It’s been four months since the details surrounding the death of Russell Liddell at the Tin Cup Campground were released, and Custer County Prosecuting Attorney Justin Oleson admitted it doesn’t typically take this long to complete a shooting investigation.
The holdup, according to Oleson, is the initial investigation into the Aug. 1, 2020, fatal shooting of Liddell by Bonners Ferry Police Chief Brian Zimmerman was incorrectly conducted as an officer-involved shooting.
“You have to look at it from a different standard” when it comes to these types of incidents, Oleson said.
Zimmerman shot and killed Liddell after the two got in an argument while the Zimmerman was vacationing at the campground near Stanley with 17 friends and family members. According to the police report, Liddell drove into the group’s campsite and sat in his idling vehicle for a few minutes, at which point several members of Zimmerman’s party spoke to Liddell. They reported Liddell was drunk and acting belligerent.
Allegedly complaining they were in his campsite, Liddell proceeded to drive around the site several times before stopping outside one tent with his headlights on, the report states. Zimmerman and two other men confronted Liddell, according to the report. Armed with a pistol in his pocket, Zimmerman asked Liddell what was wrong, according to the report, and Liddell’s response initiated a fight.
Liddell allegedly stumbled out of his auto and opened the back door to get something. Unaware Liddell had a .45-caliber pistol, Zimmerman and his friends said they heard the slide click on a handgun when Liddell went to the backseat. Zimmerman pulled his pistol out of his pocket as Liddell turned around. Liddell fired two shots and Zimmerman returned fire, hitting Liddell five times. The report states two campers, one a registered nurse and the other a former paramedic, confirmed Liddell was dead.
When an average person shoots someone, Oleson said the question immediately becomes whether it was self-defense. However, when a police officer shoots someone, investigators need to go through a different list of criteria to see if the homicide was justifiable. In an officer-involved shooting, Oleson said they need to ask such questions as whether the officer in question was performing their legal duty or whether the officer believed resistance would result in loss of life or limb.
However, Oleson said there are several factors that made him switch the scope of his investigation away from an officer-involved shooting, which is why it is taking so long to come to a decision on whether to charge Zimmerman. The police chief was off duty at the time, Oleson said, and out of his jurisdiction. Also, when he initially confronted Liddell, Zimmerman made no attempt to inform him he’s a police officer or that he was armed.
Add on top the large amount of evidence he has combed through and that reports are slow to come back, Oleson said it will be a while before he comes to a decision on whether to charge Zimmerman.