by Dave Waddell
The night of Desmond Phillips’ March 17 killing, a Chico police officer shined a flashlight at a window a few paces to the left of the front door of his father’s apartment.
Before that door was forced open, before the knife-holding Desmond was first shot with a Taser and then riddled with police bullets, and before Dave Phillips, shocked and wailing, crawled down the hallway to his dying son’s side, the officer saw an eye peeking through the closed blind.
Behind the blind were Desmond Phillips’ two nephews, ages 12 and 18, together in one of the small home’s two locked bedrooms, on the phone with their mother. Dave Phillips, who had grown increasingly frantic about Desmond’s behavior, had locked himself in the other bedroom and was talking with a police dispatcher.
Phillips family members recently told ChicoSol that one of the nephews recalls his face being illuminated by an officer as he peeked out at the police, who were holding a ballistic shield and dressed in riot gear. When told that account, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey had no immediate response, but in a later interview acknowledged that one officer saw “an eye” peeking through the closed blinds.
Desmond Phillips, a 25-year-old black man, was shot 10 times by officers who fired 16 times after forcing entry into the apartment, Ramsey said. The shooting immediately sparked protests in the community and debate over whether the response to a man struggling with mental illness was appropriate — and whether race played a role.
Since first disclosing the Phillips killing, DA Ramsey and Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien have portrayed Dave Phillips and his grandchildren as “trapped” in the apartment and in grave danger. Dave Phillips, however, insists there “was no immediate threat” at the moment police broke in – a claim that appears to be supported by the recording of his 9-1-1 call.
Removing the family members from the home – as could have been done through the bedroom windows rather quickly — would have eliminated the urgency police say they had in using such rapid and ultimately deadly force.
When recently asked whether he felt police had time before their siege on the apartment to remove Dave Phillips and the nephews through the bedroom windows to safety outside, Ramsey replied: “I’m not ready to talk about feelings.”
On April 13, Ramsey was ready to talk — expansively – about the killing, issuing a report finding that police officers Alex Fliehr and Jeremy Gagnebin committed no crime in killing Phillips and discussing the findings in a lengthy press conference. The DA’s determination was based on an investigation by the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team, led by Ramsey.
The opening of Ramsey’s 13-page, single-spaced report emphasizes that the investigation’s purpose was to determine whether a crime was committed and was not a “critique of any involved officer’s tactics.” However, in the DA’s conclusion, he asserts that “the officers used the best tools and tactics they had available.” Asked whether that was a contradiction, Ramsey said he didn’t see any. An internal affairs probe of the case by Chico PD is underway, according to O’Brien.
Ramsey acknowledged in his report that “a significant portion of the evidence involved in this investigation comes from the involved officers inside the Phillips’ apartment.” The district attorney said no DNA or fingerprint testing was done on the weapons that officers say Desmond was holding. Ramsey said he didn’t think such tests would provide “significant evidence,” though the items have been preserved for testing.
Dave Phillips called Ramsey’s report “irrelevant to me,” saying he wants an investigation of the shooting from outside Butte County, the officers indicted, and a change of venue for their trials. Ramsey has said that Dave Phillips has twice declined to be interviewed by the DA, and Phillips has said that’s because he doesn’t trust Ramsey.
Chico Pastor Vince Haynie said Ramsey’s report amounted to declaring “open season for cops to just murder black people” in Butte County. “That’s what we read out of that,” Haynie said. “He just set a precedent. That’s the sentiment from the African-American community.”
Together, Fliehr and Gagnebin, in 4 seconds, fired 16 rounds from their semi-automatic 9mm pistols at Desmond Phillips. Fliehr shot nine times and Gagnebin seven. According to Ramsey, it is unknown which officer fired first.
Placed on paid administrative leave following the shooting, Fliehr and Gagnebin have been returned to duty, O’Brien said April 13. Fliehr and Gagnebin, whose experience as police officers together totals just 3 ½ years, became police officers in December 2014 and December 2015, respectively. Each has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and both were trained by Butte College’s police academy, O’Brien said.
Gagnebin was a police officer for just 15 months before shooting Phillips. An online search of both officers’ names indicated that Gagnebin graduated in 2008 from Pleasant Valley High School, where he played football, wrestled and was listed as 5-feet-11 and 200 pounds as a senior.
Desmond a religious ‘homebody’
While the Chico Police Department has portrayed Desmond Phillips as a mentally ill man “slashing” at officers with weapons, his family remembers him as a “homebody.”
They say Phillips was deeply religious and enjoyed reading the bible on his phone, praying and traveling internationally to sing with his Sacramento-area church choir.
“He was the most humblest kid in the world,” said his father. “He would go to work and play video games and go to church.”
“He never even got a parking ticket,” added his brother, David Phillips Jr., who is 1 ½ years older than Desmond.
Family members say Desmond’s life was altered by an encounter with police in Sacramento in June 2016, after which he came to live with his father. He was found lying non-responsive on train tracks and resisted responding officers, Ramsey said. Desmond was taken to the Sacramento County Jail, where an altercation with officers put him in a hospital’s intensive care unit for several days and left him “petrified of police,” his father said.
At the time of his death, Phillips, who was a lanky 6-feet, 1 ½ inches tall and 160 pounds, faced a felony charge of resisting an officer in Sacramento County Superior Court. He’d also been diagnosed, shortly before he was killed, with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the Sacramento altercation, family members said.
At 7:13 p.m. on March 17, Dave Phillips called 9-1-1 seeking help for his son. Chico police had been out to the residence twice before – in December and in January — but the father told the dispatcher he thought only medical aid would be needed.
According to Ramsey, when Chico fire personnel arrived they found Desmond “non-responsive,” standing with his eyes closed, wearing sunglasses and earphones in front of a television with a game controller in hand but no game playing on the TV. After firefighters removed Desmond’s earphones, he swept his arms, knocked over things and picked up a ceramic lamp, the DA said. Fire personnel left at that point and called in police.
At 7:29, Phillips called 9-1-1 again, asking for police to “step it up” because “my son, he’s mental and he has a knife and he’s walking around.” Police already were at the residence. Officers looking through an outer screened security door saw Desmond holding knives and pacing. After they spoke to him, Desmond shut and locked the front door.
Asked March 20 at a community meeting in Oroville why mental health professionals weren’t called in, Ramsey said: “The officers were using their training to de-escalate at that point.” In the wake of Desmond’s killing, a Butte County sheriff’s captain blasted Chico PD’s commitment to crisis intervention training in a ChicoSol exclusive.
Dave Phillips described the knives he saw his son holding as a butter knife and a smaller vegetable knife. Fliehr told investigators that Desmond wielded a knife in each hand while advancing toward him. According to Ramsey’s report, two “steak or kitchen” knives were found at the scene – one 11 inches long with a 6-inch blade and the other 9 inches long with a 4 ½-inch blade. “I don’t butter my bread with these kinds of knives,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey said at the March 20 Oroville meeting that a piece of splintered doorjamb with a “metal deadbolt faceplate” attached – it had apparently flown off the wall when police broke in – had been found near where Desmond was shot to the floor. In his investigative report, the DA says officer David Martin found the piece of doorjamb “clutched” in Desmond’s right hand and placed it near Desmond. The report says Gagnebin remembers Desmond coming at him with “a sharpened stick with a shiny metal point.”
Dave Phillips said he doesn’t recall seeing a doorjamb or any knives when he crawled to his mortally wounded son before Martin arrived.
The pivotal 9-1-1 call
At 7:32, Dave Phillips, from behind his locked bedroom door, called 9-1-1 a third time. Just two minutes and 10 seconds later he would witness his son being shot to death while still on the line.
The first part of this call was relatively calm, with the father telling the dispatcher, “I’ve got two grandkids in the other room. … I’m trying to get him some help. He’s my son. I love him.”
One minute or so into the 130-second call Dave Phillips becomes increasingly frantic when the knife-holding Desmond starts kicking the bedroom door the father was locked behind. Officers in the back yard radioed that they heard a disturbance inside. Clearly frightened and panting at times, Dave says: “Stop, Desmond, please! I’m going to have to shoot you (then tells the dispatcher he doesn’t have a gun)! He’s trying to kick in the door! He’s trying to kick my bedroom door in! He’s trying to stab me now. Come through the window!”
During this frantic, confusing portion of Dave Phillips’ call, which lasted about 35 seconds, the following information was radioed by police dispatch to officers: “The subject is trying to kick the door in where he is with the grandkids. Stating he is trying stab him.” That statement was erroneous in that the grandchildren were not in the same room as Dave.
Then, about 40 seconds before shots were fired, Dave begins to calm after Desmond apparently moved away from his bedroom door and back into the living room. The dispatcher then asks Dave where the nearest window is to him. He tells her at the back of the house, where there were two officers who had knocked down a wire fence and pepper-sprayed Phillips’ unwelcoming dog.
Dispatcher: “OK, where’s Desmond now?”
Dave Phillips: “I don’t know. I’m locked in the room.”
Dispatcher, sounding a little surprised: “So, he didn’t get in your room? Just stay where you are locked in the room, OK?
Then the dispatcher asked what was to be her final question: “And were your grandkids locked in the other room?”
Dave Phillips never had a chance to answer. The next sounds on the 9-1-1 tape are a fusillade of gunfire, and Dave screaming “No! No! No! No! No! You just killed my baby!”
The time was 7:34 p.m., just 21 minutes after medical help was first called for Desmond. He’d been shot 10 times, including multiple chest wounds and bullets to his face, neck and heart. Six bullet holes were found in the home, including one in the opened security door that nearly hit officer Jared Cumber, Ramsey said.
Ramsey said Desmond died at Enloe Medical Center; his father said he died before he hit the carpet. Regardless, he was handcuffed, per police protocol, before being removed from the Phillips home.
According to Ramsey’s account, Cumber shot Desmond with the Taser from the entryway after the front door was kicked open. Fliehr and Gagnebin immediately rushed into the living room with guns in hand as Desmond initially “locked up” from the Taser and fell. But to the officers’ extreme surprise, Desmond suddenly rose, charging them in a narrow passageway and swinging weapons in “windmill” fashion, according to Ramsey.
The time that elapses in the 9-1-1 tape between the moment Fliehr and Gagnebin are told to “Go! Go!” into the house until shots are first heard is 7 seconds.
Ramsey, in explaining why so many shots were fired, told the March 20 Oroville meeting that police, when faced with a life-threatening situation, are trained to “shoot to destroy.”
After he was shot, Desmond fell to the floor at the base of a counter that separates the living room from the kitchen. Dave Phillips has said he looked out his bedroom to see an officer (Fliehr) fire repeatedly at his son from the hallway. Ramsey initially dismissed the father’s claim, telling Phillips more than once at the March 20 meeting: “David, you were in the bedroom the entire time.”
In his report, however, Ramsey admits: “A detailed computerized reconstruction of the interior of (the apartment) … aided by sophisticated 3D laser scanning technology employed the night of the shooting has somewhat validated David Phillips’ point of view, but not his conclusion of ‘murder.’”
What neighbors saw
Dave Phillips’ next-door neighbor, Lawrence Clark, said he was surprised by “the mess of cops” that showed up that night. Clark said he saw two officers in front of the home with their guns drawn and holding a shield. Ramsey said the shield wasn’t used because it was deemed too unwieldy for the apartment’s tight quarters.
After the killing, Clark said he witnessed police being rude to his neighbor: “They were absolutely no help to Dave. They weren’t sympathetic at all.”
Phillips’ next-door neighbor on the opposite side, Brandon Duensing, wasn’t home when police killed Desmond. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and Duensing and his roommate were out celebrating. If they hadn’t been, one might have been sitting on the couch in the very spot a police bullet sailed through their living room, he said. That bullet continued on through a wall, through a shirt hanging in a closet and came to rest in a bedroom wall. A second bullet clipped both a television and a microwave oven. While showing ChicoSol the damage to his apartment a few days after the shooting, Duensing said the “full force” police response must have been “freaking (Desmond) out even more.”
After the shooting but before he had returned home, Duensing said officers entered his apartment, without attempting to contact the residents or the property manager, to retrieve the bullets. Duensing showed ChicoSol where he believes an officer knocked opened a side-yard fence and climbed through his bedroom window, pointing to a mud mark left behind on the wall that he thinks came from a boot.
Ramsey said the officers, who “went to see if the neighbors were injured,” had a search warrant for Duensing’s apartment to obtain evidence from the shooting. Asked whether their manner of entry was proper, Ramsey replied: “That’s why they call it a search warrant.”
Duensing isn’t as comfortable as the district attorney with Chico police methods.
“Now I get to worry about what they were doing in the house by themselves,” Duensing said. “It’s about peace of mind. It’s Chico PD: Not the straightest of edge.”
Family members, meanwhile, keep speaking out publicly about their frustration with the county’s investigation. “We’re going to do whatever’s necessary to get justice for Desmond,” Dave Phillips said. “My son didn’t have anything in his hand when he fell to his death. It will all come to light.”
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol.