The state’s top law enforcement agency has completed its investigation into the fatal shooting of Estavon Dominick Elioff in December in Mountain Iron by two sheriff’s deputies and started handing over findings to the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office for review.
The turning over of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s findings was confirmed Wednesday morning. The investigation remains open during the review and the details are not made public per state law, said BCA spokeswoman Jill Oliveira.
Elioff, 19, a Hispanic and white man from Virginia, was fatally shot while allegedly fleeing from sheriff’s deputies Ryan Smith and Matt Tomsich, who are white, in the Mountain Iron woods last month.
The St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office initially reported that the deputies answered a shoplifting call at about 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, at L&M Fleet Supply on Enterprise Drive North. The deputies stopped Elioff who “refused commands and then fled on foot,” a statement read at the time. Deputies set up a perimeter with help from local police officers and the Minnesota State Patrol and they were told during the search that Elioff “matched the description of a suspect” in a drive-by shooting one day earlier in the neighboring city of Virginia.
The deputies used a K-9 officer to track Elioff for about an hour in the woods. “At one point, deputies deployed tasers and eventually two deputies discharged their firearms, striking the man,” the statement read. Emergency responders rendered medical aid to Elioff, but he died at the scene.
Three days later, the BCA said in a statement the Midwest Medical Examiner confirmed Elioff’s identity and described how he “died of multiple gunshot wounds” in Mountain Iron. The BCA also identified deputies Smith and Tomsich as the officers involved.
The BCA said there were no witnesses to the incident. “St. Louis County sheriff’s deputies do not wear body cameras and dash cameras did not capture the incident,” the statement read. The state agency also said “crime scene personnel recovered a knife from the scene,” but they did not elaborate on the significance of the weapon.
The deputies had been placed on administrative leave the same day of the fatal shooting.
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman on Wednesday said the deputies remain on administrative leave. “Their status will not change until there is a final resolution/determination as to whether or not their use of deadly force was justified,” he wrote in an email from Duluth.
The sheriff noted that “it should not be inferred that the silence means nothing is happening,” as he made mention of the BCA’s investigation and the forwarding of their findings to the St. Louis County Attorney's Office to determine whether use of deadly force was justified.
On the Iron Range, members of Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness of Northern Minnesota have expressed outrage over the deputies not wearing body cameras during the fatal shooting. The need becomes more concerning, members say, since there were not witnesses. “What if no one recorded the death of George Floyd?” Seraphia Gravelle, a co-founder of VEMA, said in a recent interview. “Why aren’t people on the Range more outraged? Our young people are in mourning.”
The St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office asked the BCA to investigate the shooting and the state agency began turning its findings over to the county attorney’s office for review in recent days.
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin in Duluth will review the findings.
Rubin on Wednesday confirmed that he met with the BCA Special Agent in charge of the Mountain Iron investigation on Friday, Jan. 9. “As if our practice and protocol, the file is immediately being reviewed by outside counsel who will then prepare a report regarding his findings,” he said. “These findings will then be reviewed by a second prosecutor before I make a final decision regarding the issue of the justifiable use of deadly force.”
Rubin continued, saying his “expectation is that these reviews should be completed within the next 30 days.”
Elioff’s death has prompted multiple regional protests, as VEMA members have joined his family members and friends in holding multiple gatherings in front of the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office substation in Mountain Iron, along Highway 169 and before the Virginia City Hall.
Pastor Kevin Olson, from Our Saviors Lutheran Church in Hibbing, who is a VEMA board member, presided over a recent memorial. “A death is a death and this is a very tragic death,” he said during the recorded event. He continued, “Unfortunately, as these woods verify, the passing of Estavon Dominick at this point, that passing is laced with a lot of unanswered questions. A lot of pain. A lot of angst.”
The pastor prayed for “earnesty and consistently for transparency to get further answers” from the investigation.
The sheriff has been consistent in saying he is “appreciative of the call for answers and accountability by the Elioff family and the public,” as Litman again expressed Wednesday. “In the interim, it requires us all to exercise some additional patience – myself included.”
Meantime, Nathaniel Coward, a co-founder of VEMA, has been questioning the Virginia Police Department’s report that Elioff “matched the description” of a suspect in the previous drive-by shooting. He noted that the department has not officially named him as a suspect in the incident.
The BCA has said the drive-by shooting was being treated as “separate from the BCA investigation” into Elioff’s death. Virginia Police Chief Nicole Mattson has declined on several occasions to name Elioff or anyone else as a suspect in the drive-by shooting. She has also declined to provide a description of two suspects who are allegedly involved in that case.
The BCA said Smith and Tomsich, who have a combined 23 years with the sheriff’s department, had initially declined in-person interviews with state agents for the investigation. The deputies’ attorneys later told the Star Tribune they gave unsolicited written reports to the state agency and were welcoming being questioned by investigators.
Lawyer Aaron Morrison is representing Tomsich. Smith is being represented by criminal justice attorney Paul Rogosheske. Both deputies are members of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. The union did not immediately return requests for comment on Wednesday.
Elioff’s mother, Jacqueline Martinez, has retained Minneapolis lawyer Robert Bennett, who helped win a $20 million settlement in the 2017 wrongful death case of Justine Ruszczyk by Minneapolis police officer Mohammed Noor. He also led the civil case regarding the 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile. He said he would wait to comment on the recent BCA investigation at a later time.