Exactly three years ago this afternoon, Lee Pat Milks was shot dead on his front yard at 486 Second Street in Manistee. Manistee Public Safety Officer Doug Vansickle serving in a new role as code enforcement or as he would put it, 'blight officer', visited Milks that day at just a little after five in the afternoon and would wind up shooting Milks repeatedly.
Milks would survive the initial shots for many hours, he was able to talk with minor difficulty, but for all intents and purposes, there was only one side of the story told that night with many variations. The prosecutor and Milks' department would hold a press conference three months later and declare the shooting justified and vindicate all actions of their officer that afternoon, effectively reading Vansickle's report verbatim as the finalized version of the investigation.
The Ludington Torch has received the incident report regarding this shooting incident and footage from two responding units to that scene three years ago. This hasn't been an easy process due to multiple city and county officials of Manistee actively blocking their release along the way for over 30 months. A few words must be told of this impressive act of trying to cover this up by Manistee officials before we get to the actual killing, there have been several articles in the LT covering this process over that period.
I originally received a complete denial of any records from the City of Manistee to get the incident report, the use of force report, and other supplementary material in their possession. I argued with the edict, and was offered code enforcement reports I had specifically asked for, including one that had a prior officer Dave Shands visit the property and had Milks refuse to let him on the property:
I was able to discover through the process that this wasn't the only other time Milks ordered the police off his property. In that case, the county prosecutor is said to have mounted a retributive prosecution on Milks for asserting his property rights on a stormy night when he tried to claim them in a case that was eventually dismissed.
However, I appealed to the city council of Manistee for these records and they denied it without comment, following their legal counsel's advice. I filed a lawsuit, asked the Manistee circuit court to review the records using the strict guidelines found in Michigan Supreme Court opinions to gauge whether there was any exempt information, and went through a corrupted process I have not seen even in Mason County for nearly a year in that court. The end result in early 2018: a retired judge unlawfully assigned to the case and without even seeing the records in dispute judged the incident and use of force reports were fully exempt from public disclosure.
It would be over another year before I would get a favorable ruling from the Michigan Court of Appeals remanding this case back to the court and directing them to look over the records in determining whether they were actually exempt at all. By September 2019, in a surprising turnaround at Manistee Circuit Court, the same retired judge ruled that all of the record was and would have been non-exempt back in April 2017 when I received the reply to my records request. I finally received the records two and a half years after requesting them, along with my court costs and expenses.
These records included the 13 page incident report relating to the shooting and two CDs containing video footage of that day from Officer Vansickle's car and the first backup car containing Officer Pefley and rookie Officer Haney. There was no use of force report (or equivalent) included.
Ironically, while I had argued in multiple courts that the use of force reports should not have any non-exempt material in it by it's nature, I did not learn that it did not exist until I received the records. The City's two attorneys argued their points in court and in briefs as if they existed and the county prosecutor swore in an affidavit that he was of the belief that all data in such a use of force report would be exempt from disclosure. It turns out that the Manistee Pseudo-Police Department never made Officer Vansickle complete a form that real police departments use when even less-than-fatal force is used and that attorneys and Manistee officials of all sorts have no problem defending the non-release of non-existing records with tens of thousands of taxpayer's dollars.
The Incident Report
Police reports are in many ways like news reports: they may be factual, they may have bias, or they may have false representations. The reporter's reputation in either case comes into play, and we should never forget that courts treat police reports as hearsay information, not necessarily the truth. With that in mind, here is the report: Milks IR pt1 of2.pdf and Milks IR pt2 of 2.pdf.
I will be using the incident reports primarily as a reference when analyzing the videos that follow, and the conclusion, at this point I will encourage you to read the reports and note the important sections on this report.
p.2,3: Vansickle's narrative
p.4,5: Pefley's narrative
p. 6: Haney's narrative
p. 7: Vasquez's supplement
p. 8,10-12: Glass' supplement
p.9: Schmeling's supplement
Video 1: First Backup Unit
This video begins shortly after a call for emergency back-up from Officer Vansickle with Officers PEFLEY and HANEY traveling on back streets, some of the conversation is unintelligible due to crosstalk and other issues.
0:35: Upon arrival on a main artery, the car's sirens and lights activate
1:25: VANSICKLE: "Shots fired!" Backup is three blocks and two turns away
1:50: Arrival of backup. MILKS down writhing on the ground. VANSICKLE standing nearby. PEFLEY looks at MILKS asks HANEY (who is wearing a microphone) to retrieve medical bag.
3:00: HANEY: "Did you fire? Are you OK?" VANSICKLE: "I'm not here."
3:20: PEFLEY (to dispatch): "Three gunshot wounds."
3:50: HANEY moves vehicle west, camera is pointed away from scene.
5:30: MILKS: "I can feel the bullets swinging, they're really big. Trigger-happy pig. And I didn't point the gun at him."
6:15: Ambulance arrives.
7:50: PEFLEY tells HANER to reposition car. He does, so that we see MILKS on stretcher.
9:33: MILKS loaded onto ambulance.
11:50: UNKNOWN: "We're fourth in line for a helicopter."
12:00 Neighbor wanders out, HANER tells her she will probably get a statement from her, she says "All I heard were shots."
12:30: HANER sent for police tape.
17:00 HANER moves car again in preparation for ambulance moving on.
18:40: Ambulance leaves.
21:20: Crew of three including HANEY enter MILKS' house to 'secure' scene
26:33: Crew leaves, "All clear"
Video 2: Vansickle's Car
The sobering aspect of Officer Vansickle's recording is that he had the presence of mind to call for backup and to report that shots were fired, but didn't actually turn on his remote microphone and in-car video until six minutes after the call for backup. The first time in this index of events refers to this video, the second time is the corresponding point in the first video concurrent with the action.
0:43: (6:15) Arrival of ambulance
0:55: (6:27) UNKNOWN: "We don't know if anybody else is in the house."
1:30, 2:05, 3:50: VANSICKLE in front of the car's dash cam. At 4:15 (9:47) he informs dispatch "Nobody is at-large."
5:05: (10:37) VANSICKLE: "I came here to tell him about his fucking blight and I said, 'you know, we need to work together', and he threatened me, he said I am going inside. I said I'm going to go around and do an inspection on your vehicle. 'Fuck you, it's private property, you can't be here.' Another officer hugs him, others offer consolation.
6:20 (11:52) UNKNOWN to VANSICKLE: "I apologize, if I knew you were coming out here on blight; that guy has a history of anti-cop."
6:23 (11:55): VANSICKLE: "He went in the house, got a gun (crosstalk) on the porch with it (crosstalk). I just got cover, I was starting to get cover behind that tree, I was backing up. No doubt in my mind that the guy was going to kill me."
7:10: VANSICKLE is moved into another vehicle. Shortly thereafter his remote mike is turned off.
Lee Milks was declared dead at 8:05 PM that evening, about three hours after the shooting. The coroner's report below (obtained from a subsequent FOIA request after the lawsuit's conclusion) narrates a story at odds with the several variations that were told to the media on the night of the shooting:
It also notes that there were seven distinct gunshot wounds in total that penetrated or perforated Milks' body, one bullet wound for each decade of the man's life. In this supplemental bit of information, I also received the report for an incident eerily similar to this fatal encounter that happened back in 2012:
Milks was eventually prosecuted vigorously for the seventy-year old finger poke until it was dismissed by the court, probably because Milks had competent legal representation that put the matter in perspective. As the retired judge who tried the case noted, bad blood existed between city officials and Milks since that incident.
Focusing more on this incident there are several inconsistencies. The Michigan State Police were supposed to be conducting an investigation into the incident, but all that they have seemed to investigate was the blood alcohol content of Officer Vansickle. Manistee PS Chief Tim Kozal offered nothing from any other MSP investigation, nor did the city or county prosecutor mention it at their press conference. Neither is there evidence that the sheriff department were involved beyond providing manpower for scene stabilization.
The variety of stories make it hard to believe Vansickle's polished account in the report of what happened and the narrative appears to have been crafted long after the incident when a most palatable version of events could be crafted. I am inclined to believe Vansickle's own admissions made after the shooting and captured on audio more than what eventually came out.
"I came here to tell him about his fucking blight and I said, 'you know, we need to work together', and he threatened me, he said I am going inside. I said I'm going to go around and do an inspection on your vehicle. 'Fuck you, it's private property, you can't be here.' He went in the house, got a gun... on the porch with it. I just got cover, I was starting to get cover behind that tree, I was backing up. No doubt in my mind that the guy was going to kill me."
Even if we consider that a condensed version of events, it just doesn't come close to the official story. A badge is not a warrant to conduct code enforcement operations that involve illegally entering somebody's backyard and conducting inspections on their vehicles when they say no quite emphatically. Officer Vansickle was effectively admitting to trespassing on Milks' property with his original statements, and his chief backed that up in most media reports that night.
He and Officer Pefley also focus on Milks repeatedly saying "fucking pig", yet neither Officer Haney (who had a remote mike on him) or the recordings ever catch that phrase. In Pefley's two page account, he never mentions that Milks said that he never pointed his gun at the trigger-happy pig that shot him. Why Pefley never asked Milks what happened to get him lying on the ground with seven bullet holes inside him is a matter that defies logic if we assume he was there to do his duty rather than to protect, hug and console his brother in arms.
Vansickle stated he had no doubt that Milks was going to kill him, and yet Milks came out with a gun when Vansickle's own gun was holstered, and yet was not menaced enough by the rifle pointed his way to un-holster and fire his gun at least seven times while Milks never fired his.
The Manistee Department of Public Safety either didn't train Officer Vansickle properly, or he ignored training and Milks' Constitutional rights on March 28, 2017. Vansickle didn't try to defuse the situation by mediating a solution that respected Milks' rights, rather he provoked a defensive action that should have been expected given the history, which he should have been apprised of rather than being kept in ignorance.
Officer Dougie Van Sickle did everything wrong on this very day three years ago, and because of his poor training and fortuitous omission of having an audiovisual recording of the biggest mistake in his life, a man lies dead with seven bullet entrances into his skin. Is he publicly admonished for his shortcomings; no, he's rewarded for it by the state's police chiefs with a medal of honor:
Trespass without remorse, make mistakes of judgment, shoot a man seven times, have nobody investigate it in any meaningful manner, and get one of the highest rewards of your profession. Something is definitely wrong in Manistee.
@ 25:50 Officer whispers, "Grab that gun!" Notice when they all exit not one cop has the "GUN". Where's the god damn gun? This is theft! and, interfering with a crime scene.
That reminds me-- In Vansickle's narrative near the end, he says that Haner was instructed to 'secure Mr. Milks' rifle' but he never did that, at least he didn't when the camera was pointed at the scene. In the four minutes the camera was pointed away from the scene, something could have possibly happened, but when Haner repositions the car, he doesn't have the rifle attributed to Milks that day, or any other weapon with him.
The omissions and faulty protocols are enough to send a fair arbiters head spinning, but this wasn't tried by a fair arbiter. I do not know the extent of Lee Pat Milks' heritage, it could be another point to re-evaluate if he's an Amerindian and if it is tribal territory, but to me there's enough tragedy already in the incident.
That crossed my mind because Van sickle recorded that Milks said this is tribal land. Also on the audio an officer asks another "is this tribal land?" The response was a hard to understand, but he said something like "... but it's not like Mt. Pleasant. We have jurisdiction ...." also tribal police responded and I wondered why they would unless it was a tribal member or on tribal land?
Just re-reading the attached reports, on page 2, according to Van Sickle's narrative, Lee Milks told Van Sickle he was Native American and that his property is on Tribal Lands.
Any cop who doesn't engage or who turns off his body cam at critical time should not be believed on his word only and should be reprimanded, not commended. Why is the video of the incident missing?
31:42 "Unknown Officer in charge" In a demanding tone... let MSP know...He will not be treated as a suspect." This is before any investigation had began or even before MSP arrival.
You're absolutely right. The context around it displayed that they cared very little for the fate of Milks or about his family, but they were very, very, concerned about Dougie's emotional state. Thanks for the extra ears on these recordings.
Mr.Milks was murdered and robbed.
Despite a variety of reports, many citing then-Chief Dave Bachman relating what Vansickle told him, the 'silver bullets' comment only appears later on in the press conference, three months later, and it seems out-of-character for Milks to get a rifle and make such a threat about shooting a cop, even with his checkered history in Manistee, unless the officer was acting unreasonable and observing his property rights.
The public should not give the City of Manistee any leeway (no pun intended) of leniency for all the gaffes and botched protocols in this fiasco, when they consider all of that money they wasted defending their abuse of power in keeping public records out of the hands of the people. Is there any better proof of an admission of fault than the City of Manistee's cover-up ever since the shooting?