In the statement that was released Tuesday, Dec. 3, Auxier said he and investigators found the use of force was “overwhelmingly justified” and almost certainly saved lives as 32-year-old Michael Thomas Veatch was actively trying to kill innocent civilians when Officer Elijah Merkwan intervened.
Active shooter in St. Helens
Merkwan and SHPD Sgt. Matthew Molden were the only officers on duty for the entire county when they responded to the reported shooting at the St. Helens Chevron at approximately 5:26 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 9.
Witnesses reported a person who was later identified as Veatch had entered a restricted area between the food mart and a storage shed claiming he was looking for a lost cat. When an employee declined to engage with him further and returned to the store, Veatch confronted him in the doorway, pointed a black handgun at his chest and yelled, “I’m looking for my [expletive] cat.”
Veatch turned to head for his truck, but moments later, employees and witnesses heard gunshots and the sound of shattering glass just before Veatch’s truck was seen headed down Highway 30 with sparks flying from a blown rear tire.
As Merkwan and Molden were responding in separate vehicles to the first 911 call, dispatch received additional reports of gunshots near McBride Elementary School on Columbia Boulevard. One caller reported Veatch had shot at him while he was seated in his car and decided to follow the truck.
The caller reported seeing Veatch shooting a firearm randomly while driving, and while he was still on the phone with 911, he said Veatch exited his vehicle and began firing upon the caller with an AK-47. The caller’s account was later corroborated by bullet damage to his vehicle, witnesses and multiple shell casings recovered from the area.
Merkwan and Molden caught up to the truck shortly after the second incident near McBride as Veatch drove down Gable Road towards the highway, driving on his rim. Merkwan reported he believed he could see Veatch handling a box of ammunition as if reloading his firearm.
As the truck approached milepost 35 north of Deer Island, where the incident would ultimately come to an end, Veatch’s truck was emitting a considerable amount of smoke. Veatch stopped in the middle of the road, got out and fled on foot after returning briefly to the cab as if to retrieve something.
Merkwan reported losing sight of Veatch through the smoke but heard multiple gunshots shortly after. Investigators would later learn the shots the officer heard were from Veatch’s attempt to “car jack and apparently murder” two bystanders, according to the statement. The first victim said Veatch approached his passenger door, pointed a black semiautomatic handgun directly at him and tried to enter his car.
The victim sped away but Veatch allegedly fired two shots that struck the victim’s dashboard console and front passenger seat. The second victim was forced to come to a stop behind the first victim’s vehicle, and moments later, Veatch approached the hood of the car and reportedly pointed his gun at the second man’s face as he tried to enter the car.
Again, the second would-be victim accelerated, and Veatch fired one round at the car as he fled, striking the center console. Detectives said they discovered bullet holes and bullets in both vehicles that were consistent with the victims’ reports.
Just after Merkwan heard the shots fired, he reported seeing a vehicle without headlights with what he believed to be a murdered driver slumped behind the steering wheel. In the days that followed, investigators would learn the driver had pulled to the side of the road and shut off his lights so that police could see the gunman.
However, according to Auxier, Merkwan reasonably believed Veatch had killed the driver and could still see him continuing to fire upon additional vehicles. Merkwan told investigators Veatch was “going down the line of stopped traffic and he was shooting people.”
Use of deadly force
Merkwan told investigators he knew he had a “brief opportunity to intervene.” Engaging Veatch with a handgun was not a viable option – driving closer and getting out to engage Veatch would take too much time and Veatch could have shot another driver. Additionally, the stopped motorists were behind Veatch, and if he were to fire and miss, a bullet from his gun could strike an innocent person.
Merkwan was also reportedly concerned that Veatch was close enough to a vehicle that he could take cover behind it, leaving an innocent driver between them if a shootout were to occur. Instead, Merkwan intentionally struck Veatch with his patrol vehicle.
“When Merkwan decided to drive his vehicle towards Veatch and intentionally strike him, he did so under the reasonable belief that the defendant was shooting people indiscriminately,” Auxier said in his statement. “Merkwan’s belief of imminent danger to the public was not only reasonable, but also 100-percent accurate. Independent witnesses and physical evidence from the scene prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant was intent on killing someone that morning and Merkwan’s actions very likely saved innocent lives.”
Auxier also noted that Merkwan told law enforcement he did not intend to kill Veatch when he struck him with his vehicle. After handcuffing Veatch, Merkwan immediately began an attempt to render lifesaving aid, although unsuccessful, and radioed that an ambulance was “needed ASAP.”
Additionally, Veatch’s brother arrived on scene as Merkwan and Molden were trying to revive him. Veatch’s brother reportedly became upset and disregarded Merkwan’s request that he remain by his vehicle. Auixer said both officers would have been justified in ceasing their efforts to resuscitate Veatch and focus instead on detaining his brother for their own safety, but they continued their efforts to save Veatch’s life.
Connections to the death of Deputy Justin DeRosier
Veatch’s brother, Matthew Veatch, who showed up on scene the day of the shooting, was accused of aiding Brian Butts in his escape from the police after the murder of Deputy Justin DeRosier in the Spring of 2019 and went to trial for those charges at the end of October. Veatch’s girlfriend, Samantha Eastman, was also indicted with rendering criminal assistance to Butts last week alongside defendant Ricky Roberts.
Veatch was also suspected of committing a drive-by shooting in Beaverton on Sept. 6 that injured one person and killed a dog. According to the statement, police recovered several 7.62mm bullet casings from the Beaverton crime scene – the same as many of those recovered from the Chevron shooting incident.
Following Veatch’s death, investigators recovered a Pioneer Arms 7.62mm AK-47 rifle from inside his truck, as well as two 12-gauge pump-action shotguns, a rifle butt and rifle accessories, empty magazines and multiple cartridges of ammunition, both empty and unfired. A 9mm semiautomatic pistol, a damaged magazine of ammunition and unfired cartridges were also found near Veatch’s body.
Eastman told investigators she received a phone call from Veatch on the morning of Oct. 9 saying he was being chased by the police and was going to die. She reported hearing gunshots in the background of the call and believed it was Veatch firing from his car. According to Auxier, multiple associates disclosed hearing Veatch say he would rather die than return to prison.