t a policy on how to use force on the mentally ill, chronic drug users, or people who are hallucinating or unable to understand what was being said to them.
That failure to educate officers led to Colliers’ death, the complaint says.
Also, Bryson McGee used excessive force, the suit says.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, according to a spokesperson, conducted an internal investigation of the matter, and found that the officers did nothing wrong.
This marks the third time McGee has been sued since 2010. He won in both prior suits.
Butterfield has requested a jury trial.
In federal court lawsuits, one does not name a specific amount one is seeking, but Butterfield has asked for punitive and compensatory damages, as well as court costs and attorney fees, as well as a declaratory judgment that the defendants, McGee and the Sheriff’s Office, deprived Colliers of his constitutional rights.
It’s not about the money, Butterfield said. Rather, it’s about changing Snohomish County policy.
“I really think that, myself and the rest of the family, we want to make a difference. We don’t want anyone else to be injured or killed by a taser,” she said. “That’s why we pursued it. We couldn’t let Adam die for nothing. Maybe it can be for a reason. Maybe it can make a difference.”