Jeff Kaer was 6 years old when a man, bleeding from his face, started pounding on his family's door in St. Johns, demanding to be let in.
It was a Sunday morning in 1969, and Kaer's mother, Roberta, was home with her five young children. It was up to this tiny woman, huddled against the door, to keep the stranger out.
Eventually the man left, leaving the family terrified but unharmed. But Kaer says the encounter had a lasting effect on him: "I decided from that point on, I'm not going to allow things like that to happen. If somebody needs my help, I want to be in a position where I can help."
Nearly four decades later, Kaer's family was in trouble again. This time it was his older sister, calling at 2 am to say there was a strange car in the middle of her street. Seven weeks earlier, her son had been shot, and the family was still on edge.
On that drizzly night in January 2006, Kaer drove to Northeast 64th Avenue and Alameda Street, where freshly painted houses overlook the Rose City Golf Course.
Fifteen minutes later, a 28-year-old man from Southeast Portland was dead, shot in the back by Kaer's 9 mm Glock as he tried to flee in an '85 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
Dennis Young was not threatening Kaer's sister. But he was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Why? Because this time Kaer had the power to protect his family. He was a lieutenant in the Portland Police Bureau.
The killing last year of Young received little notice from Portlanders—far less, for example, than the death of James Chasse Jr., a 42-year-old schizophrenic who died in back of a squad car Sept. 17 after a violent scuffle with police.
Chasse had advocates in the mental-health community, and a high-profile lawsuit has kept alive public fury over the case. But few have come forward to defend Young, a habitual car thief with a lengthy prison record.
And yet a review of the case suggests it's a far more puzzling and perhaps troubling police killing than any other in recent memory.
Puzzling because a fair body of evidence indicates Young's killing was not a simple act of self-defense, as Kaer suggests. A WW review of hundreds of pages of police investigation files, including ballistics tests, casts doubt on Kaer's claim that his life was in danger.
And troubling because this story is less about a bad cop than how a good cop's love of family may have led to a disastrous decision—one that has brought lasting misery to two families.
Several veteran cops suggest that merely by responding to the call from his sister Kaer was exercising understandable but poor judgment.
"In a perfect world, he shouldn't have been there at all," says Penny Harrington, a former Portland police chief. "If your family's involved, you're not thinking as emotionally detached as you should."
After hearing about the case, Frank Bernieri, an Oregon State University psychologist, says Kaer's concern for his family "was the fire that drove these natural processes to their horrific ending."
A Multnomah County grand jury decided not to charge Kaer. After 15 months, an internal police review still drags on.
But as Young's family prepares to file suit against the city, it's clear there are no simple answers in the case—a killing born of a twisted series of events and the competing forces of duty, addiction, violence and loyalty.
The story begins with a 25-year-old Iraq war vet named Tiler Pribbernow.
As an Army scout, Pribbernow was in the first wave of attack during the 2003 invasion. He came home from the war in November 2003 and got a job selling cars at Beaverton Nissan.
On the night of Nov. 16, 2005, Pribbernow was driving home from work on Northeast 72nd Drive, a north-south shortcut through the Rose City Golf Course. On a set of speed bumps, Pribbernow passed a low-rider Honda Accord.
In the Honda's passenger seat was Kent Kotsovos, a 22-year-old with a history of reckless driving and an inability to control his temper. (A former girlfriend obtained a restraining order against Kotsovos in June 2005, telling a judge he had stalked and threatened to kill her.)
Kotsovos was with his new girlfriend, 21-year-old Megan Janssen, when Pribbernow's Chrysler minivan passed Janssen's Honda. According to a police interview with Janssen, Kotsovos ordered her to chase the van, grabbing the wheel and pressing her foot to the gas pedal.
"He just gets pissed off and worked up," Janssen told police. And Kotsovos was plenty angry when the minivan passed them. The two tailgated Pribbernow through Northeast Portland. After a two-mile chase, Pribbernow pulled over on Northeast 81st Avenue and the Honda pulled up alongside.
Pribbernow told police Kotsovos stepped out of the car and reached under his belt. Pribbernow grabbed a 9 mm handgun from his dashboard and shot him in the face, chest and arm. "I made it through the war without getting shot or killed," Pribbernow told police. "I sure wasn't going to die right here in the street by my house." (It's unclear from the police file whether Kotsovos actually had a weapon.)
The bullets shattered Kotsovos' jaw and elbow, leaving him permanently disabled with slurred speech, facial paralysis and limited arm movement. Kotsovos spent a month in the hospital before returning home Dec. 16 to live with his mother, Brenda Kotsovos, a U.S. Bank employee.
Pribbernow was arrested for attempted murder, but a grand jury decided he acted in self-defense. He says his time in Iraq may have affected his reaction. "Maybe it made you more edgy to being chased. Not edgy, but I gotta say, more ready to pull the trigger," he told WW.
That might have been the end of the story. A tragic encounter between a kid with anger issues and an armed ex-soldier who says he felt threatened.
But it wasn't the end. Because Kotsovos' uncle was Jeff Kaer.
Ask anyone who knows Jeff Kaer, and they'll tell you how important family is to him. "I get their daughter's school picture every year," says C.W. Jensen, a former cop who was Kaer's boss until Jensen left the force in 1999. "He's proud of his family, whether it's his siblings or his children or his wife."
Jeff Kaer joined the Portland police in 1990. He made sergeant in 1998, then lieutenant in 2003. In June 2005, he was assigned to Southeast Precinct as night-shift commander, the post he still holds today.
Kaer is "a cop's cop," says Jensen. Police Chief Rosie Sizer, at the time of the shooting a commander and Kaer's direct boss, told reporters he was known in the bureau as "Kaer Bear."
In 16 years with the force, he never fired his gun. Until the night he got a call from his sister.
A couple of weeks earlier, on Dec. 18, Brenda Kotsovos saw a two-tone pickup drive five times past their house at 2615 NE 64th Ave. Her boy had just come home from the hospital and she feared Pribbernow or his friends were casing the house.
She called her younger brother, and Lt. Kaer ordered a one-week "flag" on the house, which meant that if she called the cops, a patrol car would be immediately dispatched to the house. A detective investigating the Kotsovos shooting later extended the flag to 90 days, including a four-car response if police had to go there.
Nothing happened for more than two weeks. Then, on Jan. 4, 2006, Brenda Kotsovos awoke and saw a strange car parked at an angle in the middle of the street out front. She was suspicious, but later told detectives she didn't want to bring four squad cars screaming down the street just to check it out.
So instead of dialing 911, she once again called her brother.
According to the police file, Kaer took his sister's call at 2 am, cut short a meeting with a sergeant working under him and, without informing anyone, climbed into an unmarked cruiser and drove to her house.
Police spokesman Sgt. Brian Schmautz says Portland has no policy against cops helping out family members. But the decision did set off alarm bells for Robert Voepel, the sergeant who was meeting with Kaer when his sister called.
Voepel later told detectives that he had doubts "as to why Lt. Kaer was actually there."
"I'm thinking...he shouldn't be there, and I was kind of shocked that he was there," Voepel said. "I'm thinking, OK, he just got a call from a family member, I'm pretty sure that's what it sounded like, and I'm thinking—I'm hoping it isn't this guy that's been stalking this house."
Jim LaMunyon, former head of the Washington State Patrol, says cops should try to send someone else if their own family is in trouble.
On Kaer, he says: "Certainly with the appearance, you can look at this situation and say it doesn't look good. Was he emotionally charged? Would he have responded differently in a different situation? I can't answer that."
Kaer says he would have done the same for anyone, even a stranger. But experts say when your family may be in danger, everything changes.
"The desire to protect your kin is one of the strongest drives that humans have," says Gabriela Martorell, a Portland State University psychologist. "If someone jumps in a burning building to save their child, we don't consider that heroic—we consider that something you're supposed to do."
When Kaer arrived on his sister's block, he found a 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme sitting in the street in front of her house. The engine was running, but the driver was passed out. It was Dennis Young, a man with no connection to Tiler Pribbernow or Kent Kotsovos.
Instead, Young was a meth addict and car thief recently released from his fourth stint in prison. He'd left home earlier that night after an argument with his girlfriend, who was pregnant with his second child.
Of course, Kaer knew none of this when he approached the Olds.
What Young was doing in the neighborhood is still a mystery. The car had been reported stolen from a house on Northeast 42nd Avenue the previous week.
Kaer arrived at the scene and called for backup. He did not run the car's plates. So Kaer didn't know the car was stolen when he walked up and knocked on the partially opened window. Young didn't stir.
Kaer reached through the window, unlocked the door and roused Young, shaking him and shining a flashlight in his face. Young panicked. Kaer put him in an arm hold. Young gunned the car forward into a small dogwood tree, then backed up.
Kaer fired two shots in rapid succession. One hit the door. The other shattered the driver's-side window and hit Young in the upper back.
Though shot, Young was screaming and trying to work the automatic gear shift, according to an interview that detectives conducted with Officer Lawrence Keller, who arrived at the scene just before the shooting. Keller didn't want Young to drive off, so he tasered him. Keller and Kaer pulled him out of the car and performed CPR, but Young was already turning pale. There was a glass pipe caked with meth in his pocket, and meth was later found in his blood. He was dead in minutes.
Kaer, the highest-ranking Portland officer to kill a man in more than 20 years, told investigators he had no idea who Young was at the time. He did say that he fired because he felt his life was in danger. Keller backed him up.
Six months prior, Portland police adopted a new policy barring cops from shooting at moving cars, unless there's a threat of death or serious injury and no way out. Poor tactics by officers, like placing themselves in the path of a vehicle, are no excuse to fire.
To justify the shooting, Kaer had to prove the car was going to hit him and he couldn't get away. He told detectives the next day that Young wasn't looking at him as the car reversed. He said he was hemmed in by the two police cars and Keller, and the Olds was speeding toward him.
Brenda Kotsovos, who had watched the whole encounter through her dining-room window, repeatedly told detectives at the scene that the driver was trying to escape, according to the police file. She never said his car was going to run over Kaer, and she was unclear whether the car was going forward or backward when Kaer fired. "It all happened so fast," she said.
But two days later she called a detective and changed her story, saying she had been driving to work when "boom, everything just came back." This time, according to the police file, she said the car was reversing fast, that it was going to hit Kaer, and he had nowhere to go. She said she'd spoken to Kaer's attorney before making the call.
It's still an open question whether the car was even driving in reverse when Kaer fired. Police investigators later determined that the car made one more forward acceleration after it hit the tree and backed up—it's unclear if that was before, during or after Kaer fired.
The biggest blow to his self-defense argument, WW has learned, are the ballistics tests conducted by the Oregon State Police on the hole that one of Kaer's bullets left in the Cutlass' door. Forensic scientists determined Kaer fired from an angle of 37 degrees to 45 degrees—that is, from the side of the car, not from behind.
"How could that car possibly hit him? I don't see how that's possible, if this is accurate," says former chief Harrington, who was shown photos (pages 16-17) of the ballistics test. "He's got a lot of explaining to do."
Contacted Tuesday afternoon, Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Chris Mascal told WW she could not remember whether she showed the ballistics test results to the grand jury that chose not to indict Kaer.
The seven-member grand jury voted unanimously not to press charges against Kaer. No Portland cop has ever been indicted for an on-duty shooting.
But Kaer may still face some official consequences, in addition to the pending civil lawsuit. In every cop shooting, the bureau conducts its own investigation.
While detectives interview witnesses, gather evidence and reconstruct the shooting, the cop's commanders look at whether he followed his training. All of that gets folded into an after-action report, which goes before the Police Bureau's use-of-force review board.
The board is made up of civilians and cops, and they make a recommendation to Sizer as to whether the shooting violated policy. Sizer and the police commissioner, Mayor Tom Potter, make the final ruling and decide on punishment, from a warning up to termination. The mayor, in this case an ex-police chief, has the final say.
The board handed its recommendation about Kaer to Sizer at the end of March—almost 15 months after the shooting. Until Sizer makes a final ruling and Kaer begins any punishment handed down, their findings remain confidential.
Jensen, the ex-cop, blasts the bureau for leaving Kaer hanging. "This is an embarrassment," he says. "The bureau owes an apology to Jeff Kaer and other officers for not coming to a speedy conclusion to something that really should have been done months ago." Harrington also calls the delay unacceptable.
Meantime, Kaer insists his judgment was not affected by the fact that he was responding to his sister's call, and that he was indeed in fear for his life. He says the trauma of killing someone means he can't sleep at night, and he's put off taking his captain's exam because any discipline would make promotion impossible.
"I can't compare my tragedy with the ultimate part of what happened with Mr. Young," Kaer says. "But having to relive this over and over again for the last 15 months...I wouldn't wish that on anybody."
Young's son, Dennis Jr., was born the summer after his death. He's being raised in Gresham by Young's 60-year-old mother, Stephanae Ennis, who was still recovering from her sister's 1992 murder. She and the baby's mother, Tosha Kandolf, both got psychiatric treatment after Young was killed.
"The death of a sister is horrible. But the death of a child is totally different," says Ennis. "The worst part of this is knowing I'll never be able to see him, hug him or joke around with him."
Ennis' attorney, M. Christian Bottoms, is preparing to file a federal civil rights suit against Kaer and the city by the end of this month.
"They killed him, and I don't believe they had to," Ennis says. "He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Out of 28 police shootings since 2002, internal investigations have found two officers at fault. In the 2003 killing of Kendra James, a black mother of two, Officer Scott McCollister was suspended for five and a half months—a punishment later overturned by an arbitrator.
Sgt. Bert Nederhiser was demoted to officer for a 2002 hotel shooting where he missed the suspect but almost hit other cops.
Law enforcement runs in Jeff Kaer's family. His brother Carey is a Troutdale police officer, as is his nephew Casey Kotsovos—the brother of Kent Kotsovos.
Craig Colby, a lawyer who lives a block from the scene of the shooting and questions whether Young's shooting was justified, sued to force the state medical examiner to release Young's autopsy report. He lost in Marion County Circuit Court but appealed this month.