Investigation documents SWAT arrest attempt, Wash. deputy's death

One officer was wounded and another fatally shot when the SWAT team's plan to surprise and arrest a suspect failed


By Jared Brown
The News Tribune 

TACOMA, Wash. — The plan the Pierce County Sheriff's Department devised to arrest an armed and highly dangerous assault suspect in Spanaway earlier this year applied a formula that's standard to tactical teams around the country: drive in under disguise, block in the target car, detonate a flash grenade and then yank the suspect out of the car before they can react.

It didn't work.

At a mobile home park just off Pacific Avenue on March 15, the suspect struck first, thwarting the plan just as it was getting into motion, according to hundreds of pages of investigative documents recently released to The News Tribune through a public records request.

Bullets started flying at the Pierce County SWAT team's raid van before half of them stepped out of the vehicle. The flash grenade fizzled on the ground with no explosion. Two of the six deputies went down almost immediately. Four of them fired more than 60 times in response.

"You can be the best prepared, and things change in a moment's notice," former Tukwila police officer and longtime SWAT operator Everett Tyrrell told The News Tribune during a recent phone interview. "They hope for the best, train for the worst."

Standing in front of suspect Jeremy Dayton's car, SWAT team leader Sgt. Rich Scaniffe yelled commands to surrender for about four seconds. He couldn't see the pistol pointing out from behind Dayton's darkly tinted windshield.

When the gunfire stopped 37 seconds later, deputy Dom Calata, a 35-year-old father, and Dayton, had suffered fatal wounds. Scaniffe, bleeding heavily from his femoral artery, needed immediate medical attention, or else he'd die as well.

Remarkably, Scaniffe fired a shot through Dayton's windshield that struck and disabled the suspect's pistol after he squeezed off four rounds. Otherwise, Dayton had eight bullets left in his gun and the SWAT team didn't have a full view of where he was in the car.

After the initial gunfire, deputies reported seeing Dayton attempting to fix his weapon through the holes in his windshield, despite his injuries and commands to surrender.

A week prior, Dayton, out on $200,000 bail, skipped the first day of his trial which could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life. The SWAT operation to capture him at the request of Pierce County prosecutors was planned in conjunction with the federal South Sound Gang Task Force.

SWAT team Sgt. Robert Shaw fired a final rifle shot at Dayton's head before deputies pulled him out of the car from behind a shield.

Eleven days after the gunfight, a law enforcement processional followed Calata's casket to his memorial service in Tacoma. Scaniffe, who spoke at the service a week after leaving the hospital, returned to duty in August.

Calata is the only sheriff's deputy to be killed during a Pierce County SWAT operation. Four other deputies have been killed by gunfire since 1978.

A Tacoma police detective leading the Pierce County Force Investigation Team probe of the shooting forwarded the case to the prosecutor's office for review in mid-September. Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett has not yet announced whether police justifiably shot and killed Dayton.

The investigative report details how a familiar, albeit knowingly high-risk, SWAT operation devolved into a worst-case scenario in a matter of seconds.

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department has not released findings from any administrative reviews of the SWAT operation.

PCFIT recently debriefed department leadership on the results of the outside investigation, according to spokesperson Sgt. Darren Moss.

Dayton arrest operation planned

Pierce County prosecutors' final plea offer to Dayton ahead of his second-degree assault trial was 17 years in prison, according to investigative documents. His defense attorney had asked for 12 months, and Dayton's response to the state's offer reportedly was, "No way."

The morning of his trial, on March 7, Dayton didn't show or respond to calls from his defense attorney, investigative documents show.

His estranged wife later told police that Dayton was homeless at the time, living out of his car and motels. She said he hadn't had a stable address since his release from prison in 2017.

Since Dayton was considered a violent offender, deputy prosecuting attorney Ben Nelson reached out to an FBI agent with the South Sound Gang Task Force about capturing him.

Dayton was going on trial for putting a man in the hospital after he'd tried to calm Dayton down in the alley of a restaurant in February 2021, according to court documents. Dayton had been turned away because he was barred from the property for previous fights.

His first two "strike" convictions were for a 2000 first-degree robbery charge and a 2017 domestic-violence assault, according to court documents. He also was suspected of a domestic-violence assault in January where he was armed with a gun.

The federal task force received a warrant to track Dayton's phone on March 14 and began preparing to arrest him at the Spanaway mobile home the following morning, according to investigative documents.

A risk assessment created by a sheriff's deputy with the Special Investigations Unit determined Dayton's arrest operation required automatic consultation with the SWAT team. Being an armed three-strikes candidate with prior armed assaults was enough on its own, aside from his past weapons violations and other convictions.

Scaniffe, the SWAT team leader, put together a slideshow briefing for Dayton's arrest, according to investigative documents. Lt. Tony Messineo and Chief of Investigations Kevin Roberts approved the operation.

The type of operation, known as a Mobile Arrest Team, or MAT, prioritizes speed and surprise to perform an arrest before the suspect can react, according to investigative documents. It often involves two police vehicles pinning a suspect vehicle from the front and back, along with a distraction.

Most of the Pierce County SWAT team opted for lighter-weight body armor on March 15, and none wore helmets, investigative documents show.

The SWAT deputies rehearsed the arrest plan and waited less than half a mile away while a surveillance team watched Dayton, according to investigative documents.

Dayton arrest plan falls apart

As the surveillance team followed Dayton's movements that morning, everything appeared to go as the operation's leaders had planned, according to investigative documents.

Dayton got into his white Cadillac DeVille around 11:30 a.m. and sat there alone for some 15 minutes. Scaniffe, waiting in an unmarked white Chevy van with five other sheriff's deputies, gave the command to move in.

Because the Cadillac was backed in and facing the driveway, Calata swapped roles with Shaw and became the team's breacher: the deputy who would pull open a car door or smash a window so the officers behind him could grab Dayton.

Each of the SWAT team members recorded the operation on body-worn cameras.

Detetive Patrick Dos Remedios drove the raid van in a "somewhat blind approach" through a small mobile home park, down the last dirt driveway on the left and up against Dayton's front bumper, according to investigative documents. The Cadillac was blocked to the rear by a 7-foot-tall fence for the old Spanaway Airport.

Calata struggled with the rear door of the van for about two seconds, then told the deputies behind him to watch out for a puddle on the muddy driveway.

Scaniffe hopped out of the front passenger seat and yelled, "Hands, let me see your hands."

In those same few seconds, Dos Remedios spotted the barrel of a gun aimed through the Cadillac windshield. It was too darkened to see Dayton holding it.

"Gun, gun, gun, gun," Dos Remedios shouted as Scaniffe spoke.

Dayton started firing his .40-caliber pistol.

The first round hit a side mirror on the raid van, the PCFIT investigation determined.

Debris and bullet fragments flew into Scaniffe's elbow, injuring him.

Smoke floated out of the bullet hole left in Dayton's windshield.

The next two rounds followed in rapid succession, according to video footage and crime scene analysis.

One hit Scaniffe in the abdomen, causing him to grunt and step toward the raid van.

The other crashed through the van's front windshield and out a rear window.

Dos Remedios dove toward the floorboards to take cover in the driver's seat.

The bullet shattered glass into the face of Shaw, the only deputy initially armed with a rifle, as he went up the driver's side of the raid van toward Dayton.

Shaw threw a flash grenade to the passenger side of Dayton's car as planned — but only a muffled bang followed. Then he began firing the first of more than two dozen rounds into Dayton's windshield.

Behind Scaniffe, Calata switched out a glass-breaking device for his sidearm and stepped up to fire around his injured leader.

As he raised his gun from his waist to fire, the fourth bullet from Dayton's gun struck Calata in the head, sending him to the ground.

Deputy Tyler Seavey followed behind Calata and fired his handgun at Dayton's car 11 times. The last deputy out of the van, Nathan Coggin, fired four times.

Scaniffe shot eight rounds from his handgun at Dayton, disabling the suspect's gun with one of the rounds. Then he backpedaled, tripped over Calata and fired another 13 rounds from his back, emptying his clip as he put pressure on his wound with one hand.

"I'm hit, I'm hit, I'm hit," Scaniffe shouted.

Seavey dragged Scaniffe to the back of the raid van as multiple backup deputies ran down the road in response to the gunshots, according to investigative documents. Two backup deputies used a shield to run up to Calata and bring him to cover.

Several deputies evacuated Scaniffe and Calata from the scene while the remaining officers surrounded the mobile home and Dayton's Cadillac, according to investigative documents. The mobile home owner, who had been hiding behind cover inside, later told police she didn't know Dayton had been there.

Led by Shaw, other deputies tried to throw rocks at the Cadillac to create larger holes in the glass to see Dayton, according to investigative documents. Shaw said he saw Dayton moving like he was trying to rack his pistol. Shaw fired his rifle at Dayton's head when he didn't obey commands to stop moving.

Deputies pulled Dayton out of the car using a shield. He died at the scene from two gunshot wounds to the head: one from Shaw, another from a deputy who fired a pistol.

SWAT operations always risky

SWAT teams and their leaders make numerous subjective decisions when executing an operation, and each choice can have trade-offs, according to Tyrrell, the longtime SWAT operator. He also has experience investigating police shootings as a lead investigator for the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney.

That subjectivity, coupled with fluidity in the moment, is why detailed planning and communication in advance is key, he said.

"By sticking with the plan you can usually have success," said Tyrrell.

When a suspect vehicle is pinned during a MAT like the one to arrest Dayton, there are essentially two approaches, according to Tyrrell.

Tyrrell said it's ideal for a team to move on a suspect and get the person into custody as quickly as possible. His teams generally trained to approach suspect vehicles from the rear in hopes of remaining unnoticed, he said.

"You always want to have the element of surprise," Tyrrell said.

With protective cover, such as a bulletproof tactical vehicle, Tyrrell said, a SWAT operator might choose to give commands for a cooperative suspect to surrender.

"If the suspect is armed and not willing to go peacefully, this (Calata's death) is what can result," Tyrrell said.

Tyrrell was surprised the flash grenade Shaw threw didn't fire properly. He said he's never observed one fail.

Scaniffe and the other deputies arresting Dayton also might have considered wearing heavier protective vests and helmets, but that could have meant sacrificing speed and mobility during the arrest, according to Tyrrell.

"It just depends on the mission," Tyrrell said.

SWAT team leaders can choose to call off an operation, but Tyrrell said that might allow a suspect to escape and pose a danger to the public.

"There's liability in that also," he said.

Tyrrell said the MAT tactic is prevalent among law enforcement agencies, and Pierce County will likely examine the March operation for training.

"These types of arrests have happened before, and I'm sure they've happened after," Tyrrell said.

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