MOUNT VERNON — As prosecutors wind down their case in the trial of Ernesto Rivas, the man accused of shooting a Mount Vernon police officer in the head, testimony continues to describe the chaotic start to a standoff that lasted hours.
Sgt. Pete Lindberg, who had been a sergeant in the department for about 30 years, testified that he was leading the swing shift from 2:30 to 11 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2016, when he heard about a shooting in the 900 block of North LaVenture Road.
Lindberg, who is now retired, said he was on break when the call came in, but left his home and headed to Skagit Valley Hospital to speak to the victim and witnesses of a shooting officers were investigating.
After learning that a K-9 team had tracked at least one suspect to Rivas’ home, Lindberg headed there and spoke with other officers on what to do next.
Lindberg recounted watching officer Michael “Mick” McClaughry, with his distinct head of white hair, and Detective Ben Green approach Rivas’ front door.
As he stood in Rivas’ driveway, about 35 feet from the door, Lindberg heard shots ring out, saw debris fly from the door, and saw McClaughry fall.
“I watched him standing there one second and then the next he fell like a sack of potatoes,” Lindberg said. “I immediately knew he was dead. Thank God I was wrong.”
As he attempted to get his bearings, Lindberg said he called several times into his radio “officer down” and “shots fired.” In the chaos, he didn’t notice Green, Mount Vernon police officer Liz Paul or Burlington police officer Preston Payne — who were scrambling low to the ground to pull McClaughry to safety — and assumed the worst.
“I was horrified,” Lindberg said. “I was in shock. The next thing I thought was: four officers are dead.”
Still standing in the driveway, Lindberg returned fire, he said, aiming at the front door from which he thought he saw the bullets come out of and the nearby front window in an attempt to provide cover for the officers he now saw were attempting to rescue McClaughry.
“I realized I was in a bad position,” Lindberg said. “I thought to myself, ‘The next bullet is going to be in me.’”
Although shots rained down on police throughout an hourslong standoff, Lindberg is one of two officers who have testified to firing into Rivas’ home.
When asked by defense lawyer Tammy Candler if he had heard from other officers that Rivas, a known gang member, was trying to better himself, Lindberg said yes.
Other law enforcement officers testified Monday about Rivas’ gang involvement, including Skagit County Sheriff’s deputy Paul Pacini, who said he met with Rivas several times in an attempt to learn more about gang culture in the county.
On one of those occasions, Pacini testified, a member of the rival gang drove by them and took a photo of Rivas speaking with the uniformed deputy. That photo was then distributed to younger members of Rivas’ gang, calling him out for being a snitch, Pacini said.
The person who took that photo was the victim of the shooting McClaughry and others had gone to investigate.
Mount Vernon police officer Aaron Cohen, who is the department’s gang expert, refuted a statement from defense lawyer Jason Smith that part of gang “code” was to not shoot police officers.
Prosecutors are expected to wrap up their case early this week, at which point the defense will begin its case.