A Tulsa County judge awarded a $2 million judgment Tuesday to the estate of a man who was fatally shot by a former Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper at a Tulsa motel in 2013.
The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, which was a co-defendant in the case along with former Trooper Sheldon Robinson, also agreed Tuesday to settle its part of the wrongful death case for $25,000, according to Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Terri Watkins.
In addition, Tulsa County District Judge Rebecca Nightingale issued a finding stating that Robinson was not acting in his official capacity as a law enforcement officer when he fatally shot Michael Swatosh on Sept. 1, 2013, at the Best Budget Inn in Tulsa.
Robinson has not been criminally charged with wrongdoing in the case, though attorneys for the mother of Swatosh’s child, Mykelynn Vasquez, say they plan to submit the case to the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office, which previously declined to file charges against Robinson.
Former Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris, who is a candidate in the 1st Congressional District race, declined to file charges against Robinson. In a January 2014 letter to the Highway Patrol, former First Assistant District Attorney Doug Drummond acknowledged that Robinson’s statements regarding the shooting were contradictory and inconsistent with other evidence collected, but that there was “insufficient evidence” to file charges against Robinson.
Robinson told investigators that he was running errands and saw Swatosh and another man pointing guns at passing vehicles as he drove by, according to an OHP investigation. Though he was off duty, Robinson said, he turned around and, identifying himself as a law enforcement officer, confronted Swatosh on the motel’s second floor stairs, the investigation states. Seeing Swatosh had a gun and was ignoring commands to drop it, Robinson opened fire, hitting Swatosh six times and killing him. Swatosh’s gun turned out to be a BB gun.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol investigators later found that Robinson had lied to them in the early part of the investigation.
“We found … that there were a lot of inconsistencies with the evidence and Trooper Robinson’s statements,” said OHP Lt. Brent Jones, an investigator in the case who testified during Tuesday’s hearing.
Jones said the area where the shooting occurred was known for prostitution and drug activity, and investigators wondered what Robinson was doing there.
“There should have been no reason a trooper should have been there in off-duty status,” Jones said.
Using surveillance video, witness statements and other evidence, investigators discovered that Robinson had visited the motel earlier that night in an effort to find a woman believed to be a prostitute he had noticed while passing by, investigators said.
When he was unable to find the woman, Robinson left before returning to the motel a short time later, investigators said. Robinson whipped his car into the motel parking lot and exited holding his badge and with his gun drawn, and loudly announcing that he was law enforcement, witnesses told police.
As Robinson went up the stairs he met Swatosh, who had been sitting on the second floor landing and who, witnesses told investigators, had earlier been drinking and brandishing the BB gun investigators later found next to his body. An autopsy also revealed methamphetamine in Swatosh’s system.
“We don’t want to get out here and say he (Swatosh) was a saint or perfect,” said Vasquez’s attorney, Mitchell Garrett, “but that night his only crime was drinking a beer at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Robinson did not use his OHP-issued weapon in the shooting, but rather his personal weapon, which was loaded with armor-piercing rounds, said Garrett, who filed the suit on behalf of the mother of the victim’s child.
A year after the shooting, the Highway Patrol fired Robinson for conduct unbecoming an officer and lying to investigators. Robinson appealed the decision to the state employees’ merit protection commission, but it was upheld, court records show.
Disciplinary records show that Robinson had been reprimanded in 1998 after accidentally firing his gun while chasing a fleeing vehicle, and that he had previously shot a man who had approached him with a gun while off-duty in 2005. The 2005 shooting also was ruled as justified by former Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris.
After the lawsuit was filed against Robinson and the Department of Public Safety in 2014, Robinson made appearances in court to defend himself against the suit. However, in 2016 he stopped showing up for court, his attorney could not find him, and a default judgment was issued against him, court records show.
“Once the facts started coming to light about how culpable he was going to be, he disappeared,” Garrett said.
Late last year, Nightingale ruled that the case against the Department of Public Safety could go to jury trial. The move was appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court by the Attorney General’s Office, which argued that Robinson was not acting within the scope of his law enforcement employment when he shot Swatosh and that allowing the case to go to trial would throw into question the ability of law enforcement across the state to “go active” while off duty.
In January, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declined to take the case.
During Tuesday’s hearing, prior to the acceptance of the settlement agreement, Assistant Attorney General Kevin McClure reiterated that Robinson was not on-duty when he shot Swatosh.
“It’s the state’s position that this individual was off-duty and did not go active,” McClure said.
After accepting the settlement agreement with the Department of Public Safety, Garrett asked Nightingale to award a $3.2 million judgment against Robinson individually. Nightingale awarded a $2 million judgment instead.
“It (the money) would never bring him back or even come close to him being here, no money amount,” Vasquez told The Frontier.
Vasquez said she hopes criminal charges will eventually be filed against Robinson.
“That is my dream right now for my daughters and for our family,” Vasquez said. “My 7-year-old has asked me for years, ‘Mommy, he (Robinson) did something bad, why is he not in jail?’ How can you answer that for a kid when you as an adult don’t even know the answer?”
Garrett said he hopes the District Attorney’s Office will take another look at the case. He said he plans to send a packet outlining the issues that have come to light since the office first reviewed the case.
“This is murder. There’s no statute of limitations on murder,” Garrett said. “Officers are allowed to use deadly force in limited circumstances. In this case, it’s our contention that the use of deadly force would have never been appropriate because as a private individual he wasn’t at home or standing his ground. As a private individual, you can’t just go out and commit homicide.”