By Mark Gutglueck
Despite the reluctance of the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office to apply criminal sanctions against the sheriff’s department over acts of violence and death inflicted upon its detainees and prisoners, the county and its taxpayers continue to succumb to civil sanctions meted out by state and federal courts when the families of those who have lost their lives in sheriff’s custody sue.
Without going to trial, the county last week settled, for $1.5 million, a lawsuit filed by the parents of a 19-year-old black man from Ontario beaten to death in his cell last year at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. In the case of a 29-year-old black man shot and killed last year by a sheriff’s deputy during an encounter at the Barstow motel where the man was in residence, the county is looking, on November 28, to make a quick exodus by means of a similar payout from a federal lawsuit filed by the deceased’s mother, and the county is now gearing up to defend itself against or buy its way out of a parallel lawsuit from the man’s father filed early this month.
In the first of these cases, on November 15, lawyers for San Bernardino County and the lawyer for the parents of Rashad Davis Jr. agreed to a $1.5 million settlement, precluding the need for the case which named San Bernardino County, the sheriff’s department and sheriff’s captain Jeff Rose to go to trial.
Woodland Hills-based attorney Dale K. Galipo represented Rashad Davis Sr. and Deandra Thomas, in the lawsuit relating to the death of their son, Rashad Davis Jr, 19, who was in custody at the West Valley Detention Center in May 2015 following his arrest on suspicion of robbing the New Happy Day Spa in Ontario at knifepoint on March 18, 2015, and stealing a cell phone and purse at San Joaquin Valley College, also in Ontario, on March 26, 2015.
Davis, who was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed about 105 pounds, had no record of prior criminal offenses before his arrest on suspicion of armed robbery and burglary. He was placed into a cell with Jeremiah Ajani Bell, 22, on April 27, 2015. Bell, 22, who had been arrested for attempted murder, was in custody on suspicion of severely beating a 54-year-old Rialto resident, Armando Barron, with a baseball bat. Barron subsequently died from the injuries sustained in that beating. On Friday, May 22, 2015 at 10:02 a.m., West Valley Detention Center deputies found Davis unresponsive on the floor of the two-man cell he occupied with Bell. Davis, who had been repeatedly slammed into the concrete floor, received immediate medical attention and was transported to Kaiser Hospital in Fontana, where he was pronounced dead.
An autopsy on Davis was conducted on Tuesday, May 26, 2015, by the Riverside County Coroner’s Office. The cause of death was determined to be from blunt force injuries. Investigators from the San Bernardino County Specialized Investigation Division Homicide Detail, detective Gary Hart and sergeant John Gaffney, conducted the investigation into the incident. Those investigators determined that Jeremiah Ajani Bell was responsible for the death of Rashad Paul Davis. Bell has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of both Barron and Davis.
Davis had severe learning disabilities, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and what has been described as “the mentality of a 10-year-old.” He attended special needs schools. There are several contradictions in the sheriff’s department’s and the county’s position with regard to Davis’ murder. The sheriff’s department maintains it was not responsible for Davis’ death, asserting that state prison realignment, in which many prison inmates have been transported to county detention facilities, accounts for what occurred, although Bell at the time of Davis’ death was not convicted and would have been in the sheriff’s custody in any case. Nevertheless, the sheriff’s department maintains that in reaction to Davis’ death, the sheriff’s department has instituted “system improvements” at its jails to prevent a repeat of the circumstances that led to Davis’ death. The settlement, while acknowledging Rashad Davis Sr. and Deandra Thomas are due $1.5 million as the result of the death of their son, contains language to the effect that it is not to be construed as an admission of guilt by the department, the county or captain Rose. Rose oversaw operations at the jail, which has been the focus of an FBI and federal grand jury investigation into allegations of inmate abuse since March 2014. Sheriff John McMahon has said he is cooperating with that investigation, which implies he has provided information to federal investigators, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, prejudicial to Rose.
In another case, Nathanael Pickett I, the father of 29-year-old Nathanael Pickett II, who was shot and killed by San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Woods last November, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against San Bernardino County, Kyle H. Woods, Riverside County, the El Rancho Motel and the City of Barstow on November 1.
Nathanael Pickett I is represented by Victorville-based attorney Bob Conaway. Nathanael Pickett I’s lawsuit was filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court. That lawsuit relates to essentially the same events covered in a lawsuit filed by Nathanael Harris Pickett II’s mother, Dominique Archibald, in U.S. Federal Court in Riverside on May 31, naming San Bernardino County, the sheriff’s department, sheriff’s deputy Kyle Hayden Woods, and an unidentified civilian reserve deputy as defendants.
Nathanael Harris Pickett II’s shooting occurred in the Barstow Police Department’s jurisdiction, within the City of Barstow. There are a number of issues with regard to the matter that represent a degree of liability on the part of the county and the sheriff’s department, the suit alleges.
Based on deputy Woods’ statements and his police report, the sheriff’s office has maintained the shooting was a justified use of deadly force in which the deceased tempted fate through his own behavior. Other available information and evidence, including a video and statements by witnesses, controvert Woods and the department.
The incident took place on November 19, 2015 and began after Nathanael Harris Pickett II, according to the department, was observed making an unconventional entrance onto the property where he was residing. When he was approached, Pickett failed to properly identify himself to Woods and a reserve officer accompanying Woods on his patrol rounds that evening, the sheriff’s department maintains. Pickett remained uncooperative and then fled when Woods attempted to place him in handcuffs, the department maintains. A scuffle ensued, during which, according to the sheriff’s department, Pickett repeatedly punched Woods in the head.
Woods and the citizen volunteer were on duty the evening in question when they witnessed, at approximately 9:07 p.m., a man, subsequently identified as Pickett, jumping over a fence at the El Rancho Motel in Barstow. When the officers moved to question Pickett, according to the department, he furnished the pair with a “false name and became uncooperative. As the deputy attempted to handcuff the suspect, he attempted to run and a fight between the two broke out. Pickett struck the deputy numerous times in the face and refused to comply with the repeated verbal commands to stop hitting him and move away. The deputy fired his weapon, striking the subject, at which time the assault ceased.”
Pickett was pronounced dead at the scene.
Woods, according to a sheriff’s department news release at the time, suffered multiple injuries, including broken bones. Furthermore, according to the sheriff’s department, Pickettt has a history of resisting arrest, such that he merited the use of deadly force against him.
Pickett was twice convicted, in 2006 and again in 2011, of “obstructing an executive officer.” In 2012, Pickett was sentenced to three years of conditional and revocable release stemming from the 2006 misdemeanor obstructing an executive officer arrest, court records show. He was simultaneously sentenced to three years of supervised probation following a no contest plea to two counts of felony obstructing an executive officer and a felony false impersonation charge stemming from a 2011 arrest.
Nevertheless, witnesses say it was Woods who was punching Pickett rather than the other way around. Nor does video footage captured by a security camera at the El Rancho Motel, where Pickett had been living, bear out the department’s and Woods’ version of events. Woods activated an audio recorder on his uniform belt. At various times during the encounter Pickett can be heard asking Woods, “What’s the problem?” The video depicts Woods talking to Pickett, then Pickett running from the deputy, who pursues Pickett off camera. A few minutes later, Pickett reappears on video, running down the motel corridor and being chased by Woods. Pickett trips and falls. Woods, seen on the video from behind, at that point appears to be pointing his gun at Pickett. Pickett scoots back, away from the approaching deputy, but does not appear to be hitting or in any way striking Woods. A single flash of gunfire briefly flickers and Pickett is then seen prone on the ground. At no point is Pickett seen striking Woods. Woods, however, can be seen punching Pickett repeatedly. At one point, the reserve deputy can be seen assisting Woods.
According to the complaint filed on November 1, 2016 by Conaway on behalf of Harris Pickett, there are 24 overt acts or causes of action, including wrongful death, conspiracy to destroy evidence of civil rights violations, excessive force, a violation of the Fourth Amendment and violating a familial right to bury a family member.
The complaint alleges Woods “unlawfully, improperly and maliciously” shot Pickett while he was on the ground and “presenting no threat of harm” to anyone. Pickett’s body was moved, according to the suit, to obscure the crime scene and manipulate the body in a way that altered or destroyed ballistic evidence that would have, if handled properly, established Pickett was shot while lying on the ground and could have survived the gunshot wounds if “prompt and proper medical care” had been rendered in a timely manner. Furthermore, according to the suit, the sheriff’s department dissuaded, or attempted to dissuade witnesses.
Additionally, according to the suit, Pickett’s body was left for several hours at the scene of the shooting and, after it was removed, left “unrefrigerated” for several days while in the possession of the sheriff’s coroner’s division, leading to decomposition.
The complaint alleges Pickett’s body was taken to the Riverside County’s coroner, where it “sat for the better part of a week without any refrigeration.”
“Had (the) plaintiff known the whereabouts of the body of the deceased, they would have requested refrigeration so the remains at the funeral would have been recognizable after proper preparation,” the complaint reads. “Instead the remains desicated to where they were unrecognizable, making an open casket viewing impossible.”
Conaway says the coroner’s offices in San Bernardino and Riverside made no appreciable attempts to inform Pickett’s family of his death within 24 hours of the shooting.
Pickett’s father seeks general, special, punitive damages and reasonable attorney fees, to be determined at trial.
Pickett’s mother, Dominique Archibald, is the plaintiff in the separate federal case. She is represented by Victorville attorneys Jim Terrell and Sharon Brunner, along with Dale Galipo. Archibald, Terrell, Brunner and Galipo acknowledge that Pickett suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, most likely schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But Pickett’s condition in no way justified the treatment he received at the hands of Woods, according to the suit, which lists among its causes of action unreasonable search and seizure, excessive force, deliberate indifference to Pickett’s medical needs, and violations of civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Moreover, the suit paints a picture of out-and-out sadistic brutality and criminal acts perpetrated by Woods. Woods acted “unlawfully, improperly and maliciously shot” Pickett, the suit states. After Pickett was shot, according to the suit, Woods reholstered his gun, and he and the reserve deputy punched and kicked Pickett as he lay on the doorstep of death. Woods merits being prosecuted by the district attorney’s office for murder, Terrall and Bruner maintain.
U.S. District Court Judge Andre Birrote Jr. set the trial date for March 6, 2018, court records show. Nevertheless, the county is anxious to avoid the prospect of going to trial and it is anticipated the county will settle the matter prior to the March trial date.
The Barstow Police Department investigated the shooting with assistance from the sheriff’s department. That report was forwarded to the district attorney’s office on April 19. Two days after Conaway filed his suit on behalf of Harris Pickett, the district attorney’s office on November 3 entered a finding that Woods was justified in “using deadly force to protect himself and others” when he shot and killed Pickett. According to the district attorney’s office, Woods and the civilian reserve deputy believed, mistakenly it would later be determined, that Pickett was trespassing on the El Rancho Motel grounds. Killing Pickett was further justified, according to the district attorney’s office, given the results of a toxicology report showing Pickett had marijuana in his system and a blood-alcohol level of 0.01. Pickett had taken part in and had completed all phases of a court-ordered mental health rehabilitation program imposed upon his as a term of probation. Records show he had cooperated with a psychiatrist and medical doctor and took all prescribed medication given him under the Cedar House Rehabilitation Program. The district attorney’s office routinely deems uses of force by law enforcement officers as legally justified.
Conaway told the Sentinel, “The DA’s report making the finding the shooting was justified is based on incorrect facts. To start with, Nate II walked into the property where he rented a room. He did not jump the fence. He did identify himself, which the cop acknowledged, but that he chose not to believe him and as much said so.”
The complaint states, “For reasons that are not known, perhaps to impress his ride along (herein referred to as Doe 31) or to brandish his power (Woods was a rookie on the force) Woods pulled into the El Rancho Motel common area after which Woods and his ride along exited the marked patrol vehicle and for some reason approached Nathanael Pickett II who was already on the motel property and in route to his rented place in the motel. Without probable cause, reasonable suspicion to believe Nathanael Picket II had violated the law, or any other legitimate law enforcement purpose, Kyle Woods approached Nathanael Pickett II, demanding he stop and answer questions. After talking to Kyle for a short time, during which time plaintiff is informed and believes and thereon alleges that Nathanael Pickett II identified himself to Kyle Woods as Nate Pickett, the same name as his father who has been involved, has worked in and owned properties in the City of Barstow and the County of San Bernardino for approximately three decades, and that Nathanael Pickett II resumed walking to his room at the motel, but rather than breaking off contact, Kyle Woods continued, despite no indication of a crime having been committed, about to be committed or any other exigent circumstance or warrant continued pursuit, followed Nathanael Pickett II again but by this time, Kyle Woods was in the curtilage of his rented residence, consisting of a six riser covered stairway immediately surrounding his residential rental unit in the motel or presumed protected zone under the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The suit continues, “Kyle Woods open hand pushed Nathanael Pickett II from behind, causing Nathanael Pickett II to fall onto the hard concrete surface on the six riser walkway onto his side & torso and according to a video record it appears possibly strike his head on the concrete floor, causing what plaintiff is informed and believes unspecified injuries, the extent of which plaintiff will never be able to evaluate and assess due to the mishandling of the corpse post mortem by San Bernardino County and Riverside County coroner’s offices. At some point between the push and after the fall, Doe 31 comes over to kick Nathanael Pickett in the curtilage of his rented residence, causing fright, emotional distress and injuries plaintiff is unable to evaluate due to the mishandling of the corpse as alleged above.”
Conaway told the Sentinel, “The cop repeatedly said he was going to taze Pickett II, twice according to witnesses. So, what does he do? He shoots him twice in the chest after Nate II was pushed to the ground. This is clearly shown on film. After Nate II is on the ground, he pulls his gun and shoots him.”
Deputy Woods showed absolute disregard for Pickett’s safety, Conaway said, engaging in what was literally overkill and then prevented medical aid from reaching the man he shot in anything approximating a timely manner.
“While Nate II was bleeding from two gunshot wounds, Woods flails at his body, while he complains he is having trouble breathing,” Conaway told the Sentinel. The complaint states, “Nathanael Pickett II died a slow painful death, struggling to breathe, while Kyle Woods & Doe 31 [the unidentified civilian reserve deputy] instead of helping Nathaeel Pickett II, violently struck his body.”
According to Conaway, “The shooting happened at approximately 9:15-9:16 pm; the paramedics, who were less than two miles away, were notified at 9:20 p.m. and arrived at 9:25 p.m. But when they arrived, the paramedics were “staged out of the area” and given access only after being escorted in, so the exact time of arrival to the gunshot victim is not clear as the fire paramedic unit was not cleared until 9:58 p.m.”
The lawsuit states, “In furtherance of the care denial, the Barstow Fire Protection District was given a delayed notice of the incident and the County of San Bernardino’s officers at the scene restricted the paramedic’s access to Nathanael Pickett II, such that when they arrived, Nathanael Pickett II had expired. Decedent was entitled to receive necessary medical attention while in the custody of Kyle Woods, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and the City of Barstow’s Police Department.”
The suit states Woods showed “deliberate indifference to the decedent’s medical needs.”
Conaway maintains there was demonstrable tampering with the scene of the shooting, Pickett’s dead body and the evidence in what he characterized as “a coverup.” He said law enforcement officers cataloged through a set of related but falsified scenarios to justify the shooting before settling upon one that can be shown to be a fabrication.
“Barstow PD appeared at the scene and moved the body to a location close to the fence, which supposedly was the point of entry or planned exit,” Conaway told the Sentinel. “The story released to the media the following morning is that the suspect was running to a fence to jump it. Then it was changed to his jumping the fence to get in. They should not have been involved in the investigation.”
The lawsuit references “The efforts of Kyle Woods, the City of Barstow by and through its officers named herein as Doe defendants 11-20 & San Bernardino County & employees named as Does 1-10 who contrary to the statutory mandate that only the coroner should move the body in such facts (a shooting related death), in fact moved the body from where the decedent was shot on the ground on the walkway outside his rental unit, to a location close to the fence, where Woods and Does 1-10 and 11-20 would fabricate his story that Nathanael Pickett II was not being compliant, that Nathanael Picket II was attempting to scale a fence away from where he lived and that Woods needed to violently wrestle to the ground an unarmed man, whereupon a struggle allegedly ensued which allegedly injured Woods and justified his shooting Nathanael Pickett II to death. In furtherance of the conspiracy, the sheriff’s department’s shooting team (one of the Does 1-10) removed evidence from the actual scene consisting of the blood, the shell casings and the spent rounds that went through the torso of Nathanael Pickett II and certain portions of the video on scene and ‘awarded’ the investigation to the Barstow Police Department, the employer of the assisting officers in what plaintiff is informed and believes was a coverup. Due to the expertise of the coroner’s office in both counties by and through their employees, and their knowledge that defensive wounds, angles of entry of gunshots and pre-shooting traumatic injuries are all relevant to the question of whether a person put up a struggle, fight or was evasive, the condition of the body was crucial for plaintiff to be able to fully investigate claims and potential rights and in violation of 42 USC 1985(3) as two or more persons are involved in an effort to deprive plaintiff, either directly or indirectly, of equal protection of the laws and/or of equal privileges and immunities under the laws.”
According to the suit, “For reasons that are unclear, Nathanael Pickett II’s body was not released until nearly a week later making any forensic investigation of the angle of gunshot wounds, whether there were any defensive wounds on the arms of the decedent or abrasions indicating pre-death injury from his being pushed down by officer Woods and hitting the concrete stairs and floor, struck by officer Woods pre-shooting and or striking injuries from the civil ride-along identified as Doe 31.” The suit further references, police officers “with the City of Barstow who assisted in moving the body to fabricate a fleeing suspect alternative crime scene scenario, chasing off witnesses to the events leading up and including the shooting who were present [and] handling the body in such a way as to destroy ballistic evidence.”
Furthermore, according to the suit, “The San Bernardino County’s sheriff’s department has demonstrated the practice in shooting cases of moving the body before any coroner can inspect the body with the assistance of police officers that arrive at the scent to a location to fit the false account that is planned, of in fact developing an alternative story based on where the bodies and related evidence is moved, the moving of evidence before it can be independently inspected where it came to rest or lie after the fatal officer shooting, preventing family from accessing the body by shipping off to another county and then letting the body deteriorate to where a forensic examination by the family or representatives becomes problematic.”
According to the suit, “the Sheriff’s department has employed and retained as deputies who they reasonably knew or should have known had dangerous propensities and tendencies for abusing their authority and mistreating citizens by failing to follow any written San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department polices and for using excessive force.”
Roger A. Colvin, an attorney representing the county said he wants the federal cases and state cases to be joined together under what he called the “one action rule. The one action rule requires that all claimants be joined in a single action where the alleged wrongful death arises out of the same set of facts with the same parties.”
Colvin said the county will have the suit Conaway filed on Pickett’s father’s behalf vacated if he insists on going it alone. “If the joinder is not effectuated, our office will have no other recourse than to file a demurrer and/or motion to strike the first amended complaint,” Colvin said in a letter to Conaway obtained by the Sentinel.
Lawyers for Dominique Archibald are scheuled to have a settlement conference with lawyers representing the county on Monday, November 28.
By Mark Gutglueck