A former Missoula County Sheriff’s deputy has been charged with a felony for allegedly using excessive force against a handcuffed prisoner.
Doug Hartsell Jr. drew scrutiny after three other deputies alleged he had his hands around the throat of Brandon Shea during a November 2017 arrest. The Montana Department of Justice opened a probe into the incident in May, and passed the investigative findings off to Missoula County prosecutors, who in turn handed those materials off to Lake County to determine whether to file charges against Hartsell.
Lake County Prosecutor Steven Eschenbacher decided to charge Hartsell with one count of mistreating prisoners, a felony that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
Missoula County commissioners made Eschenbacher a special counsel to handle the case to avoid a potential conflict of interest because Missoula prosecutors work closely with the Missoula County Sheriff's Office.
Eschenbacher’s affidavit of probable cause draws on the Montana Department of Justice’s interviews with two other Missoula County Sheriff’s deputies, Travis Wafstet and Ryan Dunster, who were working with Hartsell and Deputy Scott Rasmussen when the altercation took place.
Both deputies alleged that, once they had taken Shea into custody, he resisted being put into the patrol car. As Dunster, Rasmussen and Hartsell attempted to push him into the car, Wafstet ran around to the other side to pull Shea in, according to the affidavit.
“Wafstet said as he opened the driver side rear door of the patrol car that Brandon [Shea] ‘just disappeared.’ He said he ran back around to the passenger side of the car and saw Brandon on the ground on his back facing up towards the deputies. Wafstet said that he saw Deputy Hartsell on top of Brandon with both of his hands grasped around Brandon’s neck.”
Dunster, who had been helping Hartsell and Rasmussen push Shea in, said he saw the suspect kick Hartsell in the stomach.
“Dunster said as Shea was being pulled out of the car on his back and wearing handcuffs, he saw Shea’s head hit the frame of the door and then hit the ground. He said he then saw Hartsell lean down over Shea and he could see one of Hartsell’s hands down and the other around his throat."
Both Dunster and Wafstet said that Dunster tried to pull Hartsell off Shea, but he immediately returned to choking him. Dunster said he pulled him off a second time, after which Hartsell angrily told him, "don't ever [expletive] pull me off a guy again," according to the affidavit.
Shea was eventually subdued and transported to jail. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief, partner and family assault and resisting arrest, and received a 12-month deferred sentence.
Hartsell's attorney Milton Datsopoulos said in a phone interview with the Missoulian Friday that after reviewing the body camera footage along with other evidence, he believes Hartsell is innocent.
"It's our position that Doug Hartsell did nothing wrong at that point," Datsopoulos said. "Some of these accusations, like he choked Shea or abused him, it just doesn't work out when we look at the evidence."
Datsopoulos added that while they are maintaining Hartsell's innocence, the defense is open to reaching a plea agreement ahead of Hartsell's initial appearance, which is set for Jan. 29 in Missoula County Justice Court.
"There hasn't been any final agreements made," Datsopoulos said. "Eschenbacher has been in preparations for trial. It's my intention to renew our discussions on Monday."
In an emailed statement, the sheriff's office underscored that it had taken the allegations to state authorities.
"Our office takes allegations of excessive force very seriously and there are many levels of review that happen internally in these instances," Missoula County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Brenda Bassett said in an email to the Missoulian. "Due to the nature of these allegations, Sheriff McDermott requested the Department of Criminal Investigation also do an independent review for the purpose of transparency."
While the sheriff's office conducted its own internal investigation, Bassett said it does not release the findings of such matters.
Hartsell left the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office in April due to an unrelated medical issue, which had precluded him from working as a deputy, Sheriff T.J. McDermott said then. Hartsell had not worked since November, the same month as the incident with Shea, due to the injury, McDermott said.
In January, the Missoulian made a series of records requests with the county regarding Hartsell’s use-of-force investigation. In February, the newspaper made additional records requests about the incident, including requests for the footage from Hartsell’s body camera during the arrest, and that of other deputies on the scene.
Judge Robert “Dusty” Deschamps, who is overseeing the release of the materials, said in September he would not release the records pending prosecutors’ decision on whether to charge Hartsell. Deschamps also said he did not want the release of such materials to have an influence on the 2018 sheriff’s election. McDermott won re-election in November.
Hartsell is ordered to appear in Missoula County Justice Court on Jan. 29 at 3 p.m. for his initial appearance.
Shea, meanwhile, reportedly failed to meet with his probation officer and has accumulated 15 shoplifting tickets since his plea agreement, prompting Missoula County Prosecutor Selene Koepke to submit a petition to revoke his probation and impose a sentence. That matter is scheduled for a status hearing at 1:15 p.m. on Dec. 13.