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Widow Says Deputy Pointlessly Killed Husband

TUCSON (CN) - Sheriff's deputies in Tucson responded to a call about a suicidal war veteran by shooting him in the back and killing him, his widow claims in court.

Ofelia Runyon sued Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, sheriff's Officer J.L. Rockwell, who allegedly fired the fatal shot, and five other sheriff's officers, in Federal Court.

Ofelia Runyon claims her husband James, 44, was a "veteran with post-traumatic stress syndrome and was despondent and suicidal."

She says her husband never pointed his shotgun at anyone but himself during the 2011 standoff in a residential neighborhood.

After posting threatening and suicidal messages online, Runyon called the Pima County Sheriff's Department to report that he was going to kill himself, according to the lawsuit and contemporary media reports.

When they arrived, SWAT officers set "lines in the sand" beyond which they would not let Runyon go - but never told him about it, his widow says.

"SWAT personnel and supervisors decided on 'lines in the sand' (the limits of where they would allow James to wander in this small area before they would take some other, undecided upon action)," the complaint states.

"The area bounded by these 'lines in the sand' was a driveway to one side, a mailbox to the other side, and the sidewalks on either side of the residential street.

"James was never informed of the existence of these 'lines in the sand.' In other words, James was unaware of the artificial limits set by SWAT personnel and supervisors where his life may be in greater danger." (Parentheses in complaint.)

The complaint continues: "SWAT personnel were outside surrounding James as well as inside houses, including James's house. Of fatal consequence if the fact that neither SWAT personnel inside nor outside of James's house were aware that Sgt. Leon had directed patrol deputing to lock the door to James's house, a direction that patrol deputies carried out. The failure to communicate to SWAT personnel and supervisors that reentry to James to his house was impossible was negligent and grossly negligent.

"The situation with James in the street holding a shotgun to his head went on for a while until James indicated that he was thirsty and wanted to get a drink of water. James started walking toward his house and crossed the sidewalk, one of the artificial 'lines in the sand' of which James was unaware.

"SWAT personnel started yelling at James to go no further. Still walking to his own house for a drink of water, James was shot by two SWAT officers with less-than-lethal weapons. These shots did not cause James to fall to the ground.

"Defendant Rockwell, a SWAT deputy armed with a rifle loaded with lethal ammunition, saw James walking toward the house. Defendant Rockwell, not having been told that Sgt. Leon had directed the front door to be locked and that order had been carried out, and so believing the front door to James's house to be unlocked, and knowing that there were SWAT personnel in the house, he decided he would not allow James to enter his own home.

"Defendant Rockwell carefully aimed his rifle at James and shot James in the back. James immediately fell to the ground near the front door to his own house and later died from the wound."

The widow adds in the complaint: "James never, throughout the entire ordeal, pointed the shotgun at anyone other than himself and never threatened to use deadly force against anyone but himself, nor did he knowingly try to escape the artificial custody in the 'lines in the sand' of which he was unaware. On the contrary, James was the one to call out the deputies to begin with and was only threatening to harm himself."

Ofelia Runyon seeks damages for wrongful death for herself and her young child. She is represented by J. Scott Halverson of Tempe.

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