Salem mother tells of efforts to help son in moments before fatal police shooting

Content warning: Please be aware this article contains graphic descriptions of violence and suicidal thoughts.

Jessica Rothgery begged her son to put down a shotgun he aimed at police last Friday evening as officers walked up the driveway to her southeast Salem house.

As she stood a few feet away from her 22-year-old son, she watched as he was shot twice by Salem police Corporal Clinton Sealey. Sealey was later publicly identified by police.

The fatal shooting of Natzeryt “Nat” Viertel at the Southeast Ewald Avenue home followed a chaotic afternoon. The shooting is being investigated by the Oregon State Police, who have released few details.

But in an interview Tuesday with Salem Reporter, Rothgery recounted the events that lead to her son’s death. Police wouldn’t comment on her account. She also shared a letter she sent to relatives about the shooting.

“The police did what they had to do and are not to be blamed,” she said in a written statement. “Nat was a wonderful person who struggled for many years with mental illness and substance abuse. He is very loved by his family and will be very missed.”

In the interview, Rothgery said she returned home from work Friday afternoon and encountered her son inside, one arm cut and bleeding.

“Mom, will you please get a gun and kill me?” Viertel calmly asked.

Instead, Rothgery tried to call 911 but her 6-foot-1 son grabbed the phone out of reach. He didn’t respond when she asked to bandage his arm.

Rothgery said she took her cell phone outside to her van parked in the driveway, locking herself in and calling 911.

She saw Viertel leave the house, walk through the carport and head for the backyard.

Firefighters were the first to arrive after her 911 call, asking if there were any weapons. Rothgery told them her son didn’t have access to guns, but she wasn’t sure about knives.

“I don’t think he’d hurt anybody,” she told them.

She followed one firefighter as he headed for the backyard. They encountered Viertel.

“He came around the corner from the shed with a gun drawn that I didn’t know he had,” she said.

She heard the firefighter say: “We’re not the police.”

Rothgery stepped between the firefighter and her son.

“Nat, I love you. Please give me the gun,” she said.

Instead, Viertel lowered the gun to his side, walking out to an alley. Rothgery caught up to him and looped her arm in his and again asked him to give her the gun.

She told her son that he hadn’t hurt anyone, and they could still turn matters around.

“He looked at his arm and he goes, ‘It’s too late,’” she said.

“Please don’t make me watch them kill you,” she replied.

He slipped through a break in the fence too small for his mother to use and returned to the backyard. By the time she got around to the yard, she saw him in front of the house without the gun.

She thought he was going to surrender. The pair stood at the front corner of the house, waiting for police.

Several patrol cars and other police vehicles responded to the area and Rothgery waved to officers to let them know they were at the right house.

As officers approached up the driveway, she turned around to see her son flip the lid off a trash can, removing the shotgun.

“No, they’ll kill you,” she said as she moved toward him.

She thought she might get shot if she moved closer, so she backed up toward the house.

He stood emotionless in the middle of the driveway with the gun drawn when he was shot.

Rothgery said police ordered her to get on the ground a few feet away.

She said her son didn’t want to hurt anyone.

Rothgery said her son, whose father died when he was 11, struggled with mental health and substance abuse issues since he was a teenager. He had been through drug treatment programs repeatedly in recent years and worked as a carpenter.

In a letter she wrote to friends and family following his death she said everyone knew him as a “bright, energetic, funny and creative person. But he had a lot of internal struggles.”

She said that one of his best outlets to deal with his issues “was to be able to go to the gym regularly and this was taken away from him over the past year,” she wrote.

Nat hit a drastic downward spiral a few weeks ago. He knew he needed to get help and just the day before his death was telling me he was hopeful because he contacted the Psychiatric Crisis Center and they said they should be able to get him into a live-in treatment center,” the letter continued.

“I guess he decided he just couldn’t go on and face it anymore,” his mother wrote.

HOW TO GET HELP: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), and connects callers with a crisis center near them. For help in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.

Warning signs for suicide include withdrawal, isolation and talking about being in unbearable pain or being a burden to others. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a list of risk factors, warning signs and suggestions for helping someone who may be thinking about suicide.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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