County prosecutor says police shooting of sailboat gunman justified

Robert D. Yeiser died after a four-hour standoff in Eagle Harbor last July.

The fatal police shooting of a gunman on a sailboat last summer in Eagle Harbor was “absolutely lawful and justified,” according to a memorandum issued by the Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on the incident.

Robert D. Yeiser, 34, died at the end of a four-hour standoff in Eagle Harbor last July after he was shot seven times by officers from a police SWAT team.

Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney Tina Robinson, in a May 23 memorandum to local police agencies, said police officers were shooting in self-defense when they fired upon Yeiser as he stood on the deck of his sailboat, the Flying Gull, at the close of a confrontation that began when Yeiser started firing a rifle at random at the shoreline and homes along the harbor.

“The use of force upon another is not unlawful whenever used by a party about to be injured or by another lawfully abiding party about to be injured,” Robinson wrote in the memo, which was sent to Bainbridge Police Chief Matthew Hamner, Kitsap County Sheriff Gary Simpson, Bremerton Police Chief James Burchett, and detectives with the Washington State Patrol who investigated the police shooting. Eight officers opened fire on Yeiser after he pointed a rifle at a SWAT team in a police boat that was approaching the Flying Gull, and the SWAT team included officers from the Bainbridge, Bremerton and Kitsap County departments.

The end to the standoff in Eagle Harbor — which began after emergency dispatchers started getting reports of a man shooting from a sailboat in the middle of the harbor just after 8:30 p.m. July 8 — came to an end early the next morning with King County’s Guardian 1 police helicopter hovering above Yeiser’s sailboat, shining a spotlight onto the deck of the Flying Gull.

An officer aboard the helicopter had earlier dropped a flash-bang explosive onto the deck of the boat to get Yeiser to reemerge and surrender, but authorities finally resorted to a SWAT team smashing out a cabin window on the Flying Gull with a pike pole and shooting a canister of tear gas inside.

Yeiser finally came out of the sailboat’s cabin and onto the boat’s deck, covered in a sleeping bag. He then dropped the blanket and stood naked, and officers ordered him into one of the Zodiak-style rafts tied off the stern of the Flying Gull.

Yeiser got into the middle dingy and sat down, but moments later, pulled himself back up onto the Flying Gull and disappeared into the tear gas that was still fogging the deck.

When he came back out of the boat’s cabin, Yeiser had a rifle in his hand that was loaded with a “banana clip.” One witness said he aimed it upward, then leveled it at SWAT officers in Marine 1, one of two police boats that was approaching the Flying Gull.

Eight officers, including some aboard a police boat and others on a moored civilian vessel nearby, started shooting at Yeiser and he fell to the deck, mortally wounded.

In the memo from the prosecutor’s office, Robinson also said that the use of deadly force by police is justified when used by an officer to arrest someone who has committed a felony “if the officer has probable cause to believe that if not apprehended, the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or a threat of serious physical harm to others.”

“On this long night, law enforcement was faced with the task of extricating an armed and angry man from a solitary boat in the middle of a harbor, which, by all appearances, he did not wish to leave,” Robinson wrote. “For hours, the man fired multiple rounds from multiple weapons off the deck of his boat, then disregarded a helicopter hovering over his boat, ignored commands broadcast over a public-announcement system, paid no heed to two police boats approaching his floating home, and withstood close to 10 minutes of CS gas in the cabin of his boat before exiting the cabin naked.”

Robinson said the officers were shooting in self-defense.

“Disregarding both the guns trained on him and the commands given to him, Yeiser exited the dinghy, walked back into the cabin, retrieved a rifle, returned to the deck of his boat and pointed the rifle at a boat carrying a team of law enforcement officers on it. His actions clearly showed his intent to communicate a deadly threat to the officers on Marine 1 at whom he pointed his gun,” Robinson wrote.

“Their response of firing at him was in self-defense … The use of force by all was absolutely lawful and justified,” she concluded.

Bainbridge Chief Hamner agreed with the prosecutor’s assessment.

“I think that’s an appropriate finding. I think the officers acted appropriately. I think that’s clear,” Hamner said.

Yeiser had fired in the direction of people on the water not far from his sailboat, Hamner said, and recalled that bullets had struck at least one shoreside home.

Hamner stressed that officers tried time and again to get Yeiser to surrender peacefully; a police negotiator was on-scene and officers spent hours trying to persuade Yeiser to step off his boat.

“This is not the outcome we had hoped for; this is not the outcome we worked so hard to get,” Hamner said.

“We attempted every alternative to resolve it peacefully, and it was not to be,” he said.

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This story was first published in the Bainbridge Island Review.

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