The Truth ... and Anything but the Truth

Last week, we talked about one of 2015's first Puppycides. The incident struck us as particularly poignant because the shooting satisfied a series of trends that the Puppycide Database Project has begun to identify as trends surrounding the lethal use of force against animals by police. Namely, an illegal search precipitated by a chase for someone accused of a non-criminal act leading to the killing of a dog on its own property.

Another Puppycide has caught our attention, just a couple of days after that last killing. This incident also fits a number of trends we have seen repeated over and over again in our research, although this time the results are even more tragic. In this case, police took aim at a dog, but shot a young woman, instead. Even worse, that young woman's four year old son was within the line of fire when the fatal bullet was fired. All of us at the Puppycide Database Project have seen this story before; only the names have changed.

Also among the identified commonalities: a police investigation spinning information surrounding the killing to protect the shooter and his department from blame and a host of news outlets who unquestioningly reprint whatever cock-and-bull line that is given to them, with disastrous results.

This story has been attracting more attention than the last event we described here on our blog, and more misunderstandings, as well. Hopefully our research here can help readers understand what really happened to Autumn Mae Steele.

On January 6th 2015, Autumn Mae Steele was angry.

She had been arrested the day before for fighting with her husband, Gabriel Steele. Reports of that first fight between the two remain sketchy, but police were convinced at the time that during that first fight Autumn had gotten violent. No one was concerned that the fight would turn life-threatening, though. As a result, Steele was released within 24 hours.

Following a criminal accusation of domestic violence, both parties are typically not allowed to live in the same house or to be alone together for any period of time. In order for defendents in these cases to get their things when a third party cannot be relied upon, a police escort is arranged.

It is unclear at the time of this writing whether it was in the capacity of a pre-arranged escort that Burlington Iowa Police Department officer Jesse Hill followed Autumn Steele to her house - with Autumn Steele and Jesse Hill arriving at the home at the same time. Some reports tell this story, while other reports claim that Jesse Hill only appeared at the scene following a second call to police regarding a second domestic violence incident. The most recent statement from the Iowa Department of Public Safety, who is currently leading the investigation into the shooting (Special Agent Rick Rahn heads the investigation), is unclear on the matter simply stating:

On Tuesday, January 6, at approximately 10:25 a.m., officers from the Burlington Police Department responded to a domestic dispute in the 100 block of South Garfield Avenue in Burlington, Iowa, which resulted in a shooting incident.

We do not know if the "response to a domestic dispute" was precipitated by a call from a neighbor or by Jesse Hill calling for backup. Jesse Hill's presence or absence as an escort could end up playing a key role in the assignment of responsibility for this case.

We do know that Gabriel Steele, his son and their dog were home when Autumn Steele showed up to get her things. We know that Steele arrived at her home less than an hour after her release from jail. We also know that the two began to resume their fight from the day before. Whether Jesse Hill was on the scene when the fight began or Hill arrived after being called by a neighbor, there is at this time agreement as to what escalated the second fight between Gabriel and Autumn, and there is also agreement as to why Jesse Hill discharged his weapon.

After Autumn Hill had proceeded to collect her things for a time, one of the Steeles attempted to place their four year old son into a car. This is once again a point of contention in the narrative; some reporters claim that Autumn was attempting to take the child. While we are not sure, it is possible that this would have violated Mrs Steele's pre-trial release conditions. It is highly unusual for sole custody to be provided to a defendant of a criminal domestic abuse case; however, it is also possible that issue was not addressed at the time of Steele's release.

Other reports claim that it was Gabriel who was placing the child in his car. While who attempted to take the child will ultimately play a role in assigning blame, it is clear that it is this step - placing the child into a car - that turned the tense situation worse. A scuffle ensued. The length and intensity of this scuffle is another point of our narrative that is unclear to us. Was Jesse Hill already on the scene, and attempted to intervene immediately? Or was this scuffle what precipitated a call to police, who arrived sometime after Gabriel and Autumn had been fighting physically for some time?

Neither spouse had weapons of any kind at the time of the shooting.

All of our sources are in agreement as to the next part of the story. Jesse Hill attempted to intervene in the married couple's altercation. While Hill stepped into the fray, the Steele family's dog, a German Shepherd mixed breed dog , intervened as well (NOTE: a member of the Steele family has confirmed with us that the dog, Sammie, was not a German Shepherd as reported by police and the media).

Here is what eye witnesses had to say about what happened:

“The dog startled the officer. The officer began shooting at the dog. The officer was still shooting when he fell down in the snow.” Neighbor

“It appeared he was shooting at the dog when [the officer] fell to the ground. It’s my belief the woman was shot accidentally.” Second Neighbor

Hill fired two rounds, one of which hit Autumn Mae Steele in the chest. Moments after the gunfire erupted, another police car pulled onto the scene. Gabriel became frantic as it became clear that Autumn's situation became critical, and the police were spending more time attempting to restrain him than to provide his wife with even the most basic life support:

“I’m a combat veteran! What are you guys doing? Let me help!”

Autumn was sent to Great River Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead from a single gunshot wound to the chest.

Based on the evidence and reports available so far, the Puppycide Database Project has established a number of points of concern regarding Jesse Hill's killing of Autumn Mae Steele that is deeply concerning to us (we believe that anyone engaging the subject with intellectual honesty would also be concerned by the following issues concerning Hill's actions).

  • First and foremost, a police officer discharged his firearm when he did not have control over his firearm. Multiple eyewitnesses appraised that Hill was firing his weapon as he was falling. Discharging a firearm without having control over the weapon violates the basic principles of firearm safety.
  • The first concern is exarcerbated by the fact that Hill fired his weapon uncontrolled with a four year old child in the line of fire. The decision to fire an uncontrolled weapon with a small child in the line of fire displays blatant disregard for human life. As a police officer charged with maintaining the peace during a domestic disturbance, Hill's top priority should have been protecting and defending that child. Instead, Hill's decisions and actions resulted not just in the pointless murder of that child's mother; Hill could have just as easily killed the child.
  • If we were to take the police officer out of this situation, this would not have been a life-and-death situation. Not only did Hill fail in safe-guarding the community and this family by defusing what could have been a situation that would have at worst resulted in a black eye, Hill made the situation infinitely worse with his negligent and careless actions. There was no risk of deadly force from either of the Steele's or from the dog. Hill's drastic escalation of force is completely irrational and tragic.

The negligence concerning the handling of this issue goes beyond the blatant disregard for human life and firearm safety displayed by Mr Hill. Already, the public response to the killing of Autumn Steele from the Iowa Department of Public Safety as lead by Iowa DCI Special Agent In Charge Rick Rahn has left much to be desired.

At the time of this writing (January 9th, 2015), the Iowa Department of Public Safety has published two press releases concerning the negligent homicide of Autumn Steele. Both of these press releases are available from the Puppycide Database Project's website and can be reviewed by clicking on this link.

These statements were made very shortly after the killing, and as a result they do not include a lot of specific information. That is completely understandable: after all, a complete investigation has yet to be performed. A hasty statement could easily lead to mis-information. However, ommitting certain basic facts can just as easily lead to the public being mis-informed.

The Iowa Department of Public Safety's statements have ommitted any and all mention of Autumn & Gabriel Steele's child - a key witness to the killing whose life was endangered by the shooting. This has lead to a situation where a number of media outlets, all of whom parrotted the press releases rather than performing any kind of objective investigation, have made the same omissions.

As a result, there have been a series of bizaare mis-interpretations of this story making the rounds on social media outlets. For example, take a look at this recent message the Puppycide Database Project received in response to our database announcing the Steele shooting had been added to our records:

In less than 72 hours, we have gone from the facts - a police officer shooting an unarmed woman in front of her infant son - to a fantasy: a dog bites a grown man after he shoots his mother, no police involved!

The fault for these reactions is to be shared. On the one hand, you have police department press agents who are more concerned with spinning a story to protect one of their own than providing the public with honest and transparent information regarding a homicide in their community. On the other hand, you have "journalists" (picture us jabbing into the air with sarcastic finger quotes there) breathlessly and credulously reprinting self-serving spin as fact - either because they lack objectivity, they are afraid of the fallout from seriously covering local police when they do wrong, or because they are just plain lazy, and would rather file a few inches that they didn't have to work to put together.

If you would like to talk with us about this incident, you can reach out to us on Twitter, Google+, or through one of the contact methods listed on our website. The investigation of this shooting has just started, and we expect a lot more information in the days to come. Check back with us for regular updates, or subscribe to our RSS feed to stay tuned.