A Moose Lake man has filed a $35 million lawsuit against several agencies, claiming his civil rights were violated when he was shot by a Carlton County sheriff's deputy who had been drinking just hours earlier.
Shawn Michael Olthoff, 35, was unarmed when he was shot twice by Sgt. Jason Warnygora on July 29. Members of a county SWAT team were attempting to apprehend Olthoff after an incident two days earlier in which he allegedly pointed a gun at another deputy and fled the scene of a traffic stop.
Warnygora told investigators he fired after seeing Olthoff's hand move and heard a noise he believed to be a gunshot. Carlton County Attorney Lauri Ketola later ruled the sergeant's actions to be legally justified, saying Warnygora "believed he and his teammates were facing a deadly threat."
Olthoff had recently been released from prison. His record includes numerous assaults, including an incident in which he rammed the vehicle of U.S. Marshals who were attempting to apprehend him.
The lawsuit alleges that Warnygora admitted having two beers before receiving a page to respond as a member of the county's Consolidated Emergency Response Team, which drew up plans for what was considered a high-risk apprehension.
But when officers arrived on scene, the layout of the residence was different than a diagram they had been provided. Team members reported confusion as they breached the door and deployed a flash-bang device.
Olthoff was sleeping on a couch at the time. The lawsuit claims he followed all commands, raising his empty hands and not making any attempt to resist or evade arrest, when Warnygora shot him twice.
"These actions left the rest of his CERT team confused and shocked," the complaint alleges. "They wondered what they had missed because they did not see a gun, they did not see anything but an unarmed individual lying with his hands up — as he had been commanded to do by law enforcement."
Warnygora told Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigators that he fired after hearing something he described as a "ping" and saw Olthoff's left hand moving. The noise apparently was from a door closing suddenly, according to previous findings released by Ketola.
But Olthoff's suit claims Warnygora's statement was inconsistent with the accounts provided by other officers on scene, calling it "either an outright lie or a psychotic or alcohol-induced delusion." According to the complaint, Warnygora acknowledged having two drinks about an hour or two before he received the page to deploy, but said he believed the alcohol was out of his system.
The lawsuit faults the "overreaction" of deploying the tactical team to the scene. It further claims Warnygora should have been disciplined and/or criminally charged for drinking prior to responding to the call and failing to use objectively reasonable force.
"Olthoff did not pose an imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death to any law enforcement officer present or anyone else when he was shot by Warnygora," the complaint states.
Joe Flynn, a Twin Cities attorney, has been retained to represent Carlton County. He said officials have yet to be served with the complaint but he anticipates filing a factual response in court.
"The entry involved a high level of danger and risk to the officers," Flynn said in a statement. "Sgt. Warnygora fired in response to a reasonable belief that Mr. Olthoff was armed and threatening the officers with great bodily harm or death."
Sheriff Kelly Lake also defended the handling of the case.
"Sgt. Jason Warnygora is a 15-year veteran of the Carlton County Sheriff’s Office with an impeccable record as a professional, caring officer," she said Friday.
Olthoff was hospitalized until Sept. 17, incurring over $600,000 in medical bills, according to the lawsuit. He remains paralyzed from the chest down. The suit seeks $25 million for physical injuries and pain and suffering, as well as $10 million in punitive damages against Warnygora personally.
The complaint was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court by civil rights attorney Robert Bennett, who won a $20 million settlement for the family of Justine Ruszczyk, who was fatally shot by a Minneapolis police officer July 2017.
The suit names Warnygora, Carlton County and the cities of Moose Lake and Cloquet, whose officers are part of the tactical team.