The young mom texted her boyfriend: “Come and get the girls or call 911. I’m about to shoot myself.”
Renee Davis was five months pregnant. She lay in bed, a gun within reach. Two of her daughters, ages 2 and 3, played in another room of their modest beige house on the Muckleshoot reservation south of Seattle.
It wasn’t the first time Renee had reached out to friends and family for emotional support. And on that day, Oct. 21, her texts grew more desperate as night fell.
Renee’s boyfriend found King County Deputy Nicholas Pritchett, who was assigned to the Muckleshoot Reservation, and asked him to check on Renee. He told the deputy that Renee had access to guns.
Pritchett had worked on the reservation for seven years, according to police records, and he knew Renee. He had responded to about a half dozen incidents involving her as a victim of domestic violence.
A second deputy, Tim Lewis, arrived as backup.
The two men walked up to Renee’s house and knocked, but no one answered right away. According to a statement from the King County Sheriff’s Office, one of Renee’s toddler daughters eventually let them into the house.
They found Renee in bed with a handgun in one hand and ammunition in the other.
They ordered Renee to put the gun down and, according to the police statement, tried to back out of the room. That’s when Renee lifted the handgun and pointed it at the deputies.
Both deputies pulled their weapons and fired at Renee. It was 6:57 p.m., one minute after they had entered the house. That one minute would become a focal point during the investigation into Renee’s death.
Bree Black Horse, an attorney for Renee’s family, described what happened next:
“A third responding officer had pulled up to the house and saw the children leaving the house screaming and crying amidst a hail of gunfire,” Black Horse said. “He ran up, thankfully grabbed the children, and sought cover behind his patrol car.”
When the dust settled, Black Horse said, bullets were pulled from walls, Renee’s mattress and neighboring vehicles.
It has been five months since Renee was killed, and the Muckleshoot tribe and Renee’s family want answers. An inquest is scheduled for May. The tribe has hired former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan to represent them.
“To go in there with guns drawn, didn’t clear the kids out,” Black Horse said. “Why they didn’t ask for help when they knew she was in a crisis — she wasn’t threatening anybody. She wasn’t trying to hold her kids hostage. She didn’t threaten her boyfriend when she had seen him an hour earlier. She was just in a bad place, and she needed help.”
Both officers involved are on leave, and the Muckleshoot community is reeling. They remember the 23-year-old as a sweet-natured mother, a domestic violence survivor, a hunter and someone with a history of depression.
Danielle Bargala, Renee’s foster sister, said talking about Renee is hard, not just emotionally but because it runs counter to Muckleshoot tradition.
“Usually when we lay someone to rest, we put their pictures away for a year," Bargala said. "We don’t talk about them by name. And we try to let them move on to the afterlife.
“It’s like we’re trying to balance this line now between respecting her, letting her move on, and also letting people know that what happened isn’t okay.”
Bargala, a third year law student at Seattle University, was visiting her parents on the reservation the night Renee died.
When she pulled up to her parents’ house, she knew something was wrong when her niece came outside. “She was sobbing, and she had the phone in her hand. And she handed it to me and it was my mom. And she said, ‘Danni, Renee’s been shot and she didn’t make it.’”
At first they were told Renee had committed suicide. They went to Renee’s house and waited for more details.
“They kept moving the crime scene tape back farther and farther until we were a good half-block from her house,” Bargala said. “We all went into a tribal housing building, and it was all over the news at that point that a King County sheriff had shot somebody on the reservation.”
So what did happen in the minute between deputies walking in the door and shots being fired? The King County Sheriff’s Office said it would not be appropriate to discuss this case until after the inquest. But the agency said both officers involved had received the standard eight hours of crisis intervention training.
Sergeant Tony Lockhart oversees crisis intervention training for King County deputies. He said that in training, officers learn that sometimes it’s okay to back off when someone may be suicidal.
“We may not go in because we feel that it may escalate the situation,” Lockhart said. But if the person has a weapon and other people are present, officers have fewer options.
“If there’s a threat to a family member or a cohabitant or anything like that, then we may have to go inside or do further investigation to make sure the person’s not harming somebody else,” he said.
Lockhart said every model of crisis intervention begins with making the scene safe for everyone present.
“I can’t de-escalate and use some of these techniques and tactics that we use if it’s a volatile, rapidly evolving situation,” he said.
King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight is paying attention to this case. The civilian-led office audits investigations and looks for larger trends. Director Deborah Jacobs has similar questions as Renee’s family.
“Not just, was something a police officer did justified, but was it preventable? That’s our lens,” Jacobs said.
De-escalation has become a big focus in law enforcement in recent years. The King County Sheriff’s Office adopted a policy on de-escalation, but that came in January, after Renee’s death.
Jacobs said the main idea is to approach someone in crisis slowly, from a distance.
“They could use a loudspeaker, they could break a window, they could try ordering a pizza, they could throw a phone in, you know – any kind of tactic,” she said. “Even if the person says, ‘Go away, leave me alone,’ then that’s considered a step forward in this type of thinking because it’s engagement. They’ve responded.”
A jury will examine the facts of Renee’s death during the inquest. The testimony and jury findings could determine whether the King County Prosecutor’s Office would seek criminal charges against the officers, or play a role in civil cases filed by Renee’s family or the Muckleshoot Tribe.
Danielle Bargala’s parents have raised many foster children along with their biological kids. They took Renee into their home when she was in elementary school.
Bargala said she and her foster sister were rivals who grew closer as they grew up.
But Bargala said for foster children like Renee, the hardest struggles were internal.
“At the end of the day, we’re not their mom and we’re not their dad. And they’re searching for that kind of love that comes from a parent, and wondering why their parents aren’t there,” she said.
Bargala said as a young adult, Renee tried to be self-sufficient while raising three young daughters. But she battled depression and was hospitalized for it.
After Renee's death in October, Bargala’s parents took in Renee’s two youngest daughters. Bargala said the hardest conversation came the next night with Renee’s 3-year-old daughter.
They were watching T.V. and the young girl turned to her.
“Auntie?” she said.
“What?” Bargala said.
“The cops came to our house last night and they were shooting at us and I was scared. And now mommy’s at the doctor.”
Bargala looked at her niece. “Mommy’s not at the doctor, baby,” she said. “Mommy’s in heaven.’”
The two girls have since moved in with their mom’s biological sisters, who live in the area. Renee’s eldest daughter, who was 5 at the time of the shooting, was not in the house that night and now lives with a godparent.
Bargala said everyone involved is grieving — and carrying on.
“One of the saddest parts of death — life goes on,” she said. “I’m back in school. Really weird. One of her sisters is a teacher. My mom works. My dad works. At the end of the day we all have to go back into our lives and take it day by day and hope to be okay.”