Deanne Choate was sleeping naked under the covers when a trio of cops flicked on the lights and came barreling into her bedroom with guns drawn, believing she posed a lethal threat.
The police officers from Gardner, Kansas, roused her awake and ordered her to show the gun her boyfriend told them she had fired. When she did that after throwing on a hoodie, police opened fire anyway, putting her to sleep for good.
A year after Choate’s death, officers Robert Huff, Justin Mohney, and Jeff Breneman remain on the force, having dodged criminal charges or censure for killing the 53-year-old woman. But their department was slapped with a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court this week by Choate’s children. Armed with bodycam footage of the incident, the Choates blame police for being trigger happy when they were supposed to help their mother.
“They say she was pointing a pistol at them,” Choate’s 37-year-old son Michael Weddington told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview, referring to body camera video footage captured from the tragic night that Choate’s family members reviewed.
And after video footage from a cop’s body camera was finally offered for the family to view, Weddington is certain the cops overreacted and could have spared her life.
“Why did they have to get all commando-style?”
It was around 9:45 p.m. on March 26 last year when police responded to a 911 call by Choate’s boyfriend, Andrew Musto, claiming “she was under the influence of alcohol, may be suicidal and had a gun,” according to the civil lawsuit.
The document suggests cops arrived to neutralize “a disturbance with a gun at the home.”
Earlier in the evening, Choate and Musto were drinking at their favorite bar about a mile away and began fighting.
“They had gotten buzzed and [Musto] probably said something stupid because he’s a cocky dude,” Weddington said. “She pulled his card and left the restaurant.”
Back home, they fought some more until their fireworks escalated to a gunshot.
Neighbor Gary Smethers told The Daily Beast that he remembered the first of many shots from that evening.
“Before the cops showed up we could hear she took a shot outside with that pistol,” Smethers remembered.
Minutes later, he said, cops rolled up without their lights or siren on, choosing to park at the cul-de-sac instead of in front of the home.
Smethers and his wife, Theresa, proceeded to watch television before the staccato sounds of gunfire returned.
“We hear the shots and all we have to do was look out the window and it was all in plain view,” he said. “There had to be at least three to four shots and there was a space between the first one and the last.”
Once inside, according to the body camera footage that was shown to Choate’s family, cops flicked on the lights and charged for Choate’s bedroom upstairs.
Her son said the 115-pound Choate “is completely naked under there and says to them, ‘Could I have something to put on? I’m naked. I didn’t call you here. What do you want?’”
The cops wanted Musto’s .22 derringer.
“Where’s the gun?” one cop repeated, Weddington said. The civil lawsuit has the cops repeating the command: “We know you have a gun.”
Weddington said the cops were certain that—despite her barely awake, fully naked state—Choate was dangerous.
“They tell her, ‘Ma’am, you need to get out of bed so we can clear this room.’
“She says, ‘I’m 53 years old, I don’t just bounce out of bed.’”
As they hand her a hooded sweatshirt to cover herself, Weddington says Choate allegedly discovers the derringer under the covers and informs the cops.
“She says, ‘Oh, here it is.’
“She goes to lift her blanket and get up and the cop says ‘Drop the gun. Drop the fucking gun… Boom-boom-boom-boom.”
Choate was struck twice in the chest and once in the abdomen, according to Weddington who has a summary of the autopsy. (The Johnson County morgue refused to disclose any of its related findings and information was suppressed because a staffer there says the case remains under investigation.)
According to the civil lawsuit, “one officer commented after the shooting and killing Deanne, ‘I knew she had a gun the whole time.’”
Weddington added that the video footage shows cops approaching the bed for the first glimpse of any gun. “Never once do you see that pistol until cops pull it from her knee after lifting the blanket,” he said.
The gunshots still echoing off the walls, Weddington says one of the officers allegedly orders everybody to “shut off your cameras.”
Directly across the street Smethers could see and hear the wretched aftermath.
“We heard Andy [Musto] screaming,” Smethers said. “He was handcuffed behind his pickup truck and screaming, ‘You didn’t have to shoot her!’”
He said cops spirited Musto away and then allegedly did something peculiar.
“When Theresa and I saw they had taken her from the bedroom and laid her by the front door after she was shot we were confused,” he said. “They moved her in there and they covered her with a red blanket and then the ambulance showed up.”
The removal of Choate’s bullet-riddled corpse seems especially unorthodox given that her death and all of the factors that caused it becomes key evidence. Disturbing anything in that room (especially the remains before photographing it, examining it externally, and documenting the results) can be detrimental to preserving a crime scene’s integrity.
“Fragile evidence (which can be easily contaminated, lost or altered) must also be collected and/or preserved to maintain chain of custody and to assist in determination of cause, manner and circumstances of death,” according to The National Institute of Justice’s Guide to Death Scene Investigation.
It’s the almost ambivalent nature of the responders after the shooting that vexes Choate’s family the most. Her son Weddington, an IT tech, suggests nobody even tried to resuscitate her.
“They didn’t even do any lifesaving techniques,” Weddington said. “They grab her two arms and two legs and dragged her out into the hallway and then lay her there and leave her there until the paramedics get there.”
And when they do get a look at her the paramedics seem to be more concerned with the well-being of the cops. “They take her pulse for a total of two seconds and then they turn around and ask, ‘Is everybody else all right?’
“They don’t even attempt to save her life.”
Trying to get an official response from police proved to be difficult, constantly being bounced around between various departments who deflected most questions or reserved comment in lieu of the civil lawsuit.
The Olathe Police Department, who led an internal investigation, sent The Daily Beast old press releases.
In one dated April 1, 2015, Choate is described as having “failed to follow officer’s verbal commands involving a handgun” as a justification for firing “their weapons striking her.”
Gardner Police Chief James Pruetting said he couldn’t discuss any claims made about the bodycam footage, questions on whether the crime scene wasn’t preserved when Choate’s body was removed from the bedroom, and the lax resuscitation efforts.
“We don’t comment on pending litigation and that’s at the direction of our city attorney,” Chief Preutting told The Daily Beast.
He did confirm that two of the “cleared” officers had more than two years’ worth of experience and the third cop had been on the force for almost 11 years.
Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe’s rep would only provide a press release from May 18 in response to our questions.
The press release called the shooting death of Choate “justified under Kansas law” and added that “no criminal action will be taken.”
In the civil lawsuit, the family specifically takes aim at the Gardner Police Department for its “deliberate indifference,” “unnecessarily aggressive behavior,” “tortious conduct,” and suggests the cops’ actions violated Choate’s constitutional rights with their “impulsive, reckless and excessive use of deadly force.”
The lawsuit goes so far as to call the investigation after the deadly shooting a cover-up by the Gardner Police Department, which is “consistently and systemically working to hide and protect from public disclosure the identity and role officers involved in such conduct. … The City’s training and supervision deficiencies contributed to the pattern and practice of the use of excessive and unreasonable force by the City’s officers, including the officers involved in the shooting death of Deanne.”
Weddington goes even further to blame the prosecutors for trying to bury the video evidence and silence his family with a settlement worth “not more than $200,000.”
“There was nothing right about any of it,” Weddington said. “They tried to pay us off and sign a paper to get us to not let the video become public.
“So they were trying to get us to not sue them and not to make this public.”
The prosecutors and some of the investigators arranged a meeting with Choate’s family and admitted her death was “a horrible misunderstanding.” Weddington remembered the prosecutors saying that “She didn’t threaten them and they tried to prevent us from seeing the video.
“They said the video ‘was not pretty’ and ‘You don’t want to watch the video,’” Weddington added.
“They wanted us to sign off on the video so they had control and never had to release it, and so the public would never know how much they messed up,” he said. “They make their own laws.”
Weddington went on to say the whole matter could have ended peacefully.
“They could have called me. They showed up at my house anyway at 4 a.m.”
Weddington continued inveighing against the police.
“They could have called me and said, ‘Your mom is apparently suicidal and we can’t get in contact with her; she’s not coming out of her room… I was no more than a 10-minute drive away,” he said as the sting of the loss overcame him.
That night, Weddington admits his mom’s boozing may have contributed to her quarreling with her boyfriend but that she would have been more than capable of obeying the cops.
“I know my mother and it didn’t matter how much she drank, she was never out of control,” Weddington said. “She’s a biker chick. Probably the hippest grandma you’ve ever met.”
All Weddington and his sister Michele can do now is fight for their mother’s good name.
“Mom was laidback but also liked to have a good time and liked riding her motorcycle, or water skiing, or camping in the Ozarks, but she also went to church every weekend,” Weddington said.
Most of all her son wants it to be known that there was nothing in her life that would warrant going out in this way.
“She didn’t even have a speeding ticket and worked the same job for 15-20 years,” he said of her job as a receiving manager for a condiment company. “She was a respectable person by all means.”
His mother didn’t have much time to plead her case before cops opened fire.
“If they just would have said, ‘We messed up. We’re sorry. We panicked and shot her and it was a mistake,’ we probably wouldn’t have sued.
“But instead you’re not going to apologize. You’re not going to admit your faults. And you’re going to let the department cover it up,” Weddington said.
Weddington has since gotten a tattoo titled “Mother” featuring a cherub hiding his tears in his forearm and wants to make sure nobody else in Gardner experiences his kind of anguish.
“We need to get some reform in that police department so this doesn’t happen again.”