What happened to Tank Garner

Friends say man struggled with poverty, finding work

From Coos Bay – The World, May 13, 2004

Friends and acquaintances of a Southwestern Oregon Community College student shot Wednesday afternoon spoke with sadness and anger about the death of Steven Lile Garner, a man they said had jarringly different personalities and could be a smart student but also troubled.

Some who only knew of the 34-year-old Garner said they saw just a person addicted to drugs but others who knew him more closely said he was a conflicted man who could be both kind and frustrated, troubled yet outgoing, gloomy but motivated to improve himself.

“He was very much of a contradiction of himself,” said Debra Thomas, who took a homeless Garner into her home for three weeks recently. “On the one hand, he could turn around and talk about how people are selfish and uncaring and didn’t take care of one another. Then he talked about the beauty of the sea and how it seemed alive. He was very much of a puzzle.”

Thomas, a student at Southwestern who is retraining after a 20-year career working to enhance crime victims’ rights, said she was aware Garner had a troubled past but she allowed him to stay with her and her 17-year-old son nonetheless, never fearing any danger or sensing he could be violent or volatile. She described Garner as messy, at times morose but at other times friendly and positive.

Thomas expressed shock and outrage over Wednesday’s police shooting.

“I’m really distraught they would come onto a college campus and fire on anyone,” she said. “The thing is, I spent 20 years checking little hairs on the back of my neck and they never went off with this guy.”

Others said Wednesday they all knew Garner made bad choices in the past and he had been open about his drug problems and struggles with methamphetamine. They also expressed surprise at the idea he was considered dangerous and said they believed Garner, a man they knew to carry only a 3-inch pocket knife, had been attempting to turn his life around.

Described as an eccentric writer who liked to dress flamboyantly and say things to surprise and shock others, Garner was apparently going through tough financial times and had been homeless for about four months. He attended college with financial aid he collected through Southwestern.

Many took him in and gave him a couch on which to sleep. Others helped him on his way wherever he needed to go.

Christy Harris, who shared a creative writing class with Garner, said she gave him a ride about a week ago to a North Bend motel room where he was staying.

“He was always a little odd but we just took him as a quirky type of person,” Harris said. “I never suspected him of being dangerous. Just a little odd.”

Friend Lisa Burris said Garner was outwardly happy and friendly, but he suffered from depression, due partly to his financial difficulties and a feeling that he would never outgrow Coos County.

“He was so low down on his luck. I think he had exhausted every option he had,” Burris said. “He was staying with friends until friends couldn’t help him anymore. I know that he hated it. I know that he didn’t want to be a burden on his friends.”

Burris said Garner worked on a fishing boat in Charleston for a time and was passionate about the business. She said Garner often wrote poetry about his experiences working in the industry but was dejected about being out of work.

“It really seemed to be one of the major experiences in his life,” Burris said.

She remembered Garner as a friend who enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons role-playing and video games but spent a large portion of his time writing poetry, essays and short stories.

David Wood, a friend who met Garner in Southwestern classes a year ago and temporarily allowed him to stay at his home, said Garner’s troubles were compounded recently when $250 of the financial aid he used for college was stolen. In addition, Wood said Garner injured himself about a week ago falling off a 15-foot wall. He was taken to Bay Area Hospital for treatment.

At the time, Wood said officials believed Garner was suicidal and put him in a ward to oversee his condition. Wood, who saw Garner on Tuesday, a day after his release from the hospital, said Garner lost a tooth during the fall and also suffered a broken wrist, which was secured by a sling.

“They put him in the mental section for three to four days thinking he was trying to kill himself,” Wood said, adding that he didn’t believe Garner was suicidal but that his fall was accidental and that he was traumatized by a head injury.

Friends and acquaintances will return to classes today and go back to a school that has made four counselors available to students who need to grieve or discuss the incident.

Thomas, who plans on returning to the class she shared with Garner Thursday, said she remains concerned about how the issue will be addressed at the Southwestern level.

“I’m very concerned about what the impact is going to be,” she said. “It is going to be extremely odd to go back into that classroom tomorrow night. He’s going to be there.”

Obituary – Steven Lile ‘Tank’ Garner

From Coos Bay – The World, May 15, 2004

March 22, 1970 – May 12, 2004

Memorial services for family and friends of Steven Lile “Tank” Garner , 34, of Coos Bay, will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 16, at Nelson’s Bay Area Mortuary, Fourth and Elrod, Coos Bay.

Steven was born March 22, 1970, in Medford, the son of Darrell L. and Betty J. (Langstaff) Garner . He died May 12, 2004, in Coos Bay.

In 1988, Steven graduated from North Valley High School in Merlin. In 1994, he moved to the South Coast and worked in commercial fishing. He had worked in ATV rental and repair and local deliveries.

He completed an International Correspondence School course in motorcycle mechanics in 1996. In 2002, he enrolled at Southwestern Oregon Community College, with a goal of becoming a geologist. At Southwestern, he was recognized for his writing skills and was published in a national magazine. He also was active in the Geology Club. Steven served as treasurer of the Gay Straight Alliance and was active in the local PFLAG chapter.

Steven is survived by his mother, Betty J. Garner of North Bend; sister, Roxanne Johnson of Lebanon; brother, Billie Garner of Castle Rock, Wash.; numerous nieces and nephews in Oregon and Washington; and an aunt and many cousins in the local area.

He was preceded in death by his father, Darrell Garner, in 1993.

Arrangements are under the direction of Nelson’s Bay Area Mortuary, 267-4216.

Report reveals slain student’s troubles

From the Eugene Register-Guard, June 5, 2004

Investigators described a “troubled” young man in Steven Lile Garner, frustrated with his family’s unwillingness to accept his lifestyle and contemplating suicide.

In a 16-page report, Coos Bay Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Frasier chronicled interviews with several people who came forward after Garner was shot by a Coos Bay police detective last month.

The report depicts a young man who seemed to believe he’d run out of options.

Garner was known by his friends as “Tank” and grew up in Grants Pass. Little is known about his early childhood, but police learned his troubles had escalated during the past 18 months.

After the shooting, retired police officer Jack Whittemore told police that Garner had lived on his boat 1 1/2 years ago and that Garner started to sell things from the boat without permission. When confronted, Garner grew hostile. At one point, after Garner had moved off the boat, he jumped into traffic to yell obscenities at Whittemore, forcing cars to swerve to avoid hitting him. Whittemore described Garner as “sick and dangerous,” Frasier said.

On Jan. 5, 2003, Garner’s girlfriend, Victoria Francis, took out a restraining order against Garner, alleging that he pushed her, held his hand over her mouth, slapped her repeatedly, bent one of her fingers back and bit her. Last December, Francis had the order extended a year because she still feared Garner and he had access to guns and knives, Frasier said.

Garner was arrested last October after he failed several sobriety tests during a traffic stop and agreed to an evaluation to determine whether he was on drugs at the time. Garner tested positive for methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine and was charged with possession of a controlled substance and driving under the influence of intoxicants. He pleaded not guilty and had been scheduled for trial this month.

Garner, a self-described bisexual who was wearing a dress during the October arrest and a bra and woman’s bathing suit on the day of last month’s shooting, increasingly used drugs, Frasier said. His friends described him as depressed and stressed.

In a recent issue of the Southwest Oregon Community College newspaper, classmate Felix Millan wrote that he was afraid of Garner, recalling an encounter with him a week before the shooting:

“Tank told me of being put on financial probation. Tank said he was `living under a tree’ with anger seething from his voice. He told of how he hit a wall in anger. That `next time’ he said coldly, `maybe something worse would happen.”

“I was scared,” Millan wrote. “Scared that Tank was ticking and what it would take to push him over the edge.”

Millan tried to help Garner , he wrote, after hearing of his drug use, depression and suicidal thoughts. Millan arranged for Garner to talk to a priest in North Bend and gave him some money and his phone number. On May 8, Garner called Millan, and said: “Don’t you ever snooker me like that again.”

Frasier also released two essays Garner wrote at college: one entitled “My Only Passion” about fishing and another untitled essay that ranted about a “straight-laced, `white bread,’ mom and pop world.”

In the first piece, Garner described how the ocean brought him “a pure peace of soul” and that he’d dreamt of a boat hold overflowing with fish. Then, “Crash, snap crash … we are going down. Filling with cold salty water. I was right, we are going to make a killing, but not of fish, but ourselves.”

In the second, Garner described himself as the “oddball, freak, weirdo most people try to ignore,” saying people try to hurt him. “If I die standing up for being myself, there is no more noble cause … `cough, cough’ … I am spiting (sic) up blood … falling to my knees, I guess this queer going to be added to the martyr list. Latest killed by ignorance and some imbred (sic) … with a gun.”

Investigation concludes DA: Shooting was justified. Victim’s family disputes findings

From Coos Bay – The World, June 5, 2004


The official report issued by the Coos County District Attorney’s Office Friday deemed the police shooting of an unarmed robbery suspect in May was a reasonable defense, provoked by a man approaching a detective while making stabbing motions with an unidentifiable object ‹ later found to be a Sharpie marking pen.

The sister of the dead suspect said the District Attorney offered an explanation, not an excuse, and she believes her brother’s death was made more likely because he was poor, homeless and had little to lose.

At a press conference on Friday, Chief Deputy District Attorney R. Paul Frasier made official a North Bend Police Department report indicating Coos Bay Detective Hugo Hatzel felt his life was in danger when the 34-year-old Steven Lile Garner approached him. In a Southwestern Oregon Community College parking lot, Hatzel, believing Garner was holding a knife, fired three rounds from his handgun, a “baby” 27 Glock.

“I don’t think there was anything different the officer could have done,” Frasier said, standing in front of a visual presentation detailing the men’s movements.

Reviewing the events of May 12 in a 16-page report that mirrored accounts presented by police the day after the shooting, Frasier said police went to the college with information that a bank robbery suspect had a 2 p.m. class. They were intent on making a quiet arrest.

Instead, a chase broke out. Garner, heading toward Newmark Avenue, scuffled with a Southwestern security guard. Escaping down Campus Way, Garner ran toward Hatzel, who was not in uniform, and two other Coos Bay Police officers, who were. Despite repeated orders to stop and get down on the ground, Garner charged at Hatzel. The detective backed away, Frasier said, first behind two vehicles and later, nearly into a ditch. That’s when Hatzel fired.

Frasier said two civilian witnesses to the shooting and three police officers confirm the events.

“This was a tragic situation for the family,” Frasier said. “On the other hand, I think they can see where we’re coming from.”

Periodically erupting with anger and frustration in a telephone conversation Friday morning, Roxanne Johnson, Garner’s sister, worked to put together a scrapbook in her brother’s memory. Her brother, homeless and short on money, may have robbed a bank, she said, but that was for a jury to decide.

“My brother didn’t get his day in court,” she said. “I feel like the police were judge, jury and executioner.”

Johnson said she believes her brother’s alternative lifestyle as a transgender man, his low financial status and his chronic homelessness made officers less tolerant and more apt to shoot first and ask questions later.

“It’s not like this is the first time an officer killed a person that was unarmed,” she said. “Every day this happens and the officers walk away, and the officers aren’t punished for it. It just doesn’t seem right.”

Garner had a history with police, albeit a brief one.

In October 2003, he was pulled over while driving without headlights and police said they discovered a small amount of methamphetamine. At the time, Hatzel, a certified drug-recognition expert, was called to evaluate Garner’s condition and he determined that Garner was exhibiting symptoms consistent with the use of marijuana and a stimulant.

Garner, who was wearing a dress at the time, was charged with possession of a controlled substance and driving under the influence of intoxicants. He pleaded innocent and was scheduled for trial in early June.

What police didn’t know then or at the time of the May shooting was that Garner’s troubled mental state extended beyond his drug addiction.

After breaking his nose and fracturing a wrist in a fall from a 15-foot retaining wall on May 7, the day after the bank robbery, Garner was taken by police to Bay Area Hospital for treatment. He later voluntarily admitted himself into a psychiatric ward.

According to police records, Garner told doctors he believed he was from another planet, he talked about dying with dignity and admitted he had a long-running addiction to drugs. Frasier said officials later discovered Garner also had a prior mental health commitment in 2003, in Minnesota.

Garner was released from the hospital on May 11, five days after being admitted. Police began a search for him the next day, when the Oregon State Police Springfield Crime Lab found his fingerprints on a note passed to a bank teller.

At Friday’s press conference, Frasier unveiled portions of writing Garner did in college, where he embraced his alternative lifestyle. His fictional stories were suggestive of suicide. Frasier said it was unclear what his mental state may have been at the time of the incident, but he said he couldn’t exclude a “suicide-by-cop” scenario.

“I can’t rule that out in this case,” he said. “I think it’s a distinct possibility.”

But Roxanne Johnson said her brother didn’t have death in mind while approaching police.

“I don’t believe for a moment that he thought that cop was going to shoot him,” she said. “He was desperate. He wanted to get away from the police.”

Frasier said a toxicology exam revealed five drugs in Garner’s system, including antidepressants and opiates prescribed after he went to the hospital, as well as marijuana, methamphetamine and amphetamine. Frasier said based on levels of methamphetamine, he believed Garner was under the influence at the time of the shooting.

Coos Bay Police Chief Eura Washburn said the shooting won’t prompt any changes in policy or procedures for the Coos Bay department. She said she believes the officer acted appropriately and he followed procedures in place to protect himself.

Hatzel has never been involved in an officer shooting before and the seven-year law enforcement veteran’s past record has been described as exemplary. Washburn said Hatzel will be reinstated on Monday, June 21. He has been on paid administrative leave since the episode.

Two other officers who were present during the shooting also were placed on leave, but were reinstated a week after the shooting. Consistent with Coos Bay Police procedure, all were offered assistance by police psychiatrists.

Washburn said she didn’t believe Garner’s death was due to an absence of treatment or available help and that Garner could have taken advantage of more therapy or available attention.

“I don’t feel the community let him down and I don’t feel a lack of mental health services are to blame,” she said.

Debra Thomas, a friend of Garner’s who allowed him to live in her home for some weeks before the shooting, said she isn’t willing to place blame or point fingers at police but wanted to see change in the way the department operates.

“I’m glad they didn’t charge the officer,” she said. “I don’t believe he did anything criminal.”

Still, Thomas said, the ultimate outcome and the shooting could have been avoided were it not for gaps, faults and poor decisions by many of those involved.

“What I would like to see is a change in the way things were done,” she said. “I think it was a mistake not to have gone back to the hospital. If the system isn’t catching it, maybe we need to look at the system.”

While Garner was not a member of the South Coast Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, John Kurka last month issued a statement on behalf of the group, pointing to tragedy on all sides. Kurka focused on drug abuse as a key ingredient to the death, saying that drugs are always in the control of those who use them.

“A death is a death, regardless of the circumstances, and my heart goes out to the family and friends of Steve Garner,” Kurka wrote. “My heart also goes out to the bank teller at Wells Fargo for the frightening experience she endured when she received a note at the bank demanding money. My heart also goes out to the Police Officer who, acting in the line of duty, shot and killed Steve Garner on campus. All are suffering; there are no winners.”

Coos Bay officer cleared in fatal shooting

From The Eugene Register-Guard, June 5, 2004

A Coos Bay police officer won’t face criminal charges or internal discipline for fatally shooting an unarmed 34-year-old student last month on the campus of Southwestern Oregon Community College, authorities announced Friday.

Detective Hugo Hatzel shot Steven Lile Garner, a robbery suspect, three times – twice in the chest and once in the left side – when Garner charged at him with a Sharpie marking pen on May 12. Hatzel told investigators he thought the pen was a knife and feared for his life.

Coos Bay Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Frasier said the shooting was justified.

“You shoot until the threat is gone,” Frasier said.

He noted that another police officer and a campus security guard told investigators they believed Garner was wielding a weapon. Three other witnesses didn’t describe a weapon, but corroborated accounts of Garner’s threatening gestures, Frasier said.

“Even though Mr. Garner was not armed with a knife, he was clearly brandishing an object as if it were a knife,” Frasier wrote in a 16-page report based on an investigation by the North Bend Police Department. “He could have run a variety of different directions when he encountered Detective Hatzel.

“Mr. Garner chose to ignore repeated commands to stop and get on the ground,” the report said. “Mr. Garner chose to make threatening gestures simulating that he was armed with a knife … any reasonable person facing the same circumstances as Detective Hatzel would have believed that his life was in imminent danger.”

Frasier said Garner made the fateful decision that ended his life.

“The question here is why would Mr. Garner advance on an armed police officer with only a Sharpie pen in his hand?” Frasier said at a news conference. “He may have been paranoid and delusional. Or, if he was truly suicidal, he was trying to do everything he could to get the officer to shoot him.”

An autopsy revealed enough methamphetamine in Garner’s system to prove he was high at the time of the shooting, Frasier said. Garner also tested positive for benzodiazepines, often found in anti-depressants, along with marijuana and opiates.

One of the bullets that struck Garner in the chest pierced his heart. The third bullet grazed his abdomen and lodged in a parked car in the campus lot where the shooting occurred.

Garner’s mother didn’t return phone calls seeking comment, but Frasier described family members as “not happy” about Garner’s death. He didn’t elaborate.

It’s clear, Frasier said, that Garner was in a “downhill spiral.” Garner’s medical records revealed a long history of substance abuse, he said. Garner was committed to a mental institution in Minnesota in 2003.

The problems culminated on the small college campus, when five police officers spread out to look for a robbery suspect they believed was Garner. His fingerprints matched those on a note used to rob a Wells Fargo Bank in Coos Bay a week earlier.

Campus security guard Cliff Neves spotted Garner first at about 3:10 p.m. that afternoon, heading across Campus Way Road toward the Wal-Mart south of campus, Frasier said. Neves jumped out of his car and yelled at Garner to stop and get on the ground. Garner reached into his pocket and pulled out the pen, which Neves believed was a weapon, he told police.

Garner advanced on Neves and stabbed at the guard, who struck him with a collapsible baton. Campus guards don’t carry firearms. Garner charged a second time, and Neves struck him a second time. Garner turned and ran, Frasier said.

Seconds later, Coos Bay police officer Cal Mitts spotted Garner running toward a campus parking lot. Garner had something in his hand and Mitts told investigators he believed it was a knife. Mitts drew his gun when Garner made threatening gestures.

Hatzel had also arrived at the scene from a different part of campus. Garner charged at Hatzel, who was in plain clothes and identified himself as an officer. Hatzel ordered Garner to the ground.

At that point, Mitts was “convinced Garner was going to hurt or kill Detective Hatzel” and was going to fire, but realized Hatzel was on the other side and could get caught in the crossfire, Frasier said.

As Mitts ran for a safer place to shoot, Hatzel backpedaled until Garner was 5 feet to 8 feet away and then fired three rounds.

State law allows citizens to defend themselves when someone is attacking them, Frasier said, but they must reasonably believe that the other person is committing or attempting to commit a felony involving physical force or deadly force.

In this case, Hatzel believed Garner had robbed a bank and told the teller he had a gun, Frasier said.

Hatzel has been on administrative leave since the shooting and will return to work later this month. He didn’t return telephone messages left via his attorney for comment.

The case was marked with some unavoidable near misses, Frasier said. On the day of the bank robbery, for example, the teller said she thought she knew the culprit as “Steve” from her classes, but police weren’t able to chase the tip because privacy laws prevented the school from revealing student information, he said.

And just a day after the robbery, police had Garner in custody – before the fingerprint analysis had identified him as a suspect.

Garner had fallen or jumped off a retaining wall in Coos Bay on May 7. When emergency officials and police answered the distress call, Garner tried to run away, covered in blood, yelling “I didn’t do it” and “It wasn’t me,” Frasier said.

Emergency officials noted that he had thrown a knife in the bushes as well. Garner spent the next few days in Bay Area Hospital, where he was admitted with a broken wrist and nose.

Emergency workers told doctors that Garner had tried to kill himself by jumping off the wall. Garner told hospital staffers that “he wanted to be dead and dying with dignity” and that he was from another planet. He also talked about a planet being blown up, according to Frasier’s report.

He later was placed in the hospital’s psychiatric unit and diagnosed with “polysubstance dependence” of cocaine, amphetamines, opiates and marijuana, Frasier said – though Garner denied having suicidal tendencies and he was released the day before the shooting.

That same day, a Springfield crime laboratory notified Coos Bay police that it had found five fingerprints on a note that the Wells Fargo Bank robber had given the teller and that they matched Garner’s. Frasier said Garner’s photograph also matched those taken at the May 6 robbery.