Family Grieves A Year After Deputy Shoots Son

Washoe County Sheriff's Office
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Two sons. Two tragedies. Two graves side by side in a Reno cemetery.

"Losing two sons isn't twice as hard," Steve Dunwoodie said. "It's a million more times harder."

In 1986, Dunwoodie and his wife, Jeanne, lost their 23-month-old son, Trevor, to cancer.

One year ago, the couple's 21-year-old son, Ian, was shot and killed by Washoe County sheriff's deputy Luke Miller while fleeing from Sparks Justice Court.

Now, a year later, the Dunwoodies, and their 14-year-old son, Cory, are struggling to comprehend the circumstances of Ian's death and fill the void their two dead children left.

A candlelight vigil in Sparks is scheduled at 6 p.m. Wednesday, the anniversary of Ian Dunwoodie's death.

"You never get over it," Steve Dunwoodie told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Miller declined to comment on the shooting. But Assistant Sheriff Jim Lopey said shooting a suspect is a trying ordeal for any officer.

"If you walked in his shoes or the shoes of others who have been involved in these circumstances, you would understand," Lopey said.

On Jan. 28, 2003, Jeanne Dunwoodie was home watching television when the broadcast was interrupted by a special news bulletin.

The 47-year-old mother watched as images of a shooting filled the screen. A suspect, who had run from a Sparks courtroom, had crashed his car after being shot by a law officer.

"I just thought it was another something, somewhere," she said.

About a half-hour later, the phone rang. It was Ian's roommate, Brad Edwards.

"He was just hysterical," she said. "He was in shock, he was yelling at me and crying and freaking out, telling me Ian was in the hospital. And I thought: Oh my God, what has happened?"

Jeanne Dunwoodie didn't know her son was in court that day. It would be some time before she realized the television news bulletin and her son's death were connected.

"It popped into my mind at the time," she said. "I was wondering if what I saw was what happened to Ian."

Information about Ian's death and his actions at the courthouse came in bits and pieces from family members, friends and the news media.

With the exception of a phone call from the county coroner's office, the Dunwoodies said they have never talked about their son's death with any law enforcement or government agency.

"It was Washoe County Sheriff's Department's job to call us and let us know what happened," Jeanne Dunwoodie said.

The Dunwoodies are at a loss to explain why their son - a straight-A student who was successful at his telemarketing job and planning to attend college - had been drinking when he showed up at court that morning to answer a charge of disturbing the peace.

Court officials noticed Ian smelled of alcohol. A preliminary breathalyzer test confirmed their suspicions and the 1999 Wooster High graduate was taken to see a judge.

Tests later revealed his blood alcohol level was 0.099 percent, just under the legal limit for drunken driving, which was 0.10 percent at the time.

Ian ran from the courthouse and scuffled with a court marshal and court security guard Robert Robbins as he tried to leave in a borrowed car.

A report by the Washoe County district attorney's staff said Ian was able to get in the car, start the engine and put the vehicle in reverse.

While trying to keep Ian from leaving, Robbins became trapped under the car's rocker panel and was dragged into the parking lot.

Miller saw what was happening. He ordered Ian to stop, fired three or four shots at the cars left rear tire to disable it, and when the vehicle accelerated in his general direction, fired a final shot at Ian. About the same time, Robbins was able to free himself from under the car and roll clear.

Ian drove out of the parking lot at high speed and the car crashed into the side of a garage of a nearby home.

Officers found him unconscious. The bullet, which entered his chest through his left arm, punctured both his lungs and severed his aorta, his parents said. He died a short time later.

Six months after Ian's death, District Attorney Richard Gammick said the shooting was justified.

"Although it is a tragic event to have a loss of life, particularly that of a young man, over a misdemeanor offense, Ian Dunwoodie contributed greatly to the end result through his conduct, which put other people in harms way," Gammick said.

The Dunwoodies argue their son would not have been able to run from the courthouse if he had been properly supervised and detained by law enforcement.

And if Robbins had not leaned in the car in an attempt to remove the keys from the ignition, he probably wouldn't have become stuck under the moving car, Jeanne Dunwoodie said.

"That's one of the stupidest things anybody could have done," she said. "He put his own life in danger."

The couple said Miller had alternatives other than to shoot their son. Trained professionals should be better able to deal with the mistakes of civilians, Steve Dunwoodie said.

"I do not like to see this 19th century cowboy waving the gun, flashing his badge" he said. "It's a bunch of Dirty Harry wannabes."

Since Ian's death, Sparks Municipal Court has adopted rules that require marshals to hold people who come to court suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol in a detention cell, Judge Larry Sage said.

Marshals or other court personnel also must seek judicial approval before pursuing a suspect from the court, except in cases of extreme emergency such as if a person is armed or is physically assaulting someone, he said.

"We were doing the best we could at the time to make sure nobody got hurt, and circumstances in this case ended up tragic," said Sage, who wrote a commendation to Miller thanking him for saving Robbins life. "We tried to do the best we could, and now we are doing things differently."

The Dunwoodies sued the city of Sparks, Washoe County, Miller and numerous other parties claiming unnecessary deadly force resulted in the death of their son.

In October, Sparks agreed to pay them $49,999. Last month, Washoe County agreed to pay another $55,000. As part of the settlements, neither Sparks nor Washoe County admitted any liability.

"He was a beautiful, young man who did not deserve what he got," said Steve Dunwoodie. "Despite all kinds of laws and rules, you cannot put a dollar value on a person."