Lakewood police killed a man in a burning basement. Three officers gave differing accounts of what happened.

After a Lakewood police sergeant shot and killed a man in a burning basement in late 2019, three officers involved in the shooting gave different accounts about what happened, according to police interview transcripts, a newly filed lawsuit and the district attorney’s summary of events.

The sergeant who fired the fatal shot said Jason Waterhouse, 48, ran at him with a stick in both hands and hit him with the stick — so he shot Waterhouse.

An officer next to the sergeant said he did not see a stick and reported that at least one of Waterhouse’s hands was empty. That officer fired three bean-bag rounds from a shotgun at Waterhouse.

An officer watching from a window said both of Waterhouse’s hands were empty, and that he seemed to be running for the stairs near the officers, rather than charging them, to escape the burning basement.

Waterhouse’s family on Tuesday filed a $3 million federal lawsuit against the city of Lakewood and the sergeant who fired the fatal shot, alleging the sergeant wrongly killed Waterhouse, who was experiencing a mental health crisis and was using methamphetamine.

“This was a killing that should never have happened,” the family’s attorney Tim Galluzzi said. “Jason was unarmed, he was not posing a threat of imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury and there was no reason to shoot him.”

Former First Judicial District Attorney Peter Weir cleared the officers of wrongdoing last year in a decision that dismissed their inconsistent stories and instead focused on the generally chaotic and dangerous situation facing the officers.

“While there are some inconsistencies regarding some recollections of this incident, there are no inconsistencies which are relevant to my determination of criminal culpability,” he wrote in an April 2020 decision letter. “The inconsistencies here are not consequential in the analysis.”

A Lakewood police spokesman declined to comment Wednesday because of the pending lawsuit.

“I don’t remember seeing anything in his hands”

The Dec. 19, 2019, incident began around 3:30 p.m. when police were alerted that Waterhouse had barricaded himself inside the basement of his sister’s home. Waterhouse had been smashing objects inside the house with a hammer, was hearing voices and believed someone was out to get him, according to the district attorney’s decision letter.

Waterhouse’s sister, Heather Lopez, hoped police could get her brother out of the house and into mental health treatment. She told officers who arrived at her home that he had not threatened her and that she wasn’t afraid of him. A drywaller by trade, Waterhouse built a “sort of fort” under the basement stairs and refused to come out, according to the lawsuit.

The officers called for less-lethal weapons to be brought to the house, including a shotgun that fired bean-bag rounds. Several police officers responded and surrounded the house and basement.

The officers then spent the next hour trying to coax Waterhouse out of the basement, shouting at him from the top of the stairs. Waterhouse sometimes answered the officers, but also made “bizarre statements,” according to the decision letter. He used some sort of tool to smash the walls in the basement; the impacts shook the house.

The officers offered Waterhouse a cigarette to try to get him to come out, and brought in a K-9 dog, which they threatened to release if he did not come out. Sgt. Marc Direzza arrived at the house around 4:30 p.m., and responded even though police had said they did not need any more officers at the home, according to the lawsuit.

After he arrived, police decided to fire pepper balls into the basement. An officer shot between 14 and 18 pepper balls, which release a chemical with effects similar to pepper spray or tear gas, into the basement to try to drive Waterhouse out, according to the decision letter and lawsuit. At about the same time, Waterhouse apparently set a fire under the basement stairs.

Six officers then went into the basement, deciding they could no longer wait. Four were armed with less-lethal weapons such as Tasers and two — including Direzza — carried their handguns.

Waterhouse was inside a room in the basement and police could not get him to come out. They tried to open the door to the room, but Waterhouse kept slamming it shut, according to the lawsuit.

The officers caught glimpses of Waterhouse each time the door opened, and could see that he was waving some sort of long pipe or stick, and seemed to be bashing holes in the walls. The fire under the stairs was growing, and the basement was full of thick black smoke. One officer’s hair was singed by the flames.

Waterhouse then burst out of the room he was in and ran toward the officers. The officer armed with the less-lethal shotgun shot Waterhouse three times with bean-bag rounds; Direzza fired his gun three times and hit Waterhouse once, killing him.

“As he comes charging out at me, um, he gets close enough that he actually hits me in the arm as… either as I shot and he came down or as he’s coming out,” Direzza told investigators, according to a transcript of the interview provided by Galluzzi. “I can’t place exactly where it was, but I felt it brush up against my wrist.”

Next to Direzza, officer Chase Williams said he did not see a stick or pole in Waterhouse’s hand. He could only see one of Waterhouse’s hands.

Watching from a window, officer Zachary Cook, who had been a police officer for less than a year, said Waterhouse had nothing in his hands when he ran out.

“I don’t remember seeing anything in his hands,” Cook said, according to a police transcript. “It looked like he was getting ready to run up the stairs, and I just remember hearing, ‘Pop, pop, pop.’”

Direzza’s shot entered Waterhouse’s lower right back. Investigators believe Waterhouse was first hit with the bean-bag round, and the force of that impact spun Waterhouse’s body, so that Direzza’s almost simultaneous shot hit him from behind.

The bullet hit Waterhouse in the heart; he died almost immediately.

Officers pulled him out of the basement after he was shot, and firefighters went in and extinguished the fire. After they left, a long pole was found inside the basement — but across the room from where Waterhouse was shot, Galluzzi said. It’s not clear whether it might have been moved when firefighters went in.

“They were supposed to help him”

Weir found that Direzza did not break any laws when he killed Waterhouse, and said the officer acted reasonably when he shot the man in the fiery basement.

“When the door opened and the suspect charged out directly towards him with what he described as a long pole in his hand, Sgt. Direzza immediately feared for his life and the life of the other officers climbing up the staircase where a fire was burning directly below them,” Weir wrote. “He was also instantly afraid that somehow the suspect could trap him and his officers in the burning basement, and he feared being attacked by this individual.”

Waterhouse’s family believes Direzza should have been criminally charged, Galluzzi said.

“Agent Cook’s testimony was corroborated by the physical evidence and the statements of other officers, while Sgt. Direzza’s testimony was not,” he said in a statement. “These are not harmless inconsistencies.”

Weir wrote in his letter that it is common for witnesses to traumatic events to remember details slightly differently.

Waterhouse was dearly loved, his sister and daughter said in a statement Wednesday.

“The police should not have used deadly force at any point,” they said. “They were supposed to help him.”

The family filed the lawsuit because they want to hold Lakewood police accountable for his death, Galluzzi said.

“That is one of the things that makes this so tragically sad, it was a family who called for help, and certainly they never would have called for help if they felt like the police would have killed him. If they thought that was a possibility at all, they never would have called the police.”

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