Some think 'system' failed mentally ill man who shot 2 San Diego officers

While police investigate a shooting that left two officers injured and the suspect dead, many questions remain about the man they say opened fire that night


By Lyndsay Winkley
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — While San Diego police investigate the College Area shooting a week ago that left two officers injured and the suspect dead, many questions remain about the man they say opened fire that night.

Residents in the sprawling Tuscany Place condo complex knew Joe Darwish, 28, as someone with a penchant for violent outbursts. He could be heard screaming profanity and threats, throwing himself against walls and breaking things inside his home at all hours, prompting neighbors to call police.

They called them often, they said.

Neighbors’ accounts and court records indicate that Darwish had mental health and behavioral issues, but it’s unclear whether he had a specific diagnosis or whether he had been under treatment at the time of the shooting.

Still, some people who came in contact with him over the past year – including a woman who was assaulted by Darwish, her landlord and two lawyers who represented Darwish in his criminal cases – saw him as someone who desperately needed help.

Somewhere along the line, they all agreed, the system that is supposed to identify and assist those with mental illness seemed to have failed Darwish and those around him, they said.

Howard McManus owns the building where Darwish lived and where the shooting occurred after 10 p.m. on June 23. McManus said he almost dropped the phone when he was first told what happened.

“I was surprised he was armed, that he actually tried to kill police officers,” McManus said. “I knew he was potentially dangerous, but I had no idea it was this bad.

“I knew he had deep issues,” he continued. “The whole situation was very frustrating. I feel like the whole system, and everyone in the chain, failed. It failed not only us as homeowners, but they failed Joe.”

Attorney Nancy Olsen, who was handling Darwish’s appeal of two misdemeanor convictions for assault and vandalism, was also shocked by the news. She saw Darwish as a tormented individual who was struggling, largely on his own, with mental illness.

“I know when I got that call, my heart sunk. My gut instinct said the system failed Joe,” Olsen said. “He was someone who needed help. … My sense was he was totally isolated.”

Noting that there are likely many others like Darwish in San Diego County, she said she hoped that if the community can learn ways to better help people in similar situations, “maybe his death won’t be in vain.”

Few new details have been released about the shooting.

Homicide investigators said they finished processing the scene for evidence on Wednesday, but remained tight-lipped about the case.

Darwish is suspected of firing at officers who were sent to investigate a report of a violent disturbance at the condo complex on Rolando Court.

When they arrived, the officers smelled smoke coming from the residence. After calling for firefighters, they forced their way inside and were immediately met by gunfire. Two officers — Francisco Roman and Dan Bihum — were shot, but are expected to make full recoveries, police had said.

Darwish’s body was found inside the condo. It’s unclear if he took his own life or was fatally shot by police.

Neighbors said it wasn’t the first time the police had been called about Darwish. It also wasn’t the first time he had exhibited violent behavior.

McManus first heard of Darwish’s behavior from Heather Dumitru — his tenant — in January 2017. She said Darwish could be heard screaming and breaking things. (Court records would later show the damage Darwish had apparently caused inside his own home. Mirrors were shattered and drywall was ripped from the studs.)

McManus and Dumitru tried everything they could think of to address Darwish’s behavior, they said. They called police, who were sometimes accompanied by Psychiatric Emergency Response Team clinicians. They emailed the homeowners’ association that oversaw the property. They attended homeowners’ association meetings. They spoke to Darwish’s mother.

The homeowners association told McManus that because Darwish owned the condo he was living in, there was little they could do about the situation, he said.

Police — who were called so frequently they knew Darwish by name — often said their hands were tied, according to Dumitru. On several occasions, she said, Darwish had quieted down by the time officers arrived, leaving police with no reason to take him away.

That changed on Jan. 25, 2017, when Darwish assaulted her.

According to Dumitru, she was walking past Darwish’s condominium when he ran outside shouting that he was going to kill her. She said she called 911 as she fled to a nearby Starbucks.

Once there, she met with McManus, who was her landlord, and Darwish’s mother, and the three returned to the complex together, according to Dumitru and court documents.

Police responded, but when Darwish refused to come out of his condo, they left the situation in the hands of his mother, who was trying to talk to him through the door.

Dumitru said she was standing nearby, armed with a baseball bat because she was worried for the mother’s safety, when Darwish came out.

What happened next is a matter of debate. Dumitru said that when Darwish saw her, he charged at her, punched her and slammed her head against the ground.

She said the attack left her with a traumatic brain injury that she lives with every day.

Lawyers representing Darwish paint a different picture of the incident. They said testimony presented in trial suggested he initially approached Dumitru with a cellphone to document the interaction, and that it was Dumitru who escalated the situation by swinging her bat at Darwish.

While the two did get into a scuffle, there was never medical evidence presented that proved Dumitru suffered a serious injury, Darwish’s lawyers said.

McManus was hit by Darwish while trying to break up the altercation, according to court records.

After the fight, Dumitru said she crawled back to her condo and called 911 and her then-boyfriend. Darwish also called police at some point during the altercation.

Dumitru’s boyfriend and his father arrived before police, and a second altercation occurred, court documents said. According to witness testimony, Darwish confronted the men before retreating into his condominium.

Darwish’s mother testified that Dumitru’s boyfriend followed Darwish into his condominium where he allegedly hit Darwish with a bat “lots of times.”

The mother testified that she thought the boyfriend was going to kill Darwish. Efforts to reach the mother for this story were unsuccessful.

Darwish, who suffered a broken arm, was jailed on suspicion of felony assault and other misdemeanor charges.

Attorney Charles Millioen, who represented Darwish in trial, said the witnesses the prosecution presented in court gave conflicting and inconsistent testimony about the incident. He said it was clear that Dumitru, McManus and likely others who lived at the complex had had enough of Darwish’s behavior.

“In closing (arguments), I said we were dealing with a group of people who, yes, had reached their breaking point with Joe,” Millioen said. “And you can’t necessarily blame them for reaching that breaking point.

“But what they saw as a solution did end up turning into vigilante justice,” he said.

Darwish was acquitted of felony assault and making a criminal threat but was found guilty of two misdemeanor crimes, simple assault and battery.

“Twelve people who are not neighbors of Joe Darwish got to hear all the evidence and decide that case, decide what really happened,” Millioen said. “And without that personal animosity — which you have to somewhat understand where they were coming from, you really do — but without that personal animosity, (the jurors) were really able to see the truth.”

Dumitru and McManus still disagree with the jury’s verdict.

“Almost everyone in the whole chain — the police, the PERT unit, the HOA, his mom, the judge, the jurors — they didn’t do their job,” McManus said. “The only person who did his job was (Darwish’s) defense attorney. And in the end, he didn’t help him either, because they put (Darwish) back on the street, and that was ultimately his demise.”

Little is known publicly about Darwish’s mental health history. Court records show he has two mental health cases filed in San Diego Superior Court, but they remain sealed. In a 2016 criminal case, Darwish was found mentally incompetent to stand trial — meaning he was unable, at the time, to understand the charges against him and/or assist in his defense.

Per a judge’s order, Darwish was sent to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County, a psychiatric facility, for about three months. His court case resumed when it was determined that his mental competency was restored.

He later pleaded guilty to a vandalism charge.

It’s unclear what kind of treatment, if any, Darwish received for his mental health condition or if he was ever contacted by the county’s In-Home Outreach Team program, or IHOT.

The outreach team provides assistance to adults with serious mental illness who are reluctant or resistant to receiving mental health services. Those services include behavioral health screening, outreach and engagement, crisis intervention and short term case management.

It’s possible that he could have benefitted from Laura’s Law, a statewide ordinance that allows the court to order psychiatric treatment for people with mental illness who have been resistant to treatment in the past. But as of January – three years after the county Board of Supervisors voted to implement it here – Laura’s Law was still unused in San Diego County.

©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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