Oak Harbor resident Christopher Cooper passed away at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle Thursday night.
The 23-year-old man, a graduate of Oak Harbor High School, never regained consciousness after suffering a head injury in a physical confrontation in downtown Oak Harbor Nov. 17. His father, Terry Cooper, said his son was surrounded by family when he passed away.
“It was kind of inevitable, I believe,” he said. “Hopefully the Oak Harbor Police Department can now do their job and take care of this.”
Cooper was found unconscious early in the morning two weeks ago. Police initially thought he had fallen and hit his head while intoxicated, but later discovered he had been in a fight.
The case erupted into controversy after the police arrested the suspect, 29-year-old Jason Ellis of Oak Harbor, days after the prosecutor’s office told them they didn’t have enough evidence. The prosecutor released Ellis immediately Monday morning, upsetting the police and Cooper’s family.
The status of the possible criminal case remains unclear as officials grapple over questions of self defense, legal standards and political influence from the mayor’s office.
Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley has taken a personal interest in the case and visited Cooper in the hospital Wednesday.
“When someone dies or is seriously assaulted on the streets of Oak Harbor, I take it personally and I want the citizens of Oak Harbor to not only feel safe, but to be safe,” Dudley said.
Dudley called the News-Times Thursday night to say that Cooper was taken off life support.
“Now we have a fatality,” he said. “Now the question is, ‘What is the prosecutor going to do?’”
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said a deputy prosecutor met with the police detective investigating the case Wednesday and went over the evidence. He said a video recording that Cooper made on an iPhone suggests that he was the aggressor and that Ellis was using lawful force to defend himself.
The deputy prosecutor told the detective that they didn’t have probable cause to make an arrest, at least not until additional evidence is developed. He said it appeared that the detective agreed.
Banks said he was then shocked when he came to work Monday and found that the police had arrested Ellis on Saturday, which happened to be during his daughter’s birthday party. Banks said the police hadn’t given him any additional evidence — and nobody at the police department would return his calls — so he released Ellis immediately.
Banks suggested that the motive for the arrest was that the police didn’t want to admit to the grieving family that the case can’t be made.
“Rather than having that difficult conversation, an arrest was made of a citizen and then they tried to heap the blame on us,” Banks said.
In addition, Banks pointed out that the police arrested Ellis on a Saturday, which guaranteed he would spend three days in jail before prosecutors released him. He said his office is eager to see any new evidence from police, which could change his decision on prosecution.
“This kind of circus that has now grown up around this didn’t have to happen,” he said.
Oak Harbor’s new police chief, Ed Green, said Thursday that the police arrested Ellis because they looked at the evidence and believed they had probable cause that a crime had been committed. He said he wasn’t certain whether the investigators gathered any additional evidence between the time the prosecutor informed them they didn’t have probable cause and when they arrested Ellis.
“We’re hopeful the prosecutor will change his mind after seeing the complete investigation,” he said. “We just want to be part of a team.”
Mayor Dudley’s close involvement in the case, however, had fanned speculation that he influenced the police in their decision to make an arrest.
Dudley, however, denies this. He admitted to the News-Times he was in near-constant contact with the police chief about the status of the case, but he said he didn’t encourage or influence him to take any action.
Green agreed. He said Dudley had a right to know what was happening with the case, but that he has no role in making decisions regarding a criminal case. He said it was the detective’s supervisor who made the ultimate decision.
Still, Dudley said he has very strong feelings regarding the case. He said he was disappointed in the prosecutor’s lack of action and is very proud of how the police handled things. He said he’s seen very similar cases in other jurisdiction in which a perpetrator was charged.
“It’s not a tragic accident when you have multiple skull fractures,” he said, adding that the evidence suggests Cooper was struck multiple times after he fell to the ground and was unconscious.
In addition, Dudley said it’s significant that Ellis is a mixed-martial arts fighter. He said some jurisdictions consider trained fighters to be “lethal weapons.”
Terry Cooper agrees. He said doctors told him that his son’s injuries were massive and unlikely to be caused by a single blow and a ground-level fall. He said he and family members are very upset with Banks.
“I don’t know why our tax dollars are going to pay that guy,” he said.
Banks said he feels terrible for the family, but he believes the police and the mayor have acted inappropriately. He said his office hasn’t seen the evidence of multiple skull fractures Dudley is citing.
“If he has evidence that we don’t have, something is clearly amiss at the Oak Harbor Police Department,” Banks said.
“The mayor needs to focus on being a mayor and not second-guessing police work or prosecution work,” he added.
Yet Banks said he was stressed that no final decisions will be made until all the facts are in. He met with police Friday to go over the case. He said the autopsy may provide crucial evidence.