Editor's note: This article has been updated to include additional information from Stephen Sokoloff's report and a statement from Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond.
No charges will be filed in the summer shooting death of 25-year-old Hannah Fizer.
The announcement was made Monday morning by Stephen Sokoloff, a General Counsel for the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services. He was appointed as an independent counsel Aug. 4, as requested by Pettis County Prosecuting Attorney Phillip Sawyer.
Sokoloff said in his report that he chose not to file charges because “there would not be a reasonable likelihood of being able to prove the elements of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.”
A Pettis County Sheriff’s Office deputy shot and killed Fizer, of Sedalia, during a traffic stop June 13 in a business parking lot on West Broadway Boulevard in Sedalia. She reportedly did not comply with officer requests and allegedly said she had a gun and was going to shoot the deputy. A later search of the vehicle found no gun in Fizer’s car. Pettis County Sheriff Kevin Bond has declined to name the deputy after citizens threatened several uninvolved deputies.
The case was handed over to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which completed its investigation and delivered the reports to Sawyer in late July.
“During the course of this investigation, both I and the Pettis County Prosecuting Attorney have ensured this matter be handled by professional, independent agencies,” Bond said in a statement issued Monday afternoon. “This has ensured transparency and thoroughness of the investigation and subsequent prosecutorial review. We at the Sheriff’s Office have allowed to Rule of Law to properly take its course, and we await delivery of the report to complete our internal investigation into the matter.
“Our hearts continue to go out to the Fizer family, and we encourage calmness in the community as we work together to reduce the polarization this emotional and traumatic event has caused,” he added.
Sokoloff said he reviewed reports from the Highway Patrol Drug and Crime Division, statements from witnesses, the involved deputy and responding officers, the autopsy report which included toxicology results, video from the surveillance system at a nearby business, and dispatch audio recordings of traffic at or around the time of the incident.
“There are aspects of the case that lead me to believe that an alternative approach might have avoided the confrontation that led to the officer having to discharge his weapon, but that is not relevant to a determination of whether criminal liability would attach,” Sokoloff wrote in his report that was submitted to Pettis County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Mittelhauser. “That determination is made somewhat more difficult by the absence of a body-worn camera with audio, as the video from the adjacent security system, although of good quality for such a system especially at night, is not totally clear. There is no audio recorded with the video, which has required investigators to try to coordinate the time between the dispatch audio (what there is of it) with the video to provide a more complete information package.”
The Pettis County Sheriff’s Office does not have body or car cameras, which has led to questions from community members and has been the focus of many protests.
The sheriff's office spent $15,000 on 10 body cameras in 2017, funded through the remaining fund balances in the sheriff’s office budget in 2016. Bond told the Democrat in June that the cameras were operational for about a year when they experienced a hard-drive failure. He said the cost to replace the operating system was not feasible with the budget.
According to Pettis County Presiding Commissioner David Dick, the commissioners were never informed of the operational and hard drive failures. Dick also noted Bond has not formally requested recording devices in the six years he has served on the commission.
“Had we been made aware of the failure when it occurred we would have funded the repairs or replacement, whichever would have been more cost-effective,” Dick explained.
On Aug. 26, the Pettis County Commission approved purchasing new body cameras from Turn Key Mobile for $42,987.50.
“All the information received is internally consistent, and leads to the conclusion that the shooting, albeit possibly avoidable, was justifiable under current Missouri criminal law,” Sokoloff continued in his report.
Sokoloff states the evidence indicates Fizer refused to provide any information to the deputy and advised she was recording him. She then said she had a gun and was going to shoot him. Sokoloff says that when the deputy discharged his weapon, Fizer had reached down into the car’s floorboard and raised up toward him.
“Based on the information and circumstances available to the officer during the event, it cannot be said that the officer did not have a reasonable belief that he was in danger of serious physical injury or death from the actions of the deceased at the time he fired,” Sokoloff wrote.
According to Sokoloff, a Missouri officer using deadly force in self-defense requires a reasonable belief that the officer is in imminent danger.
“The reasonableness of the officer's belief must be evaluated based on how circumstances reasonably appeared to the officer at the time, not based on how those circumstances may have later been discovered actually to have been,” he wrote.
In the report, Sokoloff says Fizer is seen moving around the vehicle “vigorously and bending down” in the surveillance footage. He says she can also be heard during the officer's radio dispatch yelling at him, and he tells dispatch that Fizer said she had a gun.
Sokoloff writes that the surveillance footage supports the deputy’s claim that he was in fear for his safety.
“Just prior to the time the officer fired his weapon, the deceased appears to be raising up from a bent over position,” Sokoloff wrote. “The deputy advised that she was still reaching down, and he can be seen trying to force open the driver's door, then takes a couple of steps towards the front of the vehicle, assuming a defensive stance just forward of the driver's door. At the time of discharge, the deceased cannot be seen, due to the officer's position.”
In a press release last month, Sawyer stated he had evaluated the Highway Patrol reports, and his obligations to the community ultimately led him to request the state court to appoint an independent counsel to the case.
In the release, Sawyer stated he believes the families of those involved and the county “deserve the confidence to know that this matter was handled independently and competently by an individual with no ties to the jurisdiction that I serve.”
Fizer’s death is the second fatal deputy-involved shooting in less than a year for the Pettis County Sheriff’s Office. Four deputies and a highway patrol trooper responded to a verbal disturbance at a residence in the 16000 block of Oak Point Road in rural La Monte in northwest Pettis County on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
Upon arrival, a subject reportedly fired shots at the officers. According to a Highway Patrol news release, the subject, later identified as 58-year-old Jay P. Messer, ignored verbal commands to drop the weapon. The officers returned fire and struck Messer, who died at the scene. No officers were injured.
Charges were not filed in that incident.
A non-fatal deputy-involved shooting took place on Oct. 28, 2017. John M. Brandkamp, 28, of the 28000 block of Route U, reportedly fired guns in the direction of a Pettis County Sheriff’s Office deputy and a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper. Law enforcement had responded to a report of a possibly suicidal subject, later identified as Brandkamp.
Brandkamp fired one bullet with a rifle toward the officers and retreated into his house, according to the probable cause statement. He came back outside a short time later with a handgun. The officers repeatedly told him to drop his weapon. Brandkamp reportedly fired two more shots toward the officers, according to the statement. The deputy then returned fire and struck Brandkamp’s arm and leg.
Brandkamp pleaded guilty in December 2018 to two counts of unlawful use of a weapon and was sentenced to four years on the first count and two years on the second count in the Missouri Department of Corrections, to be served consecutively.
“Whenever any kind of encounter between law enforcement and citizens ends in a loss of life, it is highly regrettable. When that loss of life is avoidable, it becomes more so,” Sokoloff wrote. “But where the legal standard for justification on the use of force is met, criminal prosecution is not an available remedy to address it. More training on de-escalation techniques, and sometimes just more experience may be what is needed. The recent spate of these types of avoidable deaths would certainly suggest that a reexamination of training techniques is in order.”