By Alex Emslie
Official documents trickling into public view present conflicting versions of the fatal Vallejo police shooting in 2012 that left 29-year-old Jeremiah Moore dead.
The Solano County District Attorney’s Office completed its review of the shooting earlier this month, concluding: “The input of the officers, as well as civilian witness accounts, together with the crime reports and the dispatch records, clearly indicate that the officer was legally justified in the use of deadly force.”
It was the third fatal shooting by Vallejo police Officer Sean Kenney over about a five-month period in 2012. The district attorney has now found that two of those shootings were lawful. The third case remains under review.
Criminal justice experts say the district attorney’s findings are not a surprise. They note that prosecutions for on-duty shootings by police are rare.
“Those prosecutors rely on law enforcement to make their cases,” said Jim Fisher, a former FBI agent and criminal justice professor emeritus at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. “They can’t antagonize them.”
Fisher studied media reports of officer-involved shootings nationwide in 2011 and found that only about 5 percent of shootings are found by department internal investigations to be against policy. He said a much smaller percentage results in any kind of criminal prosecution, which is the purpose of a district attorney’s investigation.
But the completion of that investigation generally mandates the release of the coroner’s report, autopsy and toxicology findings in a case. Despite the July 8 completion of the district attorney’s review, Vallejo police did not release the coroner’s report on Jeremiah Moore until July 22, after KQED inquiries to both the Solano County coroner and the Vallejo Police Department.
Department spokesman Sgt. James O’Connell declined to say why the release of the coroner’s report was delayed for two weeks. He said he could not answer questions raised by the district attorney’s summary because the case is the subject of ongoing litigation.
Oakland civil rights attorney Michael Haddad is representing Moore’s parents in a wrongful death lawsuit against Vallejo.
“The elected DA won’t bring criminal charges in a very suspicious shooting, but Jeremiah Moore’s parents are acting as private attorneys general on behalf of themselves and the public to make sure that justice is done,” he said.
The coroner’s report and autopsy raise a number of questions, perhaps the most glaring of which is the type of gun Jeremiah Moore was alleged to have pointed at an officer as Vallejo police approached his home at 2504 Alameda St.
Police were responding to multiple calls from neighbors about a disturbance on the generally quiet street. It’s undisputed that Moore and his partner, Jason Jessie, were acting strangely, running naked around their home and smashing car windows. Neighbor Marvin Clouse, who videotaped much of the incident, ran into his adjacent house to call 911 when he heard the men discussing setting their home on fire.
It’s hard to see much in Clouse’s darkened video, which he provided to KQED, especially after police arrived and he was pushed back across the street. But he captured audio of the shooting, including an initial barrage of about 13 shots followed several seconds later by two more shots. Moore died of two gunshot wounds to the front of his torso.
Listen to the sounds of the shooting below. This audio is graphic. KQED has made no internal edits to this sound clip.
Inconsistent Police Versions
In a statement released the day of the shooting, police said a naked Moore had “placed the barrel of a rifle directly against an officer’s stomach” as police approached the open doorway of the house, after they had commanded Jessie to get on the ground and show his hands.
“Another officer saw this and fearing for his life and the life of his fellow officer, immediately discharged his firearm at the man with the rifle,” the release says.
But about the same time that release was being drafted, sometime after 7:53 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2012, Vallejo Police Department evidence technician Stephanie Boursaw was telling the coroner that Moore had pointed a handgun at officers, not a rifle. No handgun was recovered.
“Obviously there was some great un-clarity among the Police Department after the shooting on issues that should have been really clear if they were true,” Haddad said.
A witness who lived across the street, Jaime Alvarado, told KQED that Moore was naked and unarmed when he was shot from several feet away by an officer standing at the base of stairs leading to the home’s porch. Trajectory analysis of the two bullet wounds in Moore’s torso show the rounds were traveling upward, which is consistent with Alvarado’s account of events. Alvarado said he also watched police retrieve a long-barrel rifle from inside the house long after the shooting.
Alvarado said he saw Moore’s hands flailing in the air right before he was shot, a movement Moore’s parents said could be attributed to their son’s autism spectrum disorder. Lisa Moore said her son would often wave his hands when he was nervous.
KQED tracked down Jason Jessie in Arizona, where he now lives. He said the shooting was traumatic and he has “blocked out” much of what happened that night. But he did recall owning what he described as “a .22 rifle from the ’20s.” It was an antique, he said, that he collected as part of his eBay buying and selling business. The Police Department’s initial statement says detectives recovered a round that was chambered in the rifle, but that detail is not repeated in the district attorney’s summary.
An independent forensic pathologist consulted by KQED on background said the upward trajectory is possible in both Alvarado’s scenario and the very different one outlined in the district attorney’s summary.
From the DA’s summary:
“Sgt. Clark announced the presence of the police and asked the occupants of the residence to ‘come out’ or words to that effect. Officer Kenney was positioned to the side and was covering Sgt. Clark who was at the door of the residence. Officer Kenney saw a white male who was completely naked walking quickly towards Sgt. Clark. The officers yelled commands to the naked male who was behaving erratically. The white male slowly complied with the commands and got on the ground.
Once that male was on the ground, Officer Kenney reached for his handcuffs. He then saw a barrel of a rifle pointing at Sgt. Clark. Officer Kenney drew his weapon and stepped back but he could not see the person who was actually holding the rifle. He yelled commands and fired several shots where he believed the subject with the rifle would be standing.
Officer Kenney requested that Sgt. Clark step back from the door area. At this point, it was unclear whether Sgt. Clark had been shot. Officer Kenney saw that there was a second white male lying on the ground. Officers gave commands for the subjects on the ground to show their hands. The first white male complied; however, the second male was seen reaching for the rifle. The second male did not comply with the commands that Officer Kenney was giving, so Officer Kenney fired his weapon two more times.”
If either of the final two shots Kenney fired were among the ones that struck Moore, he would have had to be on his back because his wounds were in the front of his torso.
The medical examiner found “no evidence of close range discharge of a firearm” on Moore, suggesting he was shot from several feet away. Two toxicology screenings of Moore’s blood turned up marijuana in his system, contrary to police statements quoted in news reports shortly after the shooting.
“It’s notable that toxicology came back and he did not have bath salts or other drugs that the police were rampantly speculating about,” Haddad said.
Some details of the shooting remain obscure, including any forensic analysis presumably conducted on the rifle to check for Moore’s fingerprints. Haddad says that level of detail will be included in the pending civil trial, and it may or may not be made public.
KQED has filed a public records act request with the Vallejo Police Department and Vallejo City Attorney’s Office seeking more information about the department’s policy concerning off-duty “ride along” officers and less lethal weapons used by the police force.
Listen to the April 9, 2014, KQED News broadcast on the killing of Jeremiah Moore: