Family blames deputies' tactics in Calif. standoff that ended in suicide
Sheriff's officials said they followed specific protocols as the incident slowly escalated into the night and early morning hours
By Jamie Hansen and Elizabeth M. Cosin
The Press Democrat
LARKFIELD, Calif. — Family members of a Larkfield man who killed himself last weekend during a lengthy standoff with Sonoma County sheriff's deputies are questioning whether authorities overreacted to a domestic disturbance at the home.
Sheriff's officials said they followed specific protocols as the incident slowly escalated into the night and early morning hours, ending when deputies set off flash grenades, used an armored truck to knock the front door open, discharged tear gas into the house and ultimately sent a SWAT team in to search for the man. They said that once deputies determined the man had committed a misdemeanor act of domestic violence against his wife, they were bound by law and Sheriff's
Office policy to arrest him.
Deputies discovered the body of Glenn Raymond Swindell, 39, in the attic of his garage shortly before 8 a.m. Saturday, 11 hours after they first arrived at his Manka Circle home. He apparently shot himself with a handgun, Lt. Mark Essick said.
Swindell's mother, Deborah Belka, who spoke with her son on the phone and pleaded with him to surrender, blamed deputies for his death. The family said they were planning to meet with an attorney in their search for answers.
"I know he killed himself, but as far as I'm concerned, they pulled the trigger," Belka said. "They scared him to death."
Swindell had grown increasingly paranoid of police in the past year and believed he would be killed if he surrendered, she said.
Essick said deputies believed Swindell was armed and they complied with policies that dictate their tactics in such situations.
"We are confident that we established the checks and balances that we needed to," he said.
The incident began at about 9 p.m. Friday when Swindell's wife called 911 and said her husband attacked her, Essick said. She reported that Swindell briefly held her against her will in their car, which was parked outside their home.
Swindell then took the couple's two young children, ages 5 and 3, into the house and refused to let his wife see them.
Swindell has two older children from a previous marriage, neither of whom was home at the time.
Essick said deputies determined that Swindell had committed an act of violence against his wife and obtained a warrant to search the home and arrest him on suspicion of misdemeanor battery and false imprisonment. The decision was based on interviews with the wife and evidence deputies collected at the scene, he said.
"Not only did we feel that way but we wrote that up in an affidavit and a judge agreed with us," Essick said.
Swindell's wife told deputies that he had guns in the house, according to both the Sheriff's Office and Belka. The wife also told deputies that her husband had previous issues with domestic violence, Essick said.
His wife declined to comment this week.
Swindell initially refused to come out of the house or release his children, but shortly before 10 p.m., he agreed to let his children leave.
Once Swindell let his children out of the house, deputies tried to arrest him, but he would not leave the house, Essick said. They tried to reach Swindell by telephone and spoke with him on and off, attempting to establish a rapport with him, Essick said.
"It wasn't working, wasn't working at all," Essick said.
Swindell called his mother, who lives in Bellingham, Wash., around 10 p.m. and spent more than a hour on the phone with her, Belka said. He told her that he was hiding in the attic from deputies and feared for his life, she said.
At around 12:40 a.m., deputies were no longer able to reach Swindell by phone. They called for the SWAT team, hostage negotiators and a law enforcement psychologist who is also a trained negotiator.
Authorities tried to talk with Swindell by phone and loudspeaker, but were unsuccessful, Essick said.
At around 3 a.m., deputies set off flash grenades in an effort to get Swindell to communicate, Essick said. The loud bang of the grenades is sometimes used by police in situations where they think a suspect might have fallen asleep, he said.
When that didn't elicit a response, the SWAT team used a vehicle with a long arm to break open the front door shortly before 4 a.m. Deputies then sent in a robot to search the house. The camera-equipped robot found no sign of Swindell but discovered an empty plastic handgun case, which raised deputies' concerns, Essick said.
Finally, they sent in tear gas at around 5 a.m. in an effort to encourage Swindell to surrender. There was still no response.
SWAT members entered the house at around 7 a.m. with a trained dog to search for the man, believing he might be in a crawl space or an attic.
"That's the time that danger is highest for our members," Essick said.
Almost an hour later, deputies saw a pull-down ladder to the attic space was slightly ajar. They pulled it down and saw a motionless foot, Essick said. A gun was found near his body. Essick said it's not yet clear when Swindell killed himself.
Family members acknowledged that Swindell was troubled, but said they felt the response by police was overzealous, especially after he released his children.
"At that point, it should have been over," Belka said. "My son should still be alive."
Belka said Swindell was becoming a conspiracy theorist who harbored a growing fear of police, which began after a car accident left him with severe shoulder pain. Swindell, who spent 22 years working in the grocery business, was rear-ended while he was driving his car for work and received disability payments, she said. He spent at least a year off work and started following Infowars.com, a website operated by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
But Belka also said Swindell was a good father and avid outdoorsman who cared about his family.
"He was not a violent man," she said. "We're not angry. We're hardworking, regular people who just want answers."
Essick said it wasn't clear if negotiators knew about Swindell's feelings toward the police. He said deputies were reacting to the information they had on hand and following protocol.
"I can understand why they think there's an overreaction," Essick said. "But when we respond to a call like this, we can't just send the hostage negotiators without tactical support. And we won't send just the SWAT team without negotiators.
We send everybody on the special operations team."
Copyright 2014 The Press Democrat