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Grand Jury: Officers justified in June 10 killing of Ashland man

A Jackson County grand jury Thursday determined two sheriff's deputies were justified in killing 73-year-old Ashland man Earl C. Harris during a forced eviction from his home on June 10.

It took less than 10 minutes of deliberation before the grand jury came back with a decision, said Beth Heckert, Jackson County district attorney.

Harris was shot twice by sheriff's Deputy Dave Penkava and a third time by Sgt. Jeremy Whipple of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, Heckert said.

Penkava and sheriff's Sgt. Bob Grantham spoke with Harris through a window in his front door prior to the shooting, according to a recounting of the incident released by the District Attorney's Office.

They ordered him multiple times to come outside, but Harris refused. He left the conversation twice — once to retrieve a cordless phone for calling his lawyer, and again after hearing Whipple and two other officers attempt to break in through a back door.

When Harris walked away from the front door the second time, Penkava broke out the door's window, unlocked it and entered the home in time to see Harris advancing toward him down a hallway with a shotgun that turned out to be loaded with slug and buckshot rounds, the release said.

A 13-year veteran of the sheriff's office, Penkava yelled at Harris, who was standing about 10 feet away, to "drop the gun." When Harris failed to follow the order, Penkava fired three times, hitting Harris twice, the release said.

Whipple, who's been with the sheriff's office for 14 years, rushed in through the back entrance when he heard the shots but at that point didn't know who had fired, he testified. He saw Penkava in the kitchen and Harris sitting in the hallway holding a shotgun.

Focused on Penkava, who was taking cover behind a refrigerator, Harris raised the shotgun into a shooting position just before Whipple fired a shot into his chest, Heckert said.

After Whipple shot Harris, he fell backwards, dropping the shotgun in his lap.

While attempting to revive Harris, Penkava and Whipple found a pistol secured in his front waistband and investigators later found another handgun lodged in his back waistband, the release said.

Both guns were loaded, Heckert said.

Harris was shot twice in the chest and once in the hand, a medical examiner determined.

Six live improvised explosive devices were found in a safe inside Harris' home, and a pair of additional safes located inside the home contained several firearms, the release said.

This wasn't the first time Harris had an armed confrontation with sheriff's deputies, the release said. In 2011, deputies repossessed a golf cart and recreational vehicle from Harris, who came out of his home with a handgun but put it down when ordered to drop it, the release said.

On June 10, deputies came prepared for Harris to be armed, Sheriff Mike Winters has said.

Seven officers and four law enforcement vehicles showed up at Harris' property at about 10 a.m., though only three officers initially approached the home after cutting the lock off Harris' driveway gate at 35 Mistletoe Road, according to the DA's release.

"The officers testified that they really did want to do this low-key," Heckert said. "Their intent was for Mr. Harris to come out of the house. ... Had he come out of the house, they would have said, 'OK, you can't come back in,' and that would have been it. They would have allowed him to gather some of his belongings."

The responsibility of packing up the rest of Harris' belongings and storing them off site for his retrieval would have been left with U.S. Bank, which had foreclosed on the property.

Heckert said Whipple and two other SWAT members didn't force entry into the back of the home until Harris refused multiple times to unlock the front door and step outside.

U.S. Bank foreclosed on the property in 2011 after Harris and his wife defaulted on a $55,000 loan they received in 2006, court records show. The loan was backed with the Mistletoe Road property, the release said.

There is no known criminal history in Oregon for Harris, who had a long career in the insurance industry after serving in the U.S. Navy for about 41/2; years, according to an obituary submitted to the Mail Tribune by his family.

A friend of Harris' described him as "militant-minded" but a "great guy," and said Harris felt that the foreclosure being carried out was unfair.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Carlson said the sheriff's office will not conduct an internal investigation of the June 10 shooting.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or swheeler@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/swhlr.