On Feb. 12, Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rick Beem fired his gun at a Jeep as it drove toward him during a pursuit, The morning after, county officials said nobody was injured by the gunfire.
Now, the family of Dennis Leroy Barnes II is disputing that claim amid questions of whether a bullet that hit Barnes’ hat also injured his head — and of what it means to be shot.
“The mark on his head is from a bullet,” Barnes’ fiancé, Bonnie Larsen, told the Times-News last week, referencing a wound between his eyebrows. “If he wasn’t wearing his hat, he’d be dead.”
Barnes’ attorney, Daniel Taylor, said evidence shows a bullet did hit the brim of Barnes’ hat, but he’s waiting on medical records to determine if that caused the injury. The 37-year-old Barnes was flown to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise to be treated for the injury, which deputies originally believed was a gunshot wound, Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said.
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But when he arrived at the hospital, doctors said Barnes had not suffered a gunshot wound, Loebs said. That’s why the sheriff’s office announced nobody was injured by gunfire.
Further investigation determined a bullet hit Barnes’ hat, Loebs said. But did it injure him? And if the hat stopped the bullet but still caused the forehead injury, does that qualify as injury by gunfire?
“The state is arguing it was a ricochet, it hit the flap of his hat, it was a one-in-a-million shot,” Taylor told the Times-News. “He was treated for injuries to his forehead. We have to see what the medical records say.”
The sheriff’s office referred all questions about the incident to Loebs, who said Thursday the sheriff’s office’s announcement that nobody was injured was technically correct.
“If a police officer is shot in his bullet-proof vest, for example, he’s not shot,” Loebs said. “The vest stopped the bullet.”
The same logic applies to Barnes, according to the prosecutor. Even if a bullet was stopped by his hat, that doesn’t constitute being shot.
But no matter how one defines being shot, that is now a question for Ada County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Shawna Dunn, who is reviewing the shooting to determine if Beem acted lawfully or not. The shooting was investigated by Cassia County sheriff’s detectives as part of a Critical Incident Task Force and is being reviewed by Dunn to ensure an outside, independent investigation.
In an interview Monday, Dunn initially said that, “Since Mr. Barnes didn’t get hit, we are reviewing to see if the officer’s conduct qualifies for some type of crime.”
But Dunn walked back that statement later, saying “It was my understanding he was not hit,” but it’s still something she’ll evaluate.
“Of course, that’s why it’s still under review,” she said.
Dunn had factual questions about the case after receiving the report from the Critical Incident Task Force and asked for additional documents. She has no timetable for when her review will be complete.
“It depends on whether my factual questions are satisfied” by the additional documents, Dunn said.
As for the criminal case, Taylor argues his client was slowing and had no intention of harming Beem when the sheriff’s sergeant fired on him. Beem testified that based upon his location in a narrow private driveway, his only option to keep from being struck was to shoot at Barnes, forcing him to veer off the road.
“You can’t argue with a straight face he intended to hurt him with the Jeep,” Taylor told the Times-News on Thursday after making a similar argument Monday in court while seeking a bond reduction for his client.
Barnes was booked into the county jail the evening of Feb. 14 — less than 48 hours after being taken to Boise following the shooting — and is currently being held without bond for a probation violation. He faces several nonviolent charges in other criminal cases, including for forgery and falsifying documents in a court case.
He’s next due in court May 22 for a hearing on the aggravated assault charge, though Taylor remains confident he can fight that charge based on testimony presented at the preliminary hearing and other evidence in the case.
“One thing I did find interesting is that any time there’s a case similar to this, there’s always a pretty substantial investigation into what led to the shooting.”
The defense attorney said in this case, there’s been “no accident reconstruction, no checking of distances, no checking skid marks.”
“There’s been no investigation into anything that could substantiate” Barnes’ intent to hit Beem, Taylor said. “To me, that’s quite telling.”