Calif. police fatally shoot man, thought glasses case was gun
Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer
Two San Francisco police officers who shot and killed an unarmed man in the darkened attic of an apartment mistook him for a trespasser with a gun, police officials said Wednesday.
Asa B. Sullivan, 25, had his arms outstretched and was holding a "cylindrical object" when the officers confronted him Tuesday night in the apartment near Lake Merced, prompting them to open fire, said Police Chief Heather Fong. The object turned out to be an eyeglasses case.
Police refused to release the officers' names, saying only that one was a male officer with four years' experience on the force and the other was a female officer with the department for three years.
A department spokesman initially told reporters that Sullivan had fired at the officers through the attic floor, a version of events that police did not officially correct for more than 16 hours. Fong said the earlier story was based on a preliminary account.
The incident began when the two officers, both of whom work at Taraval station, responded to a report of an open door at a two-story townhouse at 2 Garces Drive at the Villas Parkmerced. Police were told the unit was vacant and undergoing renovation, and neighbors said they suspected squatters were living there, Fong said.
In fact, said a spokesman for the 3,200-unit complex, the unit was occupied by a man who was facing eviction but was still living there legally, and Sullivan was his guest.
The two officers quickly arrested one man when they entered the townhouse about 8:50 p.m. But Sullivan, who was on probation for dealing marijuana, fled upstairs and hid in the 2 1/2-foot-high attic, police said.
The officers followed and tried to talk Sullivan into giving up, even enlisting his companion in the effort, Fong said. Sullivan replied that he didn't want to go back to jail, the chief said.
At that point, the officers had the option of calling in a canine unit or SWAT team to flush out Sullivan, or they could have tried to wait him out, authorities said. Instead, they ventured into the attic.
Fong said events had been "constantly evolving'' and that the two officers clambered after Sullivan because they did not think they would be in danger.
The shooting occurred, Fong said, when Sullivan raised his hands and held the eyeglasses case as if it were a weapon.
"He assumed a shooting position,'' Fong said. "He held a cylindrical object and was pointing it right at the female officer.''
The male officer, believing his partner was in danger, fired first, his round grazing the female officer's head, Fong said. "She believed she was being fired at,'' and she too opened fire on Sullivan, the chief said. ''They believed this individual was pointing a firearm at them,'' Fong said. "They took action they felt was appropriate at the time.''
The chief conceded that police had given a preliminary account of the shooting to reporters that turned out to have several errors.
Police originally said that Sullivan was armed and had fired through the ceiling, narrowly missing one officer, and that two other officers then opened fire into the ceiling.
A revised update was provided late Wednesday afternoon. The round that went through the floor was a ricochet fired by one of the two officers in the attic, police said.
Fong said she would not identify the officers "at this time,'' adding the officers were on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.
The department had long named officers in such shootings, until 2002. At that time police officials, citing a 1995 general order, began refusing to provide the names of officers involved in shootings.
Two years later, the Police Commission changed the rules and told the department to disclose officers' names. There is no timetable for police to do so after a shooting, however.
The police officers union threatened to sue over the issue, but no suit was filed.
Gary Delagnes, head of the union, said any disclosure could be grounds for litigation. "We are trying to get an internal agreement on this,'' he said.
Sullivan's mother, Kathleen Espinosa of Van Nuys (Los Angeles County), said her son had been working for Goodwill Industries in San Francisco. She said she heard he had been using drugs recently, but that he was not a violent person.
"It was not a justified shooting,'' she said. "There was no weapon, so it was not justified. There are so many ways to do things these days, there's no reason to do this.''
Espinosa acknowledged her son had a criminal history, including a conviction for robbery in 1999, and had struggled finding work. He had been doing bricklaying for a short time after the robbery conviction and had later told police he was a caregiver. He also had a 5-year-old son.
"He didn't want to go back to jail,'' Espinosa said. "I know his personality. He would be one to hide. He was scared.''
Delagnes said the officers who shot Sullivan were distraught. He said Sullivan had told them that he would not be taken alive and that the officers had summoned a hostage negotiator before the shooting began.
"They were absolutely beside themselves" when they found out Sullivan was unarmed, Delagnes said. "They were certain that a shot had been fired at them.''
Robert Pender, head of the Parkmerced Residents Organization, said the complex had been plagued recently by groups of young people' who have been having street parties all night long.
Fong had said that complex security had encouraged residents to report squatters in the building.
However, Bert Polacci, director of public policy for Villas Parkmerced, said the unit where Sullivan was shot was not vacant. The resident was in the process of being evicted for nonpayment of rent, but was still living there legally and Sullivan was his guest, Polacci said.
He also denied the complex had a problem with squatters or all-night parties. "We are vigilant and we take the safety of residents seriously,'' Polacci said.
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