By Sherry Elshaug and Mark Gutglueck
Evidence that was to be used in the prosecution of Alex Opmanis on murder charges in the July 11, 2019 shooting death of Sammy Davis appears to have been altered. As the evidence tampering was looming into focus this week, a preliminary hearing on the matter that was scheduled for yesterday, January 16, was abruptly postponed until January 27.
The evidence in question consists of a security video that captured moving images and the sounds of the shooting, as well as activity in the area where the shooting occurred both before and after it. It is unclear who or why the deletion of multiple passages of footage occurred in the version of the video being provided and exhibited by the district attorney’s office, including a crucial 12 seconds that is missing just prior to the shooting. The action remaining on the video just prior to the excised portion shows what appears to be Davis initiating an assault on Opmanis after Davis and two of his associates have dismounted from their motorcycles and are encircling Opmanis standing next to his vehicle. At that point there is a 12-second excision from the video. Upon resumption, Davis and Opmanis are fully engaged in a scuffle, and less than two seconds later Opmanis is seen and heard discharging two rounds from a handgun he has managed to remove from his vehicle, one of which hit Davis, who collapses immediately.
The missing video footage, which would potentially shore up Opmanis’ legal position as he fights the charges against him with the assertion he was engaged in justifiable self-defense, represents the third twist in a case that generated immediate attention not only in the San Bernardino Mountain district, where the motorcycle gang Davis is a part of and the methamphetamine culture with which it is intertwined has for some time put the community on edge, but throughout San Bernardino County and the rest of Southern California, as well.
Initially, the agency that investigated the shooting, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which had access to the full unedited and unaltered video, made a determination that Opmanis had acted in self-defense. While the self-defense justification rang true with many of those in the immediate vicinity of the incident who were familiar with the personalities and proclivities of Davis and his associates, to the public at large in the valley below the San Bernardino Mountains extending toward the Los Angeles Basin, that Opmanis, or anyone for that matter, could walk away from a shooting growing out of an apparently heated confrontation was somewhat alarming and baffling.
Four weeks later, the sheriff’s department reversed course, arresting Opmanis on suspicion of murder, simultaneously reporting that its investigators had detected certain inconsistencies in Opmanis’s statements with regard to the shooting and what led up to it.
The events which triggered the July 11, 2019 shooting go back more than six months prior to that. In January 2019, Opmanis, 27, who had previously made the acquaintance of Robert Shuey, 29, through their mutual interest in dirt bike riding, were at the Dogwood bar in Blue Jay. Shuey, who lived not too distant from the bar, invited Opmanis, who had been drinking heavily, to come to his home. Opmanis at some point vomited while he was at Shuey’s house, after which a fight ensued. Opmanis was beaten severely and required hospitalization as a result, losing a portion of his vision in his left eye. The doctors treating him considered it necessary to insert a plate in his head because a portion of his skull had collapsed. Encouraged by his family, Opmanis filed a civil suit against Shuey. The filing of the suit antagonized Shuey, an avid motorcyclist and gang member against whom the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office alone had filed no fewer than 17 criminal charges, having obtained felony convictions for burglary, illegal firearms possession and drug dealing, as well as reduced or misdemeanor convictions for theft, auto theft, possession of drugs and assault/fighting. In addition, Shuey has a reputation for fighting with and stabbing people. During the February-to-June timeframe, Shuey made repeated threats against Opmanis and his family, on occasion in public places and in public situations. In reaction, Opmanis obtained a handgun, a Glock 27 .40 caliber, which he stored unloaded in a lockbox below the passenger side seat of his vehicle, a black 2000 Mercedes. He kept the magazine for the gun separately in the glove compartment.
On July 11, 2019 Shuey and another avid motorcyclist, Shane Codman, had ridden their motorcycles down from the mountain communities first to Corona and then to a “Bike Night” in Riverside, where they met up with Sammy Davis around 6 p.m., in the course of which they were consuming alcohol. The three left Riverside around 8 p.m., riding their motorcycles to return to the mountains. They intended to stop at Goodwin’s Market in Crestline to purchase hamburger meat and beer before going to Shuey’s home in Blue Jay.
Meanwhile, Opmanis had gone to Goodwin’s Market, located at at 24089 Lake Gregory Drive in Crestline. An external security camera at Goodwin’s Market, operated by Scottsdale, Arizona-based Clear Protection Services, Inc. shows Opmanis driving into the store’s parking lot at 8:49 p.m. and an internal camera also operated by Clear Protection shows him coming into the store at 8:52 p.m., accompanied by two individuals, one identified as Osvaldo Nuno and another known only as Johnny. Davis, Shuey and Codman arrived at Goodwin’s Market at 9:02 p.m., as recorded by the store’s external security camera, and are seen coming into the store at 9:04 p.m. While Opmanis knew both Shuey and Codman, he had no previous encounters with Davis and did not know him.
According to an individual speaking on behalf of Clear Protection Services, the video surveillance system in place at Goodwin’s Market consists of several cameras, all of which run continuously and are not triggered by motion sensors or any other devices which interrupt the video surveillance.
The most telling piece of evidence in the case involving Opmanis is the video taken from one of the store’s external cameras which has the parking space where Opmanis’s Mercedes is parked very close to the center of its field of perspective. The store’s other cameras, while useful in putting the events of that evening in a temporal order, do not actually capture the shooting itself. The store’s inside camera at the entrance is time-stamped approximately 12 seconds faster than the outside camera that captured the moving images of the shooting.
At 9:06 p.m., Opmanis, Nuno and Johnny are shown on the internal and then the external cameras leaving the store. Thereafter, Opmanis puts groceries into his Mercedes. The external camera captures him in an exchange with a woman who had been shopping at the store, and from whom he obtained, according to a later statement, her phone number. Between 9:08 p.m. and 9:09 p.m., the external video shows Opmanis talking to Nuno and Johnny while they are seated in Johnny’s vehicle, which is parked proximate to Opmanis’s Mercedes.
The external camera shows Sammy Davis emerging from the store at 9:09 p.m., at which point he lights a cigarette and spots Opmanis. The camera’s audio picks up Davis yelling at Opmanis, “It’s on you, punk.” Johnny and Nuno in Johnny’s vehicle have begun to drive away until eventually they are fully out of the camera’s range. The external camera captures Shuey and Codman engaged in conversation as they together with Davis head for their motorcycles. Thereafter, some 28 seconds of the video is cut and the conversation between Davis, Shuey and Codman seems to be edited out. At 9:10 p.m. on the external video, Opmanis can be seen standing on the running board of his Mercedes and remaining regardful of Davis, Shuey and Codman.
At 9:11 p.m., the video shows Johnny and Nuno pull back into the parking lot and park, lights on, behind Opmanis’s black Mercedes SUV. Opmanis then appears to be talking to them. Johnny gets out of the vehicle, and then gets back in.
Thereafter, two seconds are cut from the video footage as there is more conversation between Opmanis and Johnny. Following that, another 18 seconds is cut from the footage and more audio of the bikers’ conversation is cut. Between 9:11:36 p.m. and 9:11:44 p.m, Opmanis is outside his vehicle looking in the direction of the bikers. Johnny gets back into his vehicle; he and Nuno remain parked behind Opmanis. Both vehicles have their lights on. Shortly thereafter the three bikers start their motors. There is indecipherable yelling at that point, which cannot be understood because of the loud motors. Opmanis looks into his vehicle and has one hand on the roof. A man who has come out of the store who is parked next to Opmanis is putting groceries into his car. Between 9:11:44 p.m. and 9:12:06 p.m., Opmanis looks into his vehicle while he yet has his hand on the car roof. Audible are three horn honks, but it is not clear from where that sound emanates. There is another cut in the video as the man parked next to Opmanis crosses by him as he puts his cart into a shopping cart return holder next to Opmanis’s Mercedes. Between 9:12:06 p.m. and 9:12:24 p.m. the motorbikes’ engines are rumbling loudly as Opmanis appears to be looking at the man parked next to him who is now going back to get into his vehicle after putting his shopping cart away in the cart return. Two seconds are cut from the footage. Between 9:12:26 p.m. and 9:13:20 p.m., amidst revving motorcycle engines, the bikers, with Shuey in the lead, begin to move out from the parking lot, crossing in front of the Mercedes. As they pass, Shuey can be seen ﬂipping Opmanis off with his right hand, which causes his motorcycle to momentarily swerve while he is making the hand gesture. This provokes Opmanis, who responds by himself ﬂipping Shuey off and, it appears, honking his horn. Codman and Davis honk back and turn hard left to confront Opmanis, who can be seen kicking the shopping cart return holder. Shuey brieﬂy exits the parking lot, but then makes an immediate U-turn to return to the parking lot, joining Codman, who yet has his helmet on and is in a verbal exchange with Opmanis. Sammy Davis is at that point parked near the rear of Opmanis’s Mercedes SUV. Shuey pulls in and parks in between Codman and Davis, at the front of Alex’s SUV. Between 9:13:20 p.m. and 9:13:28 p.m. on the video, Opmanis is surrounded by the three bikers. Opmanis is a few feet from the driver’s door where he was previously standing, and it appears he is having a loud and animated exchange with Davis and Codman as Shuey has arrived. Davis dismounts from his bike. Between 9:13:28 p.m. and 9:13:40 p.m., twelve seconds are cut from the video. From 9:13:40 p.m. to 9:13:48 p.m., Shuey removes his helmet, dismounts from his bike, and approaches Opmanis. Davis, at the rear of the Mercedes, at the same time as Shuey takes off his helmet and his jacket. He then dismounts his bike. Shuey and Davis are approaching Opmanis, it appears aggressively. Both have short sleeved black shirts and jeans and similar haircuts, but Davis can be differentiated by the large, white graphic on the front of his shirt. Codman remains on his motorcycle to the far right in the video camera’s field. Patrons are scattered about, with cars coming and going and other commotion. There is a two second overlap from the last to the next video segment, which runs form 9:13:46 p.m. to 9:13:56 p.m. In it, Shuey is approaching Opmanis, who is toward the rear of the SUV and makes his way back to the front driver’s side door that is open, as Sammy Davis at first moves in but then circles around the back side of Shuey. At that point, it appears that the assault on Opmanis begins, followed by the crucial 12-second gap in the video. When the video resumes at 9:14:08 p.m., the physical altercation between Opmanis and Davis is in full swing more toward the rear of the SUV than the front. A shopping cart or carts can be heard rattling violently and the cart return can be seen shaking. Shuey approaches the ﬁght as Davis and Opmanis appear to be hunched over and struggling. The fight between them moves toward the front of Alex’s SUV. Shuey has his phone out with its light engaged, and appears to be videoing the fight. Two shots are heard. Nuno gets out of the passenger side of Johnny’s vehicle, still parked behind the Opmanis’s Mercedes SUV with the lights on. Nuno immediately returns to the vehicle and Johnny speeds off. Shuey runs away and ducks behind a parked car. A Goodwin’s Market patron with his family are walking towards the entrance of the store, viewing the incident taking place over the top/roof of a vehicle parked between him and where the fight and shooting is taking place. As his wife with a baby runs inside, the patron appears to be looking at Shuey, who dipped down when the shots were ﬁred and ended up directly in front of the patron’s view. Shuey is crouching down approximately eight to ten feet away from where Davis was shot, very close to the SUV and out of view of the witness standing under the American Flag.
Subsequently, in his witness statement, the patron would confuse Shuey with Davis, describing the individual shot as being located not where Davis was but at a more distant point consistent with Shuey’s position on the video.
After the shooting, between 9:14:30 and 9:15:00, Opmanis can be heard attempting to summon help. “Someone call an ambulance! Please call for help,” Opmanis is heard saying. When Opmanis produces his phone to make a call and Shuey begins moving toward him, however, Opmanis yells, “Get back! Get Back!” and gestures strongly to Shuey. Someone can be heard saying, “He’s dying.” At that point, Opmanis beckons to Codman, “Shane! Help! Shane, come help me.” Shuey momentarily crouches behind a vehicle.
By 9:17 p.m., a woman, later identified as an off-duty nurse, is seen on the video attempting to administer to Davis. The nurse will later report that Davis reeked of alcohol.
Also by 9:17 p.m., Codman mounted his bike and rode off.
Shuey, however remained at the scene for more than four minutes following the shooting, at one point retrieving something from Davis’s person or next to him. He then made a hand gesture towards Opmanis, put his helmet on, started his motorcycle and rode away at 9:18 p.m..
Opmanis remained in place, near his vehicle, as over the next several minutes other patrons from the store joined him in awaiting the arrival of authorities. On the clip of the video between 9:21:24 p.m. and 9:22:10 p.m., a patron can be seen bringing Opmanis, who appears to be injured, a wet rag with ice, and thereafter Opmanis can be seen using it to dab with it near his mouth and other parts of his face.
Sheriff’s vehicles with their lights on and sirens blaring arrive during that portion of the video clip running from 9:22:20 p.m to 9:22:50 p.m. On the video clip that covers the span between 9:23:18 p.m. to 9:24:50 p.m., sheriff’s deputies can be seen approaching Opmanis, turning him around, frisking him and then handcuffing him. Opmainis quietly went with them to a sheriff’s vehicle. In the 9:25:24 p.m. to 9:25:36 p.m. clip, sheriff’s deputies and paramedics are on the scene and are tending to Davis. On the 9:25:38 p.m. to 9:25:56 p.m. clip, sheriff’s deputies can be seen questioning witnesses while paramedics tend to Davis. In the final clip that was provided by the district attorney’s office as part of discovery, running from 9:26:04 p.m. to 9:26:14 p.m., the officers continue, as before, to question witnesses while paramedics tend to Davis. Opmanis is still in the back of the police car.
While Opmanis was taken into custody for questioning, he was neither officially arrested nor booked. The initial sheriff’s department investigation, which included a review of the unaltered security video, led detectives to conclude that the shooting was one that was made in self-defense.
Significantly, in its initial release of information pertaining to the shooting made on July 12, the sheriff’s department did not identify Opmanis, providing only that he was 27 years old, did not provide his place of residence, identified him as the “victim” and 29-year-old Davis as the “suspect.”
The July 12 release stated, “At 9:17 p.m. deputies were called to Goodwin’s Market for a call of shots fired in the parking lot. Deputies arrived and found Sammy Davis on the ground suffering from a gunshot wound and an off-duty nurse administering medical aid. Davis was transported to St. Bernadines Hospital where he was pronounced deceased at 10:12 p.m.”
Homicide detectives who responded to the Goodwin’s Market parking lot soon ascertained that a video of the incident was available, and their viewing of it after they obtained it, taken together with witness statements and the statement Opmanis provided, formed the basis of their initial finding that Opmanis was under assault and acted in self-defense.
The sheriff’s department release further stated, “The victim recognized one of the men as an associate of the suspect that assaulted him in January 2019, which resulted in hospitalization. He felt threatened as the three subjects approached, verbally taunting him, and retrieved his firearm from a compartment in his car. One of the subjects, Sammy Davis, grabbed the victim’s shirt and punched him multiple times. The victim fired his gun, striking Davis and stopping the assault.”
According to the sheriff’s department, “The investigation will be submitted to the district attorney’s office for review.”
The investigation was carried out by Detective Eric Ogaz under the supervision of Sergeant Angelo Gibilterra.
One element of that investigation pertained to whether Opmanis, who did not have a concealed weapon permit, was in compliance with California code in having carried the firearm in his vehicle.
Under California law, an individual without a concealed weapon permit can transport a firearm in a vehicle only if the firearm is unloaded and locked in the trunk or in a reasonably secure place in the front of the vehicle, with the ammunition for the gun in the opposite location, either the trunk or in the vehicle, which also must be locked.
While many of those who carry firearms in their vehicles consider having them unloaded to be impractical, carrying a loaded firearm in a car or truck can be charged as a misdemeanor if discovered by a law enforcement officer. A second such offense can be ratcheted up to a felony.
The use of an illegally carried gun for self-defense is subject to a myriad of conditions, circumstances and considerations. A prosecutor is not bound to charge an individual in possession of a loaded firearm with a crime. Further, that an individual was in defiance of the law by illegally carrying a firearm in a vehicle could be deemed irrelevant as to whether that individual’s claim of self-defense in using the firearm is valid. Under California law, self-defense deals with whether an individual reasonably believed he or she was in imminent danger of great bodily injury or death, and that the use of deadly force was necessary under the circumstances. Such evaluations are done on a case-by-case analysis.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, there was criticism of the decision not to arrest Opmanis, whose name was unknown to the general public. In response, sub rosa statements emanating from the sheriff’s department in defense of the decision emphasized that the video made a clear demonstration that the “victim,” as Opmanis was referred to, was being aggressively assaulted in what appeared to be an unprovoked attack.
Sometime after July 12, however, the sheriff’s department’s view of the matter began to evolve. A significant change came after Homicide Sergeant Joseph Steers was detailed to the case in support of Ogaz and Gibilterra.
On Friday, August 9, 2019, Opmanis was requested by the sheriff’s department to meet with homicide detectives to provide an additional statement. When he voluntarily complied and both made statements at a variance with what he had said earlier and reconfirmed statements the investigators believed clashed with other evidence they had gathered, they arrested Opmanis.
That arrest was done relatively quietly. Whereas the department issued a statement the day after the shooting, it waited 13 days to publicly disclose that Opmanis had been arrested. On August 22 the sheriff’s department put out a press release that said Opmanis had been subjected to follow-up questioning on August 9. “Following the interview, detectives determined Opmanis’ statements were inconsistent with the evidence gathered and placed him under arrest for the murder of Sammy Davis,” the press release said. Of note was that the August 22 sheriff’s department statement referred to Davis as the “victim,” while referring to Opmanis as the “suspect,” a reversal of the department’s ranking of the participants in the shooting made on July 12.
Opmanis’s bail was set at $1 million and he has remained in custody since his arrest.
Deputy District Attorney David Rabb is prosecuting the matter in which Opmanis is charged with PC 187, murder; PC12022.53(B), unlawful use of a firearm; PC12022.53(C), unlawful discharge of a firearm; and PC12022.53(D), unlawful discharge of a firearm causing death.
Opmanis was brought to court yesterday, January 16, for his preliminary hearing. Prior to the hearing it appeared that Deputy District Attorney Rabb was purposed to utilize the video and other evidence to convince Judge Charles Umeda to bind Opmanis over for trial. Rabb was present in the courtroom prior to the hearing but when the Opmanis matter came up, he ducked out and Deputy District Attorney Thomas Perkins appeared for him. Perkins told the court that the prosecution is not prepared to proceed at this time, which ran counter to a previous representation made by Rabb that the prosecution was prepared move ahead with the preliminary hearing on Thursday. Judge Umeda made a point of asking Deputy District Attorney Perkins about the reason for the delay. Perkins’ response was less than clear. Judge Umeda continued the preliminary hearing until January 27.
What is known is that copies of the video have been making the rounds and have been subject to close scrutiny and analysis. Of note is that the removal of the 9:13:56 p.m. to 9:14:08 p.m. portion of the video, upon which the initial statements of sheriff’s department personnel asserting that the video clearly demonstrated that Opmanis was under a violent attack, is likely to help rather than hurt the prosecution and hurt rather than help the defense. But with the doctoring of the video to remove that passage now becoming more generally recognized, the question is who was responsible for the alteration, and was it done with the intention of crippling the defense.
Prosecutors are required to provide to the defense any exculpatory – meaning exonerating – evidence turned up in their investigations. Failure to provide any such potentially exonerating evidence is known, in legal parlance, as a Brady violation.
On January 16, Rabb was faced with media presence in Umeda’s courtroom as the Opmanis matter was about to get under way in earnest, with suggestions of evidence tampering in the prosecution’s favor hanging over the case. Rabb’s inexplicable departure before the preliminary hearing began, followed by Deputy District Attorney Perkins’ request for a continuance, sparked questions about whether Rabb had known about the alteration previously and whether he knowingly intended to proceed toward trial using evidence he understood to be doctored.
The Sentinel sent to the district attorney’s office, through its official spokesman, Michael Bires, a series of questions relating to the alteration of the video, including the rational for piecemealing it and deleting specific sections.
In particular, the Sentinel inquired if Rabb was fully conscious of the degree to which the video from Goodwin’s Market has been fragmented and that portions of the video from Goodwin’s Market are missing altogether. The Sentinel also sought to determine if Rabb realized that the crucial 12 second segment of the video between 9:13:56 p.m. and 9:14:08 p.m. just prior to the shooting is missing, and whether he considers the 12 seconds of the video missing between 9:13:56 p.m. and 9:14:08 p.m. to be of especial significance in ascertaining Opmanis’s culpability in the fatal shooting of Sammy Davis.
Bires was unprepared, he indicated, to say whether the video from Goodwin’s Market arrived at the district attorney’s office as one continuous piece, without having been fragmented and without multiple passages, including the portion between 9:13:56 p.m. and 9:14:08 p.m., missing. Nor could Bires say with definitude if Deputy District Attorney Rabb personally altered the video or requested that some other party alter it before it was provided to Opmanis’s defense counsel.
Bires did say, tentatively, that he had not verified the authenticity of the video that is now being passed around. He asserted, “It did not come from the district attorney’s office. It didn’t come from the public defender.”
Opmanis is represented by the public defender’s office.
Despite Bires’ assertion, the Sentinel has verified that the altered video was provided to Opmanis’s counsel by the district attorney’s office.
Bires sought to suggest that the fragmentation of the video footage was the consequence of the Goodwin’s Market security system employing a motion activated video surveillance system.
“It is not confirmed, but if you are asking why this video is [fragmented], this is a movement-activated video, which explains the multiple chopping up of segments,” Bires said.
According to Clear Protection Services, the video surveillance system in place at Goodwin’s Market does not use motion-activated cameras.
Bires, while acknowledging that the altering of the video would constitute “a huge violation” and “that’s tampering with evidence,” reiterated that the alterations did not originate in the district attorney’s office. Moreover, he suggested that despite the timestamp on the video itself, the assertion that the video had been altered was not steeped in fact but rather opinion. “There’s no way I’m going to give you any response on that,” he said. “I’m not going to comment on your feelings and your viewpoints.”
By Sherry Elshaug and Mark Gutglueck