Family fight turns tragic, in Mill Park

This disturbance left one man dead, a charred home – and many questions. See what has been learned so far …

Hours after the incident officially ended, investigators from both fire and police bureaus, and emergency response vehicles, remain on SE Cherry Blossom Drive.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
A home in the Mill Park Neighborhood, a block north of from SE Market Street in the 11000 block of SE Cherry Blossom Drive, is now a burned-out shell; the family who lived there for many years has been displaced.

It started in the wee hours of November 23, with a call to the 9-1-1 Center. “The caller stated that he had accidentally shot his stepson,” initially reported Portland Police Bureau (PPB) spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson.

When officers arrived, the 76-year-old homeowner home reported that his stepson was attacking his stepdaughter and that the stepdaughter and wife were still in the house. The man also reported that he had accidentally shot his stepson during the course of the argument.

Throughout the day, officers come and go, taking evidence and bringing supplies down the hill to the home on SE Cherry Blossom Drive from SE Market Street.

In addition to learning that there were firearms in the house, police also learned that the stepson was on post-prison supervision, and had been drinking, when the argument began. “The Special Emergency Reaction Team (SERT) was activated, and the stepdaughter and mother were quickly retrieved. However, the barricaded subject began to fire at officers outside,” related Simpson.

As the officers waited for SERT to arrive, they took cover.  Officers believed rounds were being fired in their direction. Neighbors reported hearing numerous gunshots – one said she heard what she thought was a bullet zinging through the air. “Two houses, one in front of the home and one behind, were both damaged by the gunfire,” confirmed Sgt. Simpson.

The house directly behind the burned home is marked off with police tape – it was found to have bullet holes in it.
Additional officers began evacuating nearby residences. In conjunction with the Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT), SERT attempted to contact the subject by “loud hailing”.  Due to the danger to officers, and the fact that negotiations were not feasible, Simpson said that SERT officers deployed chemical agents – later revealed to be two forms of “CS teargas” into the home.

While now calm, in the light of day, this was a dangerous scene for firefighters who tried to fight a home on fire – while shots were being fired out the windows.
Firefighters take cover

“As the subject continued to fire at officers, a SERT Officer – a 17-year veteran of the Police Bureau – Officer Peter McConnell, fired his weapon,” Simpson continued. “Around the same time, Officers observed flames coming from the home.  Within minutes, the home was fully engulfed. Officers evacuated other occupants of nearby homes as a precaution.”

As the fire raged – one neighbor said it looked as if the home was ablaze in at least two areas, at opposite ends and levels of the home – witnesses said they heard small explosions, like fireworks going off in the home. Some have speculated it was ammunition exploding in the flames that ravaged the structure.

“Station 7’s truck company started shooting water from a turret,” Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) spokesman, Paul Corah told us. “Other firefighters arrived. With SERT officers providing them cover, they moved into relative safe positions, behind trees, and attacked the fire from outside the structure.”

After the activity ceased in the house, Corah added, firefighters donned their breathing apparatus and cautiously entered the blazing structure and started knocking down the fire.

Death caused by smoke, not bullets
“After PF&R was able to assess the structure, with the help of fire investigators, Detectives determine the deceased was 46-year-old Craig Boehler, who was inside the residence,” Simpson said. “Mr. Boehler’s body was recovered.”

Officials say this man, Craig Boehler, died in the burning house from inhaling smoke, not from being shot. Contributed photo

On November 24, the Oregon State Medical Examiner performed an autopsy on 46-year-old Craig Boehler and determined that he had been shot, but that the cause of death was smoke inhalation.

There was no initial indication whether the gunshot wound found during the autopsy was the original injury reported to the police by the stepfather, or a later round fired by the SERT officer, but police knew before responding that the perpetrator had already received at least one gunshot wound.

While investigators were on scene – and the street was closed down for a day – the incident ended about 2:00 a.m.

Officials reveal little information
A news conference held the afternoon of the incident at PPB East Precinct shed little additional light on exactly what took place.

Portland Police Bureau Chief Michael Reese lauds efforts taken by police officers and command staff during the incident.

“East Precinct Sgt. Deborah Steigleder and Sgt. Doug Gunderson did an amazing job coordinating the patrol officer response, getting them to ‘hardcover’,” lauded PPB Chief Michael Reese. “They made the necessary tactical decisions to protect everyone’s life.”

PPB Asst. Chief Eric Hendricks added, “Both civilian and officer witnesses state that the suspect fired between 20 and 25 rounds at officers over a period of time.”

PPB Asst. Chief Eric Hendricks, in charge of their Investigations Unit, explains that multiple factors make this incident difficult to investigate.

Hand grenade discovery slows investigation
Responding to a question as to why detailed information about the incident wasn’t readily available, Hendricks explained, “This is a complicated crime scene because of several factors. The initial incident, involving a shot fired inside the house, a fire investigation, and an officer-involved shooting investigation. We essentially have three investigations to have to conduct, and that complicates what is usually a complicated process.”

Once inside, Hendricks added, investigators recovered a weapon – but also came upon a hand grenade. “This made it necessary to call in the bomb squad. They determined that the hand grenade was inert; but this was also a complicating factor in this investigation.”

Fire still under investigation
Asked if the teargas fired into the home could have caused the blaze, PPB Lt. Mike Marshman responded, “The likelihood of those chemical agents causing the fire is very low.”

Fire Bureau spokesman Paul Corah said it may be some time before fire investigators will be able to announce a cause. “The fire pretty much destroyed the two-story home.”

Mayor Sam Adams says first responders worked heroically when responding to this heartrending incident.

Mayor praises responders
Portlanders can feel very proud about the way this very difficult and dangerous situation was handled by the men and when women of the Portland Police Bureau and Portland Fire & Rescue,” announced Mayor Sam Adams at the press conference.

“Folks were rescued; conveyed out of a dangerous situation, under threat of gun fire,” Adams pointed out. “This could have ended much worse than it did, based on the preliminary investigation. Anytime someone loses their life, it is tragic.  But, this could have been a lot worse.”

Both the police and the fire investigations continue.

The effect of the tragic events that took place at this home leaves deep scars on this house, and those who lived here.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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