Why is Asa Sullivan dead?

Pub date June 21, 2006
WriterG.W. Schulz

> gwschulz@sfbg.com

Kahlil Sullivan hasn’t had time to do much lately other than plan for his younger brother’s funeral. He hasn’t even had time to find out exactly why his brother is dead.
“We feel like we’re lost,” he said over the phone a week after his cornered and unarmed brother was shot and killed by the San Francisco Police Department.
The cops have offered two stories as to why officers fired a still-undisclosed number of bullets into the body of Asa Sullivan on June 6. And neither one seems to make much sense or explain why they shot Sullivan.
Meanwhile, the family hasn’t been offered a dime for burial expenses from the Victim Services Division of the District Attorney’s Office. The state won’t spend money to help the families of former felons, but there’s local money available too. That’s off-limits, it turns out, because the SFPD hasn’t classified Sullivan’s death as an “unlawful killing,” according to the DA’s office.
Sullivan’s mother, Kathleen Espinosa, even told us on the day of his funeral, June 15, that the department did not provide a liaison to the family, as the Office of Citizen Complaints two years ago recommended the SFPD do for the families of officer-involved shooting victims.
In fact, Espinosa hasn’t heard a word from the department. Everything she knows has come largely from two stories in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Espinosa, a short, relentlessly cheerful woman with chestnut hair, held a smile throughout her son’s funeral while hugging Sullivan’s tearful young friends. She said any new information from the department right now hardly matters.
“Let them get their story straight first before they come to me,” she said. “I don’t want another wrong story.”
According to early reports, Sullivan and his friend, 25-year-old Jason Martin, were staying with two tenants at a Villas Parkmerced townhouse, part of a 3,200-unit complex close to the San Francisco State University campus. Sullivan had been in some trouble in the past; his criminal record included an armed robbery, and he was on probation for selling pot. But he’d secured a job at Goodwill and had a six-year-old son to look after.
Martin and Sullivan were helping to clean up the townhouse so their friends could receive their security deposit when they moved out. The tenants were being evicted for not paying rent, but a Parkmerced official told the media that the tenants were still legally living there.
The cops said a neighbor called the police, believing the unit had been taken over by nonresidents. Police Chief Heather Fong insisted in press statements that the complex was having problems with squatters. But Parkmerced public policy director Bert Polacci told the Guardian that the complex had no such problems. If the cops had called him, he might have cleared up the residency status of the occupants of 2 Garces Drive.
When Officers Michelle Alvis and John Keesor arrived, they immediately detained Martin, in response to the neighbor’s complaint. Sullivan, who feared going to jail for a probation violation, fled to a two-and-a-half-foot-high attic space.
The officers attempted to talk him down with Martin’s help but eventually went into the attic. Martin later insisted, according to Espinosa, that he told the officers Sullivan was unarmed before they went after him.
The way the cops tell it, Sullivan — who would have been unable to stand up in the tiny space — took a combative stance from inside the attic, and the officers believed he had aimed a gun at them.
The department first reported that Sullivan had shot at the officers through the attic floor. Further, the cops reported that Sullivan’s gun was found at the scene. The truth is, all they found was the case to a pair of eyeglasses.
SFPD spokesperson Neville Gittens told us only that the first story was based on “secondhand information” and “witness statements.”
The official story changed several hours after the department offered its first explanation of what happened. According to Gittens, Keesor fired first, and a ricochet nicked his partner’s ear, “perhaps” causing her to fire as well. When the smoke cleared, Sullivan was dead. No gun was ever found.
“They got flashlights,” Sullivan’s brother Kahlil exclaimed. “Can’t they see his hands? Why didn’t they ask him questions first? We may never know the truth.”
One of the two officers had their flashlights on, Gittens said, but he couldn’t confirm whether the illumination was enough to identify exactly what was in Sullivan’s hand. Gittens told the Guardian that Fong has not yet made a decision about whether to return the officers to regular duty.
Gittens initially refused on June 9 to release the names of the officers involved to the Guardian, but the day after we asked for them, they appeared in the Chronicle. And the department has not yet responded to a Guardian request for documents associated with the shooting.
In 2004, the police commission voted unanimously to conditionally require the disclosure of incident reports to the families of officer-involved shooting victims as swiftly as possible. That change, and the request that the SFPD provide a liaison to the family, were inspired by the death of Cammerin Boyd, who was shot and killed in the spring of 2004 by SFPD officers following a car chase.
But during several subsequent commission meetings, the recommendations disappeared into the ether. And it’s not the first time that proposed reforms were simply ignored by the SFPD, a fact commission vice president Theresa Sparks readily admits.
“I was a little surprised the chief released the names as fast as she did,” Sparks told us.
Sparks nonetheless said that she is still troubled by the so-far inconsistent stories the department has offered to the public and the commission.
“The first story that came out was totally incorrect, [and] the chief could not tell us why the story changed,” Sparks said. “It’s criminal that these families sit there with no specific knowledge about what happened.”
Sullivan’s funeral was attended by his siblings — Kahlil, brother Sangh, and sisters T-sha Sullivan and Tasha Mosby-Greer — and a capacity crowd of Asa’s friends and other family, all in Duggan’s Funeral Home, right across from the Mission Police Station.
Born on Sept. 8, 1980, Asa grew up in San Francisco and attended Bay Area schools. Friends remembered his playful sense of humor. For a time recently, he stayed with his mom while working at Goodwill, commuting from San Jose at 5 a.m. and returning late.
“He made everybody laugh,” Espinosa said. “He didn’t deserve to be cornered in an attic and gunned down.”
The family has contacted Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, who told the Guardian that during his handling of hundreds of officer-misconduct cases, he’s seen families victimized by police denied documents, explanations, and the truth.
“If there’s one thing I’ve found, it’s police agencies do a disservice to the victim’s family when they don’t provide information,” Burris said. “When the families ask questions, they don’t respond.” SFBG