Investigators: Deputy who shot unarmed man feared for his lifeby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio,
Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
Anoka, Minn. — A southern Minnesota sheriff's deputy who fatally shot an unarmed man returning from a swim feared for his life when the man put him in a chokehold as they struggled outside an apartment building, according to new details released Tuesday.
Todd Waldron, a Le Sueur County deputy, shot 24-year-old Tyler Heilman on July 20 in Kasota. Prosecutors earlier this month asked a grand jury to consider second-degree murder charges against Waldron, but the jury declined to indict him.
On Tuesday, Assistant Anoka County Attorney Andrew Johnson said he decided to reveal more details about the investigation into Heilman's death in an effort to give friends and family answers and to restore the public's confidence in law enforcement officials.
There were many conflicting accounts of what happened during an altercation between Waldron and Heilman, but not all of those accounts came out in media coverage of the incident, Johnson said.
While several of Heilman's friends who witnessed the altercation told investigators either that Waldron put Heilman in a headlock or both of the men had each other in headlocks, Waldron and a passing motorist both said Heilman held Waldron's head in a way that prevented him from breathing.
At that point, Waldron began seeing stars and noticed that his gun had somehow ended up on the ground, Johnson said. The motorist said Waldron's face was beet red.
"He feared that he would lose consciousness, and with his gun present, he feared for his life. Deputy Waldron then picked up his gun and began shooting," Johnson said.
Heilman's friends had also told investigators that Waldron shot Heilman as Heilman was moving away and putting his hands up.
But the medical examiners who performed an autopsy on Heilman said one of the bullet wounds on his chest indicated he was only 12 inches to 13 inches away from the gun at the time.
Waldron hit Heilman at least three times, and two of the gunshots hit Heilman's heart, Johnson said.
Johnson also said Heilman had been drinking and likely smoking marijuana the day of his death. Toxicology tests revealed his blood alcohol level was 0.095 percent.
Heilman had been swimming with friends earlier in the day. He drove home with a few friends in the car, and Waldron saw him swerving and driving up a grassy embankment. Waldron, who was not wearing a uniform and was driving an unmarked car at the time, called for backup.
Waldron then confronted Heilman in the parking lot of the apartment building. He told investigators that Heilman looked down several times at the sheriff's badge and gun holster hanging from Waldron's belt.
Waldron asked for Heilman's driver's license. When Heilman refused, Waldron told him he was under arrest, Johnson said. A physical struggle then began, with apartment building residents, Heilman's friends and passersby all witnessing the altercation.
A message left for Heilman's father, Mark, was not immediately returned. Family members have said previously that they are considering filing a lawsuit against Waldron.
The family's attorney, Charlie Hvass, said he planned to meet with family members and Johnson Tuesday afternoon to receive details about the investigation.
"When we've had a chance to review those and conduct any further investigation we want to conduct, then we'll determine our course of action," Hvass said.
Johnson said Heilman's death was a horrible tragedy.
"There are many people who miss him, and everyone wishes that things had gone differently," he said.
But he said there will always be different opinions about what happened, and he noted that the grand jury's task was to decide whether Waldron's actions constituted murder.
"The jury answered that question by saying no. We will respect their decision. We hope that others do the same," Johnson said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the blood alcohol level of Tyler Heilman. The current version is correct.
Tim Nelson is a general assignment reporter for MPR News.