In a decision announced last week, the Pierce County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney found the use of deadly force was justified against a Vashon man, Willem Van Spronsen, who was fatally shot by four Tacoma police officers outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma as he led a fiery, solo protest of the facility and the policies of the U.S. Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE).
The decision, detailed in a 10-page letter sent to Tacoma Police Chief Donald Ramsdell and signed by Mary E. Robnett, Pierce County prosecuting attorney and Lisa Wagner, Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney, described how the police officers had arrived on a chaotic and violent scene at the detention center in the early morning hours of July 13, 2019.
The letter said that officers were dispatched to the detention center “after receiving reports that Molotov cocktails and flares were being thrown at buildings and vehicles, windows were being broken, a fire was burning in a building and in a vehicle, and a subject was on site with a rifle.”
The letter offered detail about what the officers encountered at the scene.
“The officers saw Mr. Van Spronsen trying to ignite the large propane tank that was next to one of the buildings, and the officers were present when a propane tank inside [a] burning Volkswagen exploded,” it said. “The intentional fires and explosions posed a threat of serious physical harm to the officers and others who might be nearby.”
The letter — which also included a description of how Van Spronsen had pointed a long gun at the officers — further detailed why the officers felt their lives were in danger.
“Specifically, he was pointing or aiming a rifle toward the officers who were on foot near the detention facility, one of whom was without cover,” the prosecutors said. “There was imminent danger that Mr. Van Spronsen would kill one or more of the Tacoma Police officers or someone else within rifle range.”
Van Spronsen’s death garnered national news attention in a time of heightened activism over the treatment of immigrants held in the Tacoma center and other detention facilities in the United States and on its borders.
It also caused a stir on Vashon.
On the afternoon of July 13, before many islanders were aware of Van Spronsen’s death in the wee hours of the morning, a large law enforcement presence arrived on the island to help Tacoma police conduct a search of Van Spronsen’s home located off of the Westside Highway, where he lived in a bus on the Dolstad family property.
SWAT teams from King County and Tacoma police came along, along with members of the King County bomb squad and hostage negotiating teams. Guardian One, the King County Sheriff’s Office helicopter, also arrived on the scene, and law enforcement activity at the property continued until early evening.
In the days and weeks following Van Spronsen’s death, national news accounts termed Van Spronsen an anarchist and anti-fascist who was involved in far-left militias, such as the John Brown Gun Club.
Some people on social media, including well-known activist Shaun King, called him a martyr and hero. Others said that he intended for years to provoke police into shooting him as a means to die by suicide.
It was also widely reported that Van Spronsen, shortly before his death, had mailed letters and a copy of a manifesto to his friends that spelled out his intentions to die.
Van Spronsen, 69, was known on the island as an activist, handyman and musician.
Many islanders were also aware of Van Spronsen’s disputes with his ex-wife over their 2014 divorce and custody of their son. On social media and in public, Van Spronsen often claimed that his ex-wife had falsely accused him of domestic violence.
Van Spronsen’s ex-wife received domestic violence protection orders against him four times. The orders, issued after hearings, came in 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2019.
Court documents filed in his ex-wife’s successful effort to obtain an order of protection for her son against Van Spronsen in 2019 contain references and testimony to Van Spronsen’s repeated statements that he intended to die at the hands of police.
Other documents attached to the protection order described Van Spronsen’s substandard living conditions, his alleged involvement with left-wing militia groups, photographs of bullets he texted to his son, and abusive behavior toward him.
The prosecutor’s letter detailing the decision that the use of deadly force was justified in Van Spronsen’s death is linked at cityoftacoma.org, in the section of the website detailing the city’s police department, under “Use of Deadly Forces Cases.”
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards also released a statement about the decision, saying that in the wake of the prosecutor’s decision, the city would now begin its process to evaluate the officers’ actions under City policies. This will include convening the city’s Deadly Force Review Board, which will include two members of the community.