Minutes before two San Francisco police officers shot to death 25-year-old Asa Sullivan, their colleagues urged them to back off and call a hostage negotiator, newly released documents show.
Twice, cops on the scene suggested that officers Michelle Alvis and John Keesor back away from the Parkmerced attic where Sullivan was pinned down.
Recently released court records shed considerable new light on the June 6, 2006, shooting that ended with the unarmed Sullivan dead, his body raked by 16 bullets.
The records offer a narrative account of the early moments of an episode that’s taken a bizarre series of twists since Alvis and Keesor, saying they feared for their lives, killed the troubled young man who’d been working at Goodwill and had a young son.
The police communications log portrays a tense situation:
"Stand by, he’s gonna be a 148, stand by," San Francisco police officer Paulo Morgado says into his radio. Section 148 of the state Penal Code is radio vernacular for resisting arrest.
Moments pass before an unidentified officer makes an appeal over the air for a retreat. "Hey, why don’t we just pull back really quick, set up a perimeter, and just try to get him later?"
Instead, Alvis announces that she has Sullivan at gunpoint. "He’s not going anywhere," she says. He won’t show his hands or allow himself to be taken into custody, Alvis and Morgado say into their radios.
Minutes tick by. Sullivan is warned that a dog from the K-9 unit will bite him. Officer Erik Leung, on the floor below the attic, makes a second attempt at reason. "Why don’t we slow it down, see if we can get a hostage negotiator or something, because this guy’s not listening to us."
Then, "He has something under the insulation," a dispatcher types just as the K-9 unit arrives.
"Shots fired, shots fired!" yells Sgt. Tracy McCray. Alvis and Keesor empty their magazines, plugging as many as 26 rounds into the attic, with 16 hitting the target.
Sullivan had no gun, it turned out. An eyeglasses case was later found near his hip, but Alvis admits she didn’t wait to see what was in his right hand after Sullivan made a "sudden movement."
‘PRETTY STRONG EVIDENCE’
Reams of court records detailing the shooting became available earlier this month as evidence in a lawsuit filed by Sullivan’s family.
Early motions in the family’s federal suit, which names the city and county of San Francisco, Police Chief Heather Fong, and officers present when the shooting took place, were filed under seal. But some evidence previously marked confidential has emerged among publicly accessible court documents as the parties move toward an October trial date.
The records include transcripts of audio dispatch recordings, sworn depositions and declarations from the officers, reports from law enforcement policy experts, and photographs of the attic where the shooting occurred.
"The evidence is pretty strong [that] Asa did not point anything at the officers, that the officers had no reason to believe Asa was armed," the family’s Oakland lawyer, Ben Nisenbaum, told the Guardian.
A former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department hired as a consultant by the family’s lawyers argues in a report filed with the court that the officers exacerbated the situation by using repeated sharp commands and didn’t rely on proper diffusing tactics with a subject they knew was distressed and had a diminished capacity. The attic placed them at a tactical disadvantage, and there’s no logical reason why the officers didn’t pull away from it, notes the report by consultant Lou Reiter.
"Their presence in the manner they chose to deploy it simply invaded the zone of safety for Sullivan," Reiter’s report states. "This is known to further agitate the subject in these types of police encounters. No one coordinated the efforts to enable the dispatch of negotiators, which would have been consistent with San Francisco Police Department General Order 8.02 Hostage and Barricaded Suspect Incidents."
Officers in the attic that night say Sullivan refused recurring instructions to show his hands and acted aggressively. They testified that he threatened violent resistance, telling them, "I’m not going back to jail," "Shoot me, I’m not coming out of here," and "Are you ready to earn your medal?" They say leaving the attic and taking their attention off Sullivan would have made them vulnerable.
The officers were also unaware at the time that Sullivan had a no-bail arrest warrant. There’s still a dispute today over what grounds the officers had at the time to effect an arrest of Sullivan, or why they believed there was sufficient cause to enter the apartment.
Alvis, a six-year veteran of the force, did not return a message left at her home. A police spokesperson, Sgt. Wilfred Williams, confirmed for the Guardian that officers Keesor and Alvis are still employed by the department but he couldn’t provide any additional details, calling them personnel-related. He also couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
Several local agencies conduct parallel investigations when a subject is killed by police officers, including the department’s homicide and internal affairs units, the District Attorney’s Office, and if prompted, the Office of Citizen Complaints, an independent body that responds to allegations made by civilians of excessive force and other police misconduct.
Those findings in the Sullivan killing had not been available previously under the California Public Records Act and local sunshine laws due in part to a state Supreme Court ruling issued in late 2006 that blocks an array of law enforcement records from disclosure, including those stemming from disciplinary investigations.
A "DRUG HOUSE?"
Officer Morgado arrived at the townhouse address of 2 Garces Drive at Parkmerced, near San Francisco State University, around 8:40 p.m. June 6 after a neighbor called to report that the front door was swinging open and that it was a possible "drug house."
The unit hadn’t exactly hosted any church youth groups in recent months. Two men on the lease had supposedly given notice to move out the prior winter but hadn’t left, and management was charging them month-to-month.
Kathleen Espinoza, Asa’s mother, told the Guardian her son was struggling to find a place to stay and went to 2 Garces after she moved to Los Angeles in search of a lower cost of living.
Friends and acquaintances drifted in and out of the townhouse; some frequently smoked pot and meth, according to the deposition of one man who stayed there. The neighbors complained to police. One tenant testified that just before the shooting, he fought with another Parkmerced resident who occasionally came around the townhouse. The man allegedly hurled a bicycle at him, slicing open his elbow. A white shirt was used to soak up the gushing blood and police who saw it hanging near the front door relied on the stained garment to justify entering the apartment to check on the welfare of the people inside.
As back-up units arrived, Sullivan’s friend, Jason Martin, was discovered in a locked second-floor bedroom and placed in handcuffs. Keesor heard shuffling coming from above them and says he saw debris flaking from a ceiling entrance to the attic.
Three officers climbed into the cramped, pitch-black space before drawing their guns on Sullivan. Only their flashlights enabled them to see the darkly clothed man who appeared to be hiding amid the blown-in insulation and between a pair of two-by-fours.
"Let’s give the dog a nice bite on this guy," one officer said over the radio after a K-9 unit was called. The group considered using a gun that shoots beanbags but decided against it, believing that the space was too small and that the weapon could kill Sullivan by accident.
Officer Keesor took the lead in talking to Sullivan. "I asked him what was going on. I asked him who he was. Questions along that line," Keesor recalled in a deposition.
HISTORY OF DEPRESSION
Sullivan was responsive to most of the questions. He was sweating profusely, and the cops said they believed he was high on cocaine or meth. A medical expert later hired by his family’s lawyers testified that the amount of both substances found in his body through an autopsy were at very low levels and likely didn’t contribute to his behavior that night.
Sullivan did have a history of depression, and the consultant, Douglas Tucker, a psychiatry professor at UC San Francisco, described him as "an unhappy and volatile individual who acts impulsively." A man who stayed at the townhouse, David Russell, testified that Sullivan was quiet and well–mannered and excelled at chess.
What happened in the next few minutes is where the testimony conflicts.
Just as an officer announced over the radio that the K-9 unit had arrived, Alvis says Sullivan’s right arm moved suddenly. But the officer said she did not see his hands or arms outstretched or pointed at anyone. Morgado says he witnessed Sullivan’s right shoulder move, but never saw his hand come out of the insulation. Keesor, however, stated that Sullivan "punched his arms straight out and pointed an object, [a] long, black slender object, which at that moment I believed to be a gun, towards the direction of officer Alvis." The officers say their view of Sullivan was partially obscured by wide ducts passing through the attic.
Reached at his Bay Area home, Keesor declined to comment. "I can’t speak about this case, you know that," he said. A call to Matt Dorsey, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, which is representing the officers, was not returned.
Nisenbaum says Keesor "is the only officer there who claims that Asa had anything in his hand," meaning a weapon.
LOOKING FOR EXCUSES
Alexander Jason, a private crime scene analyst and former San Francisco patrol officer hired by attorneys for the city, contends the eyeglasses case may have been snapped shut, producing a sound interpreted as a gunshot. He also concluded that blood spatter on Asa’s right arm was consistent with his having stretched out his arm "as if aiming a gun."
But there was no gun, so it’s possible that one officer simply spooked another. "I heard gunfire and believed he was shooting at officer Alvis and I fired my weapon," Keesor testified. Bullets apparently pounded through the floor of the attic and narrowly missed an officer standing in the bathroom below Sullivan.
"At the end of the day, they’re looking for excuses," Nisenbaum said. "That’s all it is."
US District Judge Jeffrey White ruled Aug. 5 that there were enough unanswered questions for the case to be heard by a jury after both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The city has since taken that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, meaning it may be well past October before a trial begins.
Asa’s mother, Kathleen Espinoza, says she has nothing against the police and that one of her close relatives works in law enforcement. "I’ve never been through something like this," Espinoza said. "I’ve never had anybody in my family die in such a horrible way. It’s been really hard. I’ve been on jury duty once in my life, when I was in college."
The funeral director told Espinoza he’d never seen a body in worse shape than Sullivan’s and that the reconstruction for an open-casket ceremony was tedious. Espinoza placed sunglasses on his face because his eyes were gone. She says Sullivan never wanted to die.
"I want Asa to be vindicated…. He never meant them any harm," she said.