Okmulgee County deputy cleared in shooting of unarmed man, but questions remain

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A tattered strip of crime scene tape is all that remains at the vacant lot where an Okmulgee County deputy fatally shot a man who had fled in September. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier
An Okmulgee County deputy who fatally shot an unarmed Beggs man in September has been cleared of wrongdoing by the Okmulgee district attorney’s office, which stated deadly force was “required to prevent death and/or serious bodily injury” to the deputy.

Little information was released by authorities following the Sept. 29 shooting that killed Beggs resident Justin Douglas Snelson, 54, who was shot shortly after 9 p.m. by a deputy in a vacant lot near the intersection of Sherman Avenue and Belmont Street in Okmulgee.

Since then, law enforcement reports of whether Snelson was armed at the time of the shooting have varied — some reports have said he was armed with a knife,  others said he was holding a lighter, while others have avoided saying what he might have been holding. Autopsy records also show the path of the bullets that hit Snelson, who law enforcement said was standing and advancing toward the deputy at the time of the shooting, were traveling in varying left-to-right and downward angles relative to Snelson’s body.

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Snelson’s widow has hired an attorney and is now considering filing a wrongful death lawsuit.

“A lot of people are upset because the police are getting away with murder, pretty much,” Misty Snelson said.

Justin D. Snelson. Courtesy/OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

The Okmulgee County deputy who fired the shots, Ethan Mulkey, had been involved in a pursuit with Snelson, who fled on a motorcycle after law enforcement attempted to stop him for a traffic violation, according to media releases from both Okmulgee County and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

At the time, the Okmulgee County Sheriff’s Office would only say that during the pursuit, Snelson fled from his motorcycle on foot and that Snelson and a deputy “were then involved in an encounter which resulted in the deputy firing his weapon at the suspect.” Mulkey’s name was not released, whether Snelson was armed and the events that transpired during the encounter, other than the deputy shooting at Snelson, were not released.

Though the Okmulgee County Sheriff’s Office initially posted some information on social media about the shooting within hours of it happening, the post was later deleted from its Facebook page.

Okmulgee County Deputy Ethan Mulkey. Courtesy/OKMULGEE COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE.

The OSBI conducted the investigation into the shooting and turned its findings over to acting-district attorney for Okmulgee and McIntosh counties Carol Iski, who replaced long-time DA Rob Barris after Barris died in October.

After initially declining to do so, Iski released her Oct. 23 letter to Okmulgee County Sheriff Eddy Rice’s office stating that the shooting was justified, and that “the use of deadly force in this incident was required to prevent death and/or serious bodily injury to Deputy Mulkey.”

Iski, who refused an interview request by The Frontier, declined to release the OSBI’s report submitted to her office and said no reports or records about the shooting were generated by the Okmulgee County Sheriff’s Office.

Rice said the pursuit began when Mulkey met Snelson riding on his motorcycle with a passenger near the Okmulgee County Courthouse. Mulkey turned his vehicle around to stop Snelson, but Snelson sped around a corner, dropped his passenger off, and then drove his motorcycle on the sidewalk before getting back on the street and attempting to elude Mulkey, Rice said.

It was not the first time Snelson had run from the law. Rice said (and court records show) that Snelson had attempted to elude officers on other occasions. Sometimes he was caught, other times he was not. Rice said two weeks before the shooting, Snelson had successfully eluded a different deputy, and individuals who had been around the sheriff’s office for a long time knew of Snelson’s reputation of running.

“They called him Renegade, and Doug (Snelson) ran at the drop of a hat. He was hellbent on getting away,” Rice said. “We chased him tons of times.”

Okmulgee County Sheriff Eddy Rice. Courtesy/OKLAHOMA SHERIFF’S ASSOCIATION

Snelson also had problems with drugs, specifically methamphetamine, according to court and prison records. He had numerous felony charges and convictions dating back to the 1990s for drug possession, firearms violations and other crimes. He had just been released from prison in May after serving six years for drug manufacturing, according to Oklahoma Department of Corrections records.

Later, Snelson’s autopsy would also show he had methamphetamine in his system at the time of the shooting.

Like Snelson, Mulkey also had experience with pursuits, though as the pursuer, Rice said.

“He’s a very active deputy,” Rice said. “He’s had quite a few pursuits, all of them always ending well, except for this one here.”

After a short, winding pursuit through Okmulgee, Snelson jumped off his motorcycle near the intersection of Sherman Avenue and Belmont Street and fled a short distance on foot to a vacant lot, where he hid under a tree near a shed, according to Rice and a statement released to The Frontier by OSBI.

The vacant lot in Okmulgee where Deputy Ethan Mulkey chased Justin Snelson prior to the shooting on Sept. 29. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

Mulkey chased Snelson into the empty lot, Rice said, found him laying on the ground hiding near the shed and gave verbal commands for Snelson to surrender, according to the OSBI.

Snelson refused to obey Mulkey’s commands, the OSBI said, retrieved an object from his pants, stood up and began advancing toward Mulkey, who believed Snelson had retrieved a gun and was pointing it at him.

The OSBI did not specify what Snelson may have been actually holding.

Rice said the item that Snelson held was actually a butane torch lighter with a nozzle on it that may have, in the poor lighting, looked somewhat like a handgun. In his other hand, he held a cell phone, Rice said.

“It was a partially-lit area, so there wasn’t a lot of light — you’re going solely off flashlight,” Rice said.

However, records show that law enforcement submitted a report to the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office, which performed Snelson’s autopsy, stating that Snelson had pulled a knife and was advancing toward Mulkey before he was shot.

“According to Investigator reports, the decedent was a 54-year-old American Indian male who was the driver of a motorcycle involved in a pursuit with law enforcement,” the medical examiner’s report states. “At some point during a subsequent foot pursuit, he reportedly pulled a knife and advanced toward law enforcement before being shot.”

The Medical Examiner’s Office declined to release the report submitted to it by law enforcement.

Rice said he did not know why the report would say Snelson had brandished a knife.

“I couldn’t even relate on that,” Rice said. “We didn’t provide it (the report) to the medical examiner, it would have been OSBI that submitted it to the medical examiner. It could have been false or not a true statement or a misunderstanding. Who knows?”

As Snelson continued to advance on Mulkey, he uttered “I’ll fucking kill you,” and continued to ignore Mulkey’s commands to surrender, the OSBI’s statement read.

In previous pursuits, Snelson did not become violent or aggressive with law enforcement after being caught, Rice said.

“This was totally out of character,” Rice said. “The older guys, we had never seen him be really aggressive.”

After Snelson continued to advance on him, Mulkey fired two shots, striking Snelson once in the neck and once in the chest, according to the State Medical Examiner’s report. Snelson died at the scene. Neighbors who live nearby where the shooting happened confirmed to The Frontier they heard two gunshots shots in quick succession.

Rice said the only part of the OSBI’s report that was critical of Mulkey was the length of time he gave Snelson before firing his service weapon.

“I think the only thing he got scolded by the OSBI about was because he waited too long, putting himself in danger,” Rice said.

According to the autopsy report, the two bullets that struck Snelson entered his body from the front, but both rounds were also traveling at downward and at left-to-right angles relative to Snelson’s body. One bullet, traveling primarily left to right in relation to Snelson’s body, entered Snelson’s neck just right of center, and traveled into his chest to the right before coming to rest in the right side of his back. The second bullet entered the left side of his chest and came to rest in the right-middle of his back, according to the medical examiner’s report.

The autopsy report also notes several bruises and red marks on Snelson’s body, though it does not say what may have caused the marks.

Snelson’s widow, Misty Horn Snelson, has retained an attorney to look into her husband’s death, and probate records for Snelson’s estate show a wrongful death lawsuit may be forthcoming.

Misty Snelson said neither she nor any of Snelson’s five grown children have received much information about the shooting from law enforcement. She said there are many unanswered questions about Snelson’s death and that she was worried his death would be swept under the rug.

“They (law enforcement) just kind of want to just let it go, let it be,” Misty Snelson said. “I don’t think it’s right. If they get away with it, they’re going to do it again, and they have been.”

Related reading

Oklahoma officer-involved shootings in 2018

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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