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Left to Die?

New Evidence in Cop Lawsuit Pressures City

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The city is under increased pressure to settle a controversial cop lawsuit this week in light of new evidence obtained by the Mercury.

On November 4, 2005, Raymond Gwerder, 30, was "drunk and despondent," holding a handgun in the backyard of a friend's house where he had been staying on NE 118th, when a police officer trained in crisis intervention managed to get through to his cell phone. As Gwerder was talking with the negotiator, and about to go inside the house, he was fatally shot in the back without warning by police sniper Leo Besner.

A lawsuit brought by Gwerder's family through attorney Tom Steenson has focused until now on Besner's decision to shoot despite knowing that Gwerder was on the phone to a hostage negotiator at the time, and on the police bureau's alleged failure to control an apparent excessive force problem with Besner ["Shooting Back," News, March 8].

"Despite what Besner knew or should have known, he decided on his own to shoot Gwerder in the back with his M16 rifle and kill him rather than allow Gwerder to re-enter the apartment and continue his phone contact with the hostage negotiation team," said the suit, filed on March 7.

But new information buried on pg. 742 of over 1,000 pages of information released by the police bureau following Gwerder's death throws shocking new light on the case: While his death was initially reported as instantaneous—"he was dead at the scene," wrote the Oregonian on November 24, 2005—a Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) log shows Gwerder was alive for 23 minutes after being shot, and raising new questions as to whether he may have been subsequently denied medical attention that could have saved his life.

According to the log, the Hostage Negotiation Team made contact with Gwerder at 3:56 that afternoon. Six minutes later, at 4:02 pm, Besner shot him in the back. Three minutes later, Gwerder was reported as "complaining of pain," and over the next 16 minutes, he was reported as "moving."

Yet it wasn't until 4:21 that the log shows a medic being called, and four minutes later, Gwerder was pronounced "55"—SERT code for "dead"—23 minutes after being shot.

But despite the SERT log, new evidence makes it unclear that a medic ever actually arrived on scene to pronounce Gwerder dead. Video footage of the accident scene obtained by the Mercury—recorded by a concerned onlooker from a neighboring house, and matched up with events in the SERT team's own log—apparently shows an ambulance pulling up to the scene at 4:09, two paramedics getting out, then returning to the ambulance six minutes later, before pulling away at 4:15—four minutes before the SERT log last listed Gwerder as "moving."

Since the police bureau employs no emergency medical technicians or paramedics, and with no ambulance on scene or obvious paramedics present, it is unclear who pronounced Gwerder dead, and whether a medic was ever actually there to attend to him before he died.

The new information also contrasts starkly with the lack of information given to Gwerder's family by the police bureau in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

"I had to leave work that day and tell my mom he had killed himself," says Gwerder's sister, Bobbie Jo Clark, on a video about the case put together by Steenson.

Neither Steenson nor Gwerder's family were willing to comment on the new developments by press time, and it is against police bureau policy to comment on ongoing lawsuits.

Gwerder was a senior studying biology at Portland State University when he was shot, with ambitions of turning several summers working on fisheries in Alaska into a career studying fish in the wild. He worked as a grocery store checker to support himself, and is described as charismatic and gregarious by those who knew him.

"There wasn't much about Ray that wasn't charismatic, frankly," says Clark, Gwerder's sister. "From his funky T-shirts, to his dry humor, to his ability to attract a crowd. When he worked at the grocery store they would open other checkouts but everybody would stay in his line, even if it was the longest, because they wanted to talk to him."

Meanwhile, the Gwerder case continues—and if any attempts to reach a settlement are unsuccessful, it could go to trial. It was unclear at press time how the new evidence will affect negotiations.

Check blogtown.portlandmercury.com for updates as they happen.

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