Grand jury: SWAT justified in pot shooting

Two Jackson County SWAT team members who shot and killed a man at a marijuana growing operation deep in the woods on Aug. 11 were "fully justified and in compliance with Oregon law," a grand jury has found.

At the request of Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters, Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston didn't release the names of the two deputies who fired or any other tactical team members who were part of the raid on a pot garden on Bureau of Land Management property off West Evans Creek Road. Winters said the site was linked to a Mexican drug cartel and he asked Huddleston not to name the officers to protect them from the possibility of reprisal.

The man who died was identified as 20-year-old Mexican national Itali Arellana-Vargas.

He was hit by two of six bullets fired from .223-caliber tactical police rifles, a standard weapon carried by all members of Jackson County's SWAT team, Huddleston said. One bullet hit the back of Arellana-Vargas' right arm and one entered his back near the right shoulder blade and traveled toward the left side of his body, lodging near his left jaw.

The wounds were consistent with the officers' testimony that Arellana-Vargas was turning back to face them, with a shotgun in his hand, after initially running up a hill away from them.

The grand jury heard testimony on Wednesday from five deputies and a Bureau of Land Management officer who were at the scene when the shooting happened, as well as detectives who investigated the shooting and a trainer who teaches officers about defensive tactics and the use of force, Huddleston said in a release announcing the grand jury decision. Jurors reached their conclusion after about five minutes of deliberation, his release noted.

Testimony described how local and federal officers went to a pot garden on remote public land in northern Jackson County early on the morning of Aug. 11. An investigation linked the operation to a Mexican drug cartel and indicated that at least two people were tending the illegal plants. The growers were communicating via radio and at least one of them carried a long gun, Huddleston said in his news release recounting the grand jury testimony.

When the seven-man SWAT team — clothed in camouflage gear with police patches on the right sleeve and body armor — arrived at the garden, they saw numerous pot plants served by black flexible water lines. The team split into two groups that then moved off in separate directions to search and secure the site so eradication crews could come in to pull the plants. The two unidentified deputies who fired said they saw a man, later identified as Arellana-Vargas, walking down a trail toward them with a long gun slung over his left shoulder and a small water bucket in his right hand.

One of the officers, who was on the trail, called out "Police" and demanded the oncoming man to freeze and drop his weapon, Huddleston wrote. The officer testified that although he has been trained to give basic police commands in Spanish, he shouted in English.

As soon as Arellana-Vargas heard the word "police," he turned and ran back up the hill in the direction he had just come from, the officers testified. As he ran, he dropped the bucket and shifted his gun from his shoulder into his right hand.

By moving up the hill, he gained a potential tactical height advantage over the officers, Huddleston wrote. Before coming to the top of the hill, he started to turn back toward the officers and the barrel of the gun swung around in their direction.

Believing that he intended to shoot, both officers fired at Arellana-Vargas, who was fatally wounded. The shooting happened at 7:17 a.m. The sheriff's department previously reported that a SWAT team medic provided aid before the man died.

Another person was seen running from the grow site and police could hear at least two suspected growers talking on radios after the shooting. No one was taken into custody. A tent and makeshift kitchen were found at the site.

As soon as the SWAT team determined the area was safe, the Jackson County Major Assault and Death Investigation Unit was called to investigate. Oregon State Police Detective Bryan Scott, who testified before the grand jury Wednesday, headed the investigation. Huddleston released the names of Scott and OSP Detective Blaine Allen, who investigated the shooting, as well as that of Medford police Lt. Greg Lemhouse, who teaches courses in defensive tactics and use of force. All three testified Wednesday and could be named because they weren't involved in the drug investigation or the shooting, he said.

Measurements at the scene indicated Arellana-Vargas was about 90 feet from the officers when they fired. One officer testified that he fired three rounds, while the other said he thought he fired twice, but he wasn't certain. Six shell casings from the officers' rifles were found on the ground.

Arellana-Vargas carried a 12-gauge shotgun that the OSP forensic lab later fired and found fully functional. It was loaded with one shell in the firing chamber and two in the barrel, Huddleston reported. The safety was off and the gun was ready to fire.

The shells contained slugs, 00 buckshot and, in one round, pellets of the type normally found in pellet guns, Huddleston reported. The addition of pellets was believed to be an after-market modification, not a stock shell.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail

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