A Juneau police officer killed Kelly Stephens last year, now Stephens’ family is suing

Residents and visitors at the Chinook apartment complex in the Mendenhall Valley show tattoos they were given by Kelly “Rabbit” Stephens on Dec. 29, 2019 in Juneau. Stephens was killed during an early-morning confrontation with Juneau police officer James Esbenshade. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Last December 29, someone left a note on Virginia Stephens’ doorstep. It had a case number on it and a phone number for her to call. She said she had a hard time tracking anyone down, but finally got a phone number for Juneau police. 

“I was told my son was dead and the one thing I asked is, did he suffer pain as he died. I wasn’t given any particulars of the incident and the guy told me that he didn’t have that information,” Virginia Stephens said. “I have since found out that he didn’t die easily, I mean he was in pain. Which hurts my heart.”

Virginia Stephens’ son, Kelly Stephens was shot and killed by Juneau police officer James Esbenshade during an confrontation near the Chinook Apartments in Juneau’s Mendenhall Valley.

Virginia and Kevin Stephens, Kelly Stephen’s parents, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court. They’ve named Esbenshade, Juneau’s Chief of Police Ed Mercer and the City and Borough of Juneau. In it, they say that Kelly Stephens’ civil rights were violated and that he didn’t have to die. 

They announced the lawsuit during a press conference with their attorneys on Wednesday. Those attorneys said they’ve been trying to get information from Juneau police for three months.

Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer during a press conference after Kelly Stephens was killed, on Sunday, December 29, 2019, at the Juneau Police Department headquarters in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

“The Juneau police department, the authorities, are moving at glacier speed compared to the rest of the country in releasing this information” said one of the family’s attorneys Los Angeles-based John Sweeney. “It’s very simple, if the parents have a question about how their son was killed, to release the bodycam video.”

Anchorage attorney Ben Crittenden said that has left the family without any closure.

“The video does not lie, it would tell us everything that happened,” he said.

KTOO has asked for audio and video from that night as well. Juneau police denied that request in January, saying the case was still being investigated. Now, they say they’ll turn it over for a fee — but not without potentially redacting parts of it first. 

But even with the video, Crittenden said they would have sued anyway. 

“We’re not going to depend on them to give us what they want to give us,” he said. “We’re entitled to get everything under the federal rules of civil procedure. We want to get everything so we can do our own independent investigation.”

While none of the footage from the shooting has been released, Chief Assistant Attorney General Jack McKenna with the state’s Office of Special Prosecutions described body-cam video, written reports, audio recordings, photos of the altercation and listened to recorded witness interviews. In a report released in March McKenna details why the state would not be charging officer Esbenshade with a crime. 

 McKenna’s report is based on his review of an investigation that Juneau Police did themselves. 

The report starts with a description of an encounter at a local grocery store that happened hours before Stephens died. It describes Stephens approaching someone in the parking lot of the store, swinging what witnesses described as a grappling hook and shouting that he was going to kill the man. 

Another witness is detailed in the report saying that Kelly Stephens told her to call the cops because he wanted to “commit suicide by police.”

Officer Esbenshade responded to that incident at the grocery store, but didn’t see Kelly Stephens. Later that night, he responded to a 911 call reporting that there had been a shot fired near an apartment complex on Cinema Drive.

When he arrived, it was too dark to see what was happening, according to the state’s report, but there’s clear audio from Esbenshade’s body camera. The investigator describes a backlit figure walking toward officer Esbenshade. There was also a dog. 

Witnesses told KTOO after the shooting that Kelly Stephens had gone to walk his puppy, walking up Cinema Drive with a dog leash.

The state report describes Stephens advancing on Esbenshade, threatening to kill him and yelling at the officer to shoot him. According to the state, Esbenshade told Stephens to stop several times. Then, there’s the sound of a single gunshot and Kelly screaming in pain.

The state investigator goes on to conclude that officer Esbenshade was justified in his use of deadly force — that he was defending himself against the threat of serious physical injury. And that Esbenshade “could have subjectively believed that Mr. Stephens was going to assault him with the chain.” 

Officer Esbenshade didn’t say that he believed he was in danger. Through his attorney, he declined to be interviewed during the investigation. 

But, the family asserts in the lawsuit that Stephens wasn’t armed. That the dog leash he was carrying wasn’t a threat to the officer. 

One of the family’s attorneys, Steven Glickman, says Juneau police haven’t been forthcoming with information, so it has been hard for the family to piece together what happened. 

He said because the family lives in Las Vegas, they had to rely on news reports to find out what happened. First, they hired a private investigator, who also wasn’t able to get much information. And, eventually they hired lawyers. 

“The only way to get to the truth is to find out what happened,” Glickman said. “And the lawsuit’s filed so we can get to the truth and get the Stephens’ the answer that they deserve for what happened to their only son.” 

Juneau police have not yet responded to the lawsuit.

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote to Anchorage attorney Ben Crittenden — it was instead one of the family’s Los Angeles-based attorneys, John Sweeney.