HAMILTON – Two point two seconds.
That was the amount of time that Ravalli County Sheriff’s Deputy Tod Wofford had last March to make a decision that very likely saved his life.
On Monday, a Ravalli County coroner’s jury ruled that Wofford was justified in the shooting death of Lonnie Gene Roberts, 47, after the man suddenly turned and pointed a shotgun at the officer’s face.
It took the jury less than 20 minutes to make that decision after hearing nearly four hours of testimony.
The incident began about 7:30 p.m. last March 6, when Roberts’ mother called the sheriff’s non-emergency number to report that her son was having difficulties with his girlfriend.
Two Ravalli County dispatchers testified Monday that Roberts then began calling the 9-1-1 number himself. After initially asking for an officer, Roberts continued to call and then hang up.
When Roberts finally decided to stay on the phone long enough to explain his problem, the information he provided left the dispatcher feeling uneasy.
Mike Thomas, a 9-1-1 communications specialist with more than eight years of experience, listened as Roberts said his girlfriend was running an escort service and was mixed up with a pornographic amateur channel on Dish Network.
Beyond that, Roberts told the dispatcher his girlfriend was in charge of phone lines in the area and had been manipulating his. Roberts said he had been threatened with being shot by some of the people she was mixed up with.
“He was just kind of freaked out about it,” Thomas said.
Just before Roberts hung up, he asked the dispatcher something that set him further on edge.
Roberts wanted the officer to turn on his emergency lights when he came to his home.
“He said he’d already been threatened,” Thomas said. “He said: ‘It’s dark out here and I have no outside lights.’ ”
That’s not normal, Thomas said. Usually people don’t want any emergency lights attracting attention to their homes.
Thomas made the decision to send an extra unit in that direction and he let Wofford know that Roberts sounded paranoid.
At 8:33 p.m., Wofford asked dispatch for a vehicle license check on the van sitting outside Roberts’ home.
The next thing that dispatch heard was, “Shots fired. Shots fired.”
Wofford had talked with Roberts' mother earlier that night.
She told him about her son's complaint about something being wrong with his telephone. The deputy couldn’t determine if a crime had been committed and asked the woman to have Roberts call the sheriff’s office directly if he wanted to post a complaint.
When the report came in that Roberts was calling 9-1-1 and hanging up, Wofford asked a fellow officer about an earlier incident that involved Roberts.
He was told that Roberts was compliant during the first run-in with the law.
On the way to Roberts’ home, Wofford got the message from dispatch that Roberts seemed paranoid.
In the dark, Roberts' unmarked home was hard to find. A neighbor pointed it out to Wofford.
Roberts met the deputy on this doorstep. He asked Wofford if he was a cop.
Wofford held his flashlight over his head to show Roberts his uniform.
Roberts asked him again if he was law enforcement. Wofford told him he was from the sheriff’s office.
Wofford said Roberts then hurried him inside.
“He was worried,” Wofford told the jury. “I could tell right off the bat that he was worried about something. He wanted me there for sure.”
Moments after entering the home, Wofford noticed the shotgun in a chair right near the entryway.
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“My eyes went to the shotgun,” Wofford said. “Lonnie said don’t worry about the shotgun.”
Roberts relayed the story about his girlfriend messing with his phone and her escort business. He told the officer that she was doing a pornographic show on the Weather Channel.
During this exchange, Roberts again called 9-1-1. Wofford took the phone and told dispatch he was OK.
At that point, Wofford noticed that one of the numbers on Roberts’ phone belonged to a known methamphetamine dealer.
“It went from maybe a person with a mental health issue with paranoia to someone who might be under the influence of methamphetamine,” Wofford said.
On his earphone, Wofford heard that his backup had arrived on the scene.
Knowing now that methamphetamine might be involved, he decided to ask Roberts to remove the shotgun from the room before letting the man know there were additional officers on the scene.
“I didn’t want that shotgun to be right there between us,” Wofford said. “I asked him to put it in another room.”
Roberts said he would.
He picked up the shotgun near its ejection port and aimed it toward the ground as he started to walk toward the kitchen.
“He walked past me and then stopped,” Wofford remembered. “I could see his facial expression change – it was filled with disdain and distrust.”
At this point, they were only a few feet away from each other.
Roberts said he didn’t believe Wofford was a law enforcement officer. Roberts asked to see his driver’s license.
And then Roberts changed his grip on the shotgun and pointed it directly at Wofford.
“I could see the very end, the black inside of the barrel of the shotgun. ... He was going to shoot me. He was going to kill me,” Wofford said.
In 2.2 seconds, Wofford drew his weapon and fired five times.
The first bullet struck the end of the shotgun’s stock.
The next four hit Roberts.
Wofford said Roberts spun away from him and fell on his stomach on the floor.
Almost immediately afterward, the two other officers raced into the room with their pistols drawn. Roberts was handcuffed.
After 40 minutes of CPR, Roberts was pronounced dead on the scene.
An autopsy later found methamphetamine in Roberts’ bloodstream.
Montana Division of Criminal Investigation agent Kevin McCarvel helped with the investigation.
He said this shooting was different from others that he’s investigated over the years. Normally, there is some kind of dialogue or physical fight that happens before a shooting involving a law enforcement officer.
In the span of 2.2 seconds starting with Roberts’ decision to point the shotgun toward the deputy, McCarvel said Wofford had to recognize the threat, decide to take action and then physically react.
“This happened very quickly,” McCarvel said. “I’ve seen a lot of law enforcement shootings. This one happened very quickly. ... When you really break it down, there are 2.2 seconds when this goes bad.”
Was there any other realistic option in the use of force for Wofford in this case? Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright asked.
“The one that he chose,” McCarvel replied. “He didn’t have time. He didn’t have time.”