Saturday, December 13, 2008

Police release report on Von Dohlen shooting

John Von Dohlan, talks to a chaplin after his suicidal brother was shot by Sonoma County Sheriff's deputies on Napa Road in Sonoma, Saturday December 6, 2008. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2008

Fri 12/12 5 PM
Police release report on Von Dohlen shooting
Investigators claim he was reaching for gun when shot
By David Bolling Index-Tribune Editor

The Santa Rosa Police Department, now the lead agency investigating the Dec. 6 shooting of Craig Von Dohlen in the driveway of his family's Napa Road home, has released a preliminary report on its investigation to date.

Santa Rosa police investigators, working with investigators from the Sonoma County District Attorney's office, took control of the investigation under the county's "Employee Involved Fatal Incident" protocol. The four officers involved in the shooting are all on paid administrative lead pending findings of the investigation and psychological evaluations. What follows is a verbatim record of the report, edited only for typographical errors, including partial transcripts of the 9-1-1 dispatch tapes recorded during the fatal altercation. The times reported are from a computerized call record which time stamps each entry made by the Communications Dispatcher receiving the call.

All times are from Saturday, December 6, 2008. • 12:14 p.m.: Sonoma County Sheriff's Communication Center receives 9-1-1 call from 245 Napa Road. John Vondohlen said his son, 37-year-old Craig Von Dohlen, was threatening to kill himself and was in possession of a loaded .22 caliber rifle.

• 12:15 p.m.: John said, "Craig is still in the yard, still holding the rifle."

• 12:16 p.m.: John states Craig (is) 11550 (under the influence). The dispatcher noted that Craig is threatening to shoot deputies and commit suicide by cop. The dispatcher notes "Loud verbal in the background, he keeps saying he's not going back to prison." • 12:17 p.m.: Craig is heard saying "I'm not gonna kill anybody but I'll kill a cop." The dispatcher notes that "Craig sounds extremely upset and angry." Sonoma County Sheriff's Unit E64 tells the dispatcher to advise the caller to have the family members exit the house.

• 12:18 p.m.: The dispatcher notes there is still a loud verbal altercation in the background. At 12:19 p.m., Craig is heard yelling "Let them take me out." E64 (a police unit) arrives on scene and requests an ambulance to stage. Craig yells to John "You have 50 seconds or I'll blow your head off!"

• 12:20 p.m.: Three additional deputies arrive on scene. They requested additional units and Henry One (Sheriff's helicopter).

• 12:21 p.m.: "Craig now saying he does not want to kill himself, but he wants someone else to do it for him."

• 12:23 p.m.: John reports Craig is still in the backyard still waving the gun around. The dispatcher asked John to step out front and the line was put down.

• 12:24 p.m.: The dispatcher noted "loud verbal now, possible shots fired."

• 12:25 p.m.: The dispatcher recorded "Deputies are telling RP (reporting party) to get back - RP keeps saying I'm not letting go."

• 12:28 p.m.: "Still a loud verbal between RP and deputies." E64 requests an additional deputy for the irate dad.

Based on statements of the involved deputies and witnesses, and review of the dispatch recordings involved in this case, we have learned the following:

Craig Von Dohlen, age 37, had been upset during the day for unknown reasons. He had a conversation with his 15-year-old son, and said he was planning on killing himself. His son tried to ask why and attempted to reason with his father to change his mind. Craig Von Dohlen continued to make suicide threats, and his son left the residence. Craig Von Dohlen grabbed a .22 caliber rifle and began arguing with his father, John Von Dohlen. Craig Von Dohlen threatened to shoot his father. John Von Dohlen phoned 9-1-1 at 12:14 p.m., reaching the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department Communication Center.

Upon the deputies' arrival, dispatchers asked John Von Dohlen to leave the house to safety. John Von Dohlen declined, and tried to talk his son into changing his course of action. Craig Von Dohlen refused to put down the weapon, and continued to make threats to kill the deputies when they arrived. These threats were heard over the open and recorded 9-1-1 line. As the deputies arrived, Craig Von Dohlen saw them and charged towards them holding the rifle. John Von Dohlen attempted to stop his son, but Craig Von Dohlen broke free from his father. Craig Von Dohlen continued his charge toward the deputies, aiming the rifle directly at them. The deputies fired several times without immediate effect. Craig Von Dohlen dropped the rifle and fell to the ground. He continued to attempt to reach for the rifle, which was still within his reach. The deputies continued to fire to prevent him from reaching the weapon.

After the shooting, the deputies' immediate concerns were to provide emergency medical aid and secure the weapon. They summoned the emergency medical personnel who were already standing by. They secured the weapon to prevent anyone else from reaching it. These actions required them to prevent John Von Dohlen from approaching his son. Craig Von Dohlen was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the intersection of Fifth Street East and Napa Road with the intention of transferring him to the Reach helicopter. Within a few minutes, it was decided to proceed via ground to Sonoma Valley Hospital where Von Dohlen was pronounced dead.

The deputies attempted to talk with John Von Dohlen and asked him several times to clear the area and allow the deputies to secure the shooting scene. John Von Dohlen continued swearing at the deputies and refusing to comply with their requests. These statements were also recorded on the 9-1-1 line. John Von Dohlen refused to comply with the deputies repeated requests to remain in one area outside the scene. He was uncooperative and distraught. The house and yard still had not yet been checked for additional persons or weapons. To protect John Von Dohlen and themselves, the deputies briefly handcuffed John Von Dohlen and placed him in a patrol vehicle. The Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chaplaincy was immediately requested to provide emotional support to John Von Dohlen and his family.

Later examination of the weapon found it to be a loaded .22 caliber rifle. The rifle was taken as evidence and will be delivered to the Department of Justice Laboratory for forensic examination. Another firearm was located inside the house but is not believed to be involved in this incident.

Evidence at the scene and preliminary findings of the autopsy are consistent with the statements provided to investigators from deputies and witnesses.

The deputies present during the shooting were:

• Fletcher Skerritt, 2 years with the Sheriff's Department, total of 5 years (law enforcement) experience.

• Elena Transue, 11 months with the Sheriff's Department, total of 3 years (law enforcement) experience.

• Ron Hansen, 23 year veteran.

• Kevin Mullnix, 27 year veteran.

Craig Von Dohlen has prior arrests in Sonoma County, however there are no records indicating he has ever been to state prison. Von Dohlen was not currently on parole or probation, nor did he have outstanding arrest warrants.

For information on the autopsy performed on Dec. 8, refer to the Sonoma County Coroner's Office press release. Further details on Craig Von Dohlen's injuries and toxicology reports will not be available for several weeks. Any further inquiries regarding the autopsy should be directed to Sgt. Mitch Mana at 565-5070.

Anyone with additional information regarding this case can call the Santa Rosa Police Department Violent Crime Investigations Team at 543-3590.

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Thu 12/11 6 PM
Learning from tragedy

The shooting death of Craig Von Dohlen on Dec. 6, was a tragedy for all concerned and an incomprehensible horror for Craig's father John, who not only had to witness the event while coming close to being shot himself, but was prevented by police from saying goodbye to his dying son.

And it would be unfair to conclude that the tragedy does not also embrace the officers involved in the shooting who did all too well what they were trained to do. No rational person can conclude that those four officers took satisfaction in shooting Craig Von Dohlen or that they were recklessly eager to discharge their weapons. What we can question is whether police training and tactics allow sufficient room for alternative scenarios to play out that would be less likely to result in loss of life. It's a fair question given the Sonoma County death toll from officer-involved shootings which now stands at 23 since 2000. Craig Von Dohlen was the third Sonoma County resident to be shot and killed by law enforcement officers this year and all three deaths involved subjects believed to be mentally ill or suicidal.

None of us are in a position to judge the decisions and the actions of the officers involved in the Von Dohlen shooting. It was a sudden and volatile situation involving a suicidal man with a gun who had clearly announced his determination to die. But it is fair to ask, and the public is entitled to know, what the details of the shooting are and whether the full measure of lethal force used on Craig Von Dohlen was necessary. We say that in part because the Sonoma County Coroner's autopsy report indicates the fatal shot was a penetrating wound to the head while the remainder of the wounds were to the lower torso, hip and thigh. The report does not indicate whether the head wound was inflicted by a shotgun or hand gun and the question is relevant because John Von Dohlen insists that, after the first volley of gunfire, one officer assumed a shooter's crouch and fired four rounds from his hand gun into Craig Von Dohlen's body. Whether those shots were necessary or lethal isn't currently known and we won't have an official account of the shooting until the Santa Rosa Police Department and the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office release the conclusions of their investigation.

We hope that part of that investigation addresses the hypothetical danger from shots that penetrated the Von Dohlen home, one of which passed through the living room at chest level, ironically went cleanly through a photograph of Craig Von Dohlen's 15-year-old son, and continued into an adjoining room. Had the house been occupied that shot could have also been lethal. We would also urge that investigators look at the treatment of John Von Dohlen who alleges he was roughly and disrespectfully handled before being handcuffed and placed in a police car for more than an hour. We understand he was distraught, perhaps confrontational, but who wouldn't be?

In the meantime, we as a community might want to seek a public dialogue with law enforcement leaders to better understand their perspectives and experience, and to express to them the concerns of citizens who are stunned and angry over what they perceive as a sometimes excessive use of force. Such a dialogue could be constructive if it isn't predicated on the assumptions that the police are trigger-happy bullies and/or the public are ignorant fools. We all have something to learn from this tragic event.

- David Bolling

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December 12, 2008
Recent shooting death remains troubling to family
Jody Purdon
Special to the Sun

Saturday’s shooting death of 37-year-old Craig Von Dohlen is a tragedy to his family, friends and community members of this small town. Following an emergency 911-phone call, Von Dohlen lay dead, a victim of police gunfire. Exactly how this tragedy occurred is still a mystery to those around him.

In a press release issued by the Sheriff’s department on Tuesday, the autopsy revealed the preliminary cause of death to be multiple gunshot and shotgun wounds. According to the pathologist, Von Dohlen suffered ten gunshot injuries, two of which appeared to be grazing wounds. The majority of injuries were to the lower torso, hip and thigh area. The head had one penetrating gunshot which was considered fatal.

The Von Dohlens paint a picture of their son as a loving and gentle man, not without problems but doing his best to overcome those obstacles. Friends and neighbors corroborate this reflection and talk about what a close-knit family the Von Dohlens have always seemed. Broadway Market manager Al Robles said both John and Kathy Von Dohlen were stand-up employees. “Kathy is the best, “said Robles. “She’s worked for me almost forever. She’s always here and if I asked her to work on her days off she would. They are just a nice family and what’s happened is tragic.”

Saturday’s incident began when John Von Dohlen Sr. made an urgent phone call to police eliciting help for his suicidal son. At the time, Von Dohlen stated that his son was “high on drugs,” had a loaded rifle and was prepared to shoot him. The 911-call was recorded and the line remained open, detailing the confrontation. Several units from the Sheriff’s department were dispatched to the scene, which unfolded rapidly.

According to Von Dohlen, the 911-emergency phone call was precipitated by extremely erratic behavior from his son. “Craig was in the bedroom having a cigarette with his brother John and son, Kyle. They were in there for about 40 minutes, talking about Christmas presents and what not. Shortly after that, John and Kyle left,” said Von Dohlen Sr. “When Craig came out, he had a gun in his hand and said that he was going to shoot me.” The family would later learn of the conversation Craig had had with his son Kyle where he stated his intention to die. Kyle is reported to have told his father, “I love you. I know you have to do what you have to do. I’m really mad at you right now but I’ll see you in Heaven.”

The family is unsure what set Craig off in that short span of time. Initially reported as high at the time, Von Dohlen’s behavior could be chemically based or not, according to Captain Dave Edmonds of the Sheriff’s department. John Von Dohlen Sr. and his son, John Von Dohlen Jr. now say that Craig was not high at the time of the incident.

Regardless, Craig Von Dohlen, recorded on the 911 tape repeating phrases like, “I’m not going back to prison,” “I have to do it this way,” and “I’ve brought shame to the family name,” was considered a lethal threat by the responding officers.

Sheriff Cogbill acknowledged that the incident was potentially a little known occurrence called “suicide-by-police,” or its more technical term, Victim Precipitated Homicide. This phenomenon happens in 10 to 15 percent of officer-involved shootings, according to a 2001 issue of FBI National Academy Associates magazine. The method of suicide is to entice a police officer, in a self-defensive action, to shoot the victim. It is often later discovered in such instances that the weapon used by the subject was unloaded or non-functioning.

Edmonds had these comments. “I listened to the 911 tape and there were certainly statements that I heard that were consistent with this theory,” said Edmonds. “However, some of the statements I heard are also what would also be considered homicidal.”

Edmonds also shed some more light on the truth surrounding the “suicide-by-cop” ideology. “The term isn’t really accurate. An incident of this nature can’t really be considered a suicide because the purported victim is forcing someone else to respond – to save their own life by using lethal force” said Edmonds. “In this case, Craig Von Dohlen sounded and acted homicidal and had the means to take his own life. The actions he took forced the deputies to save their own lives by using lethal force.”

As the incident developed, the senior Von Dohlen moved from the house to the back yard where he proceeded to speak calmly to his son, attempting to get him to put the weapon down. He made the call to 911 when that seemed impossible.

When police arrived, Von Dohlen Sr. was in the house, having returned inside telling his son he needed a drink of water. “I finally saw the police around the hedges in front and tried to get them to come into the house,” said Von Dohlen. “They refused to come to me and kept telling me to come outside to where they were.”

From the back yard, Craig heard the exchange, rushed through the house, throwing open the screen door and ran at the four officers. They responded with a barrage of gunfire that felled Craig and hit the house, with one bullet passing through an exterior wall, an interior wall, and lodging inside a closet in the bedroom where Craig had been 30 minutes or so earlier.

According to Von Dohlen, even when his son lay dying, one deputy pulled out a revolver and shot him four times. Almost worse for him, he wasn’t allowed to be with his son, and was handcuffed and placed in a squad car until he could calm down. “They treated me like I was a criminal,” said Von Dohlen. “They wouldn’t let me call my wife or loosen the handcuffs which were biting into my skin.”

The younger Von Dohlen was transported by ambulance to Sonoma Valley Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Neighbor Larry Brady, who lives on Fifth Street East, directly across the street from the field where the ambulance, REACH and Sheriff’s helicopters landed, refutes this information.
According to his timeline, the ambulance transporting Von Dohlen did not leave the scene for Sonoma Valley Hospital for quite some time, conflicting with earlier reports that the ambulance went straight from the Von Dohlen home to the hospital. Sonoma Police Chief Phil Garcia couldn’t be reached for comment.

At this time, the identities of the involved deputies and officers have not been released. All of them are Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department employees (the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department provides police services to the City of Sonoma under contract). In accordance with policy, all four employees have been placed on administrative leave.

Edmonds commented on the role of the authorities, “I think it is very difficult for the public to dissect what happens in an extremely chaotic situation. The truth is, when presented with an immediate lethal threat to themselves or someone in the vicinity, an officer’s training is to respond to alleviate the threat. The options become extremely limited. In terms of disabling an assailant without killing him or her, I’ve seen situations where an assailant has been disabled but is still a lethal threat.”

Questioned about the possibility of shots being fired at Von Dohlen after he was down, Edmonds went on to state that an officer’s responsibility is to deal with the threat. And while he is not able to speak on the sequence of events, he believes that if one, or more, officers continued to shoot, then the perception existed that there was still a lethal threat to those involved.

Toxicology reports as well as the overall investigation are ongoing by the Santa Rosa Police Department, and their findings may shed more light on exactly what happened and the reasons why.

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SF Examiner's articles on Craig Von Dohlen

Read Sonoma News Today Original Post on the Von Dohlen shooting

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Over the years my opinions have changed but this will never change: Jesus Christ, Lord, God and Savior, died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay for my sin.