BILLINGS, Mont. (CN) - In a deadly abandonment of protocol, Montana sheriff's officers "essentially deputized" three teenagers to look for a car-theft suspect, then shot the man to death when they found him, his family claims in court.
Yellowstone County sheriff's Officers Jason Robinson and Christopher Rudolph killed 28-year-old Loren Benjamin Simpson on Jan. 8, shooting him with an AR-15 assault rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun as he drove along White Buffalo Road in Huntley, Mont., about 13 miles northeast of Billings.
"Robinson and Rudolph stood in the roadway, with their vehicle serving as a barricade or blockade, and waited for the vehicle they had been following to return down White Buffalo Road," the family says in the Oct. 16 complaint in Yellowstone County Court. "As the vehicle approached, Robinson and Rudolph opened fire."
Simpson was hit repeatedly, the car swerved into a snow bank and stopped, but Robinson and Rudolph kept shooting, the family says.
Two weeks after the killing The Missoulian newspaper, citing "a document filed in Yellowstone County Court," said the sheriff's department claimed that the car Simpson was driving was "bearing down" on the officers so they opened fire.
In the lawsuit, the family says the officers parked their squad car on a narrow plowed section of the snowy road, stood in front of it, leaving no room for passage anywhere, and opened fire on Simpson as he approached.
According to the sheriff's department and The Missoulian, Robinson and Rudolph became stuck in the snow as they sought a purple Ford Explorer, so they asked three teenagers to push them free.
"Robinson and Rudolph flagged down three teenage residents of the area, ages 16, 14 and 14, who had just been let off the bus near the intersection," the complaint states.
The teenagers told the deputies the car would have to come back the way it had come, as it was a dead-end street, so the officers blocked the road and waited.
"Robinson and Rudolph then exchanged phone numbers with the 16-year-old boy, and sent the three youths up White Buffalo Road toward their residence with instructions to call the officers if they saw the vehicle the officers had been pursuing," the complaint states. "Robinson and Rudolph essentially deputized the three youths on the spot and enlisted them to go investigate a vehicle that the deputies suspected had been involved in a crime."
When the teens called the officers on a cell phone to say the car was coming, the officers took up their position in front of their car and shot Simpson to death, according to the complaint. The family says the road, covered about a foot deep in snow, had "multiple plowed driveways" nearby where the officers could have parked, so as not to stand in front of their own roadblock.
The Simpson's attorney Nathan Wagner, with Datsopoulos MacDonald & Lind, was not available for comment Monday and did not return a phone call or respond to an email on Tuesday.
The family seeks punitive damages for wrongful death, assault, negligence, civil rights violations, constitutional violations and loss of consortium. Simpson is survived by his mother, sister, brother and grandmother, all of them plaintiffs.
Citing a warrant application, The Missoulian reported that a purple Ford had been reported as a suspicious vehicle and as a stolen one, in separate reports. The family's complaint calls it an "allegedly stolen vehicle."
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder responded to questions in an email Tuesday afternoon.
"Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to discuss this matter since the case ... is still an open case and the inquest has not yet been scheduled," he wrote.
Yellowstone County Deputy Attorney Kevin Gillen said he could not comment on the case.