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Maryland deputy who fired 12 rounds is cleared in fatal shooting of man wielding tree branch

Video obtained by The Washington Post shows a sheriff's deputy near Laytonsville on Feb. 6 fatally shooting Kevin Costlow, 52. (Video: Obtained by The Washington Post)

A Maryland sheriff’s deputy who fired 12 shots at a man who attacked him with a tree branch will not be charged in the man’s death, Maryland prosecutors reported Monday.

Sgt. Frank Pruitt, according to prosecutors, took legal actions against Kevin Costlow, 52, the morning of Feb. 6 along a roadway in Montgomery County. The two had squared off after the deputy responded to a radio call about a motorist — Costlow — who had caused two crashes before getting out of his car and trying to attack people at the scene with what initially was reported to be a baseball bat, prosecutors said.

Video of the encounter taken by two bystanders showed the deputy — his gun drawn — backing away as Costlow walked forward, lifted the branch above his head and slammed it down several times on the deputy’s head and shoulder.

Ten of Pruitt’s rounds hit Costlow’s torso, according to a report prosecutors released that details the reasons Pruitt will not be charged.

“Although in some cases this could be viewed as excessive, based on the video evidence, it is clear Costlow did not stop advancing towards Pruitt until the last shot was fired,” prosecutors wrote. “Once Costlow collapsed to the ground, Pruitt no longer continued to shoot.”

Family members of Costlow, a retired information technology executive, have questioned why the encounter unfolded as it did.

“Kevin Costlow was a responsible and respected family man and business leader,” their attorney, Timothy Maloney, said in a statement. “He lived an exceptional life without any violence or criminality of any kind. This is what makes the tragic events of February 6 so inexplicable to his family.”

Prosecutors said they reached their conclusions based on the two civilian videos, statements from 13 witnesses at the scene and an interview with Pruitt.

The branch Costlow used — 2 or 3 inches thick and 4 to 5 feet long — had apparently been pulled from his car. According to one of the videos, recorded 10 feet from the fatal encounter, Costlow twice slammed the branch on Pruitt’s head and shoulder, causing the branch to snap in half. Pruitt retreated and did not shoot.

As Costlow raised the branch a third time and slammed it down toward Pruitt, the deputy began shooting. By the third gunshot, according to the video, the branch had fallen out of Costlow’s hand. But with Costlow continuing to advance, prosecutors concluded, the deputy reasonably viewed him as a continuing threat — particularly if he obtained Pruitt’s service weapon.

“Throughout this incident,” prosecutors concluded, “Costlow exhibited behavior that presented a potential for imminent danger to both Pruitt and others at the scene.”

Earlier coverage: Civilian video recorded the shooting

At the time, Pruitt was an 18-year veteran of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, an agency principally involved in courthouse security, serving warrants and legal papers, and helping with evictions. He has been on administrative leave since the shooting.

The encounter was not recorded by his body camera. Pruitt told investigators that he pressed the button to activate it. For reasons not clear, though, it never turned on. Before pulling out his gun, Pruitt tried to use his Taser, but the electronic prongs that were fired apparently did not stick to Costlow. Autopsy results showed that Costlow had no alcohol or drugs in his system.

The 12-page report was written by prosecutors in Howard County, just north of Montgomery, as part of a standing agreement between the counties to review each other’s police shootings. The arrangement is designed to avoid conflicts of interest as police and prosecutors from the same jurisdiction work closely together on other criminal cases.

The report also reflects how Costlow, a well-liked IT professional and skilled musician who had done work for or held positions at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, AARP and the National Student Clearinghouse, fell into what one family member termed a “psychotic break” in his final days.

He began saying things that made no sense, his wife told investigators. He heard voices, according to the report, spoke about the looming “dark times” and thought he was Jesus Christ.

His wife “believed her husband was truly a good person,” prosecutors wrote. “She felt her husband just needed help.”

The night before he died, according to the report, his wife saw him on their floor, screaming, “They’re are going to crucify me!”

By 8 a.m. Feb. 6, Costlow was behind the wheel of his car, speeding south on Route 108 from Laytonsville toward Olney. He veered into the oncoming lane, forcing the driver of a Ford Explorer off the road and into a telephone pole, before striking a silver minivan head-on, police said. None of the drivers were seriously injured. Costlow climbed out the passenger side window of his damaged car and approached the Explorer driver while holding a piece of wood, prosecutors said.

When another driver pulled up and asked Costlow if he was okay, Costlow replied: “Where am I at? England?” He then started throwing punches at the man, according to prosecutors.

By then, 911 calls dispatched officers to the two crashes and reported a man in an “altered state” and armed with a baseball bat, according to the prosecutors’ report.

Pruitt responded and a motorist who had been attacked told the deputy to be careful.

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Pruitt approached, asking Costlow if he needed help. Costlow rushed at Pruitt, knocking off his mask and hat, according to prosecutors. The deputy pushed Costlow away, ordered him to keep his hands up and tried to use the Taser, prosecutors said. At that point, according to the report, Pruitt drew his gun and ordered Costlow to get down. Instead, Costlow advanced toward him with the stick raised above his head.

“He’s losing his mind,” Pruitt could be heard saying into his radio, following 24 seconds later with: “I need help!”

Pruitt said he was trying not to “shoot this guy,” according to radio recordings reviewed by the prosecutors. Sixteen seconds later came Pruitt’s voice again: “Shots fired! Shots fired!”

Later, when speaking with investigators, Pruitt said he heard Costlow “growling” during the encounter and that he wasn’t using any coherent words, according to the report.

Pruitt also said that as he was shooting, he thought to himself, “Why is he still coming?” the report states.

“The most helpful pieces of evidence are clearly the two civilian videos,” prosecutors wrote. “Throughout the videos, Pruitt’s behavior is defensive in nature. . . . Pruitt is clearly attempting to do what he can to de-escalate the situation before firing his weapon.”

Prosecutors also said witnesses described Costlow as “amped up,” “aggressive,” “angry” and “screaming like a lunatic.” One witness said he appeared to have “violent intent.”

Costlow’s interactions with several of the witnesses “helps to explain what Deputy Pruitt was faced with before ultimately deciding to shoot Costlow,” prosecutors reported.

The prosecutors said that in analyzing whether a police officer can legally use deadly force, current law requires that an officer had reason to believe he faced a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury. Judging whether the decision was reasonable, prosecutors said, “must embody an allowance for the fact that officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a given situation.”

“It is clear that Costlow armed himself with an object [tree branch] that could have caused serious physical injury to Deputy Pruitt or any of the civilians at the scene,” prosecutors added. “Furthermore, Costlow was using this object to strike Pruitt around his face and head in a very aggressive way. To protect himself from serious injury and to keep himself from being knocked to the ground and potentially losing control of his service weapon, Pruitt made the decision to shoot Costlow.”

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