Jury: Driver shot self, officer cleared
A coroner’s jury took seven minutes Tuesday to determine the motorist who died on a traffic stop in Columbus last New Year’s Eve did so by her own hand, committing suicide as a Columbus police officer stood less than a foot away.
Jamie B. Porter, 48, fired a single fatal gunshot into her head with a .357-caliber snub-nosed revolver after being stopped in an alley off Ninth Street and First Avenue in Columbus around 11:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2016, the jury found.
Montana law requires a coroner’s inquest be held whenever someone dies while in police custody or while being questioned and are “not free to leave,” explained Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde.
The normal practice in these cases is for an outside agency to conduct an investigation into such a death. In this case, the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) conducted the investigation.
Park County Coroner Al Jenkins presided over the hearing and instructed the jury that its job was to determine the cause and manner of death, and to determine if any criminal or negligence was involved on the part of law enforcement.
Testifying at the hearing was DCI Agent Craig Baum, Montana’s Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Kurtzman and Columbus Police Officer Kelly Mason. The jury also watched the video of the incident recorded on Officer Mason’s body camera.
Officer Kelly Mason was less than a foot away from Porter when the gun was fired, sending Mason scrambling back to her patrol car while radioing to dispatch “Shots fired! Shots fired! Send medical!” according to video from Mason’s body camera.
The officer retreated behind her patrol car, her hands visibly shaking as they held her duty weapon, pointed toward Porter’s truck.
“I almost just got shot,” Mason is heard saying on the video.
Although the video only showed Mason’s hands and recorded her voice, clearly visible at one point is the shadow outline of her body, arms out-stretched and holding her gun toward the truck as she repeatedly asked if the police chief had been reached and asking for the status of backup.
Mason was alone on scene for more than five minutes before Stillwater County Sheriff’s Reserve Deputy Aaron Eucker arrived. Police Chief Jacob Ward, Deputy Clay Waltner and Undersheriff Chip Kem arrived shortly after Eucker.
After Ward and Waltner removed the gun from the truck, Columbus Fire Rescue was allowed to approach the truck and render aid to Porter. She was taken to the Stillwater Billings Clinic, where she was declared dead.
Mason told the 9-person jury that on the night of the death, she had stopped Porter’s truck after observing her make an illegal U-turn, speed and drive erratically. Mason smelled alcohol coming from the truck, but Porter denied she had been drinking.
Mason said Porter’s responses and behavior were off and she asked her to get out of her truck so the two could go to the sheriff’s office to conduct field sobriety tests. Porter initially followed the instructions, but climbed back in, stared straight ahead and ignored all of Mason’s commands. At one point, Porter said “Please don’t do this to me.”
After repeatedly telling Porter to get out of the truck, Mason reached for Porter’s hand to start to physically remove her.
“That’s when the gun went off,” said Mason.
DCI Agent Baum told the jury that among evidence collected at the scene were Porter’s gun, which had been fired three times and had two live rounds. Mason’s duty weapon had not been fired. Also found in Porter’s truck were three guns and a “large amount of ammo,” said Baum.
Through interviews with Porter’s finance, an ex-boyfriend, a friend and Carbon County authorities, Baum learned that Porter was living with her fiancé in Belfry and earlier that night had shot his 50-gallon fish tank and a wall in the home. Porter was headed to Lewistown to stay with a friend when she was stopped in Columbus.
Baum said he also learned she had made a previous suicide attempt and had threatened to commit suicide if she lost custody of her daughter. Based on medical records and interviews with witnesses, Baum said Porter also had a history of mental health issues, as well as issues with alcohol and drugs.
The topic of sharing custody of her daughter with her ex-husband was a factor, said Baum, as other witnesses told him that Porter had repeatedly said if she ever lost custody, she would take her own life.
Baum said that he believed Porter realized she was going to be arrested by Mason and made a decision.
“That was enough to trigger her to commit suicide,” said Baum.
A tow truck driver heard the gunshot and immediately went to Mason’s aid, thinking she had been wounded, said Baum. That man’s wife later posted on Facebook that her husband had helped a Columbus police officer following an officer-involved shooting. An ex-boyfriend of Porter’s saw the post. He told Baum that he had been talking with Porter on the phone prior to her getting stopped.
Dr. Kurtzman testified that he found a bullet entry wound on the right side of Porter’s head and a large exit wound out the left side, consistent with a contact self-inflicted gunshot. Photos of those wounds were shown to the jury. Porter’s blood alcohol content was nearly three times the legal limit in Montana, at .216, said Kurtzman.
One juror asked if the bullet exiting the left side of Porter’s head could have been what was earlier described as Officer Mason feeling “something go by her head,” to which Kurtzman answered possibly.