by Dave Waddell
The Chico police sergeant who gave the green light to sending two relatively inexperienced cops after mentally ill Desmond Phillips with their guns drawn was nowhere near the Phillips residence at the time.
According to computer-assisted dispatch reports obtained by David Phillips, Desmond’s father, and made available to ChicoSol, Sgt. Todd Lefkowitz did not get to the scene until 14 minutes after he was first dispatched and eight minutes after Desmond, a 25-year-old black man, was gunned down by police. Lefkowitz arrived at 7:41 p.m. on March 17, or at approximately the same time the mortally wounded Desmond was carted out of his home and taken to Enloe Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead with a grievous heart wound.
ChicoSol earlier reported just 21 minutes elapsed between David Phillips’ first of three 9-1-1 calls and Desmond’s killing. However, dispatch records show there was even less time — only 19 minutes — from David Phillips’ initial call for medical help for his son at 7:14 p.m. to a barrage of police bullets at 7:33.
About seven seconds after entering the Phillips residence, officers Alex Fliehr and Jeremy Gagnebin fired the first of their 16 shots at Desmond Phillips, according to Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. A forensic autopsy report performed for the county coroner’s office identified 13 bullet holes in Desmond’s body, including 11 entry wounds, one re-entry wound and one exit wound.
However, Ramsey’s investigative report on the killing claims Desmond Phillips was shot just 10 times. Desmond’s most serious wound, a deadly bullet that tore through his heart, was fired from a sharply downward angle, according to a forensic autopsy report written by pathologist Thomas Resk.
Gagnebin got to the Phillips residence only nine minutes before the shooting, while Fliehr arrived just six minutes prior to firing his weapon. Together, Fliehr and Gagnebin had a total of just 3 ½ years of experience as police officers at the time of the killing.
Erica Traverso, a Butte College instructor active in the Justice for Desmond Phillips organization, said the dispatch records and other reports prove there was no effort by officers to try to de-escalate a mental health crisis.
“Yelling ‘drop the knife’ through a closed door one time is not de-escalation and that is all that is recorded,” Traverso said. “De-escalation of someone in acute crisis – especially someone with PTSD – takes quite a bit of time. It requires respectful and gentle talking, establishing trust, which cannot be done in less than nine minutes.”
Desmond Phillips was a lanky man, about 6 feet 1 inch and 165 pounds. His family says he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following a June 2016 encounter with police in Sacramento that left him hospitalized for several days and facing a felony charge of resisting an officer.
“Yelling ‘drop the knife’ through a closed door one time is not de-escalation” — Erica Traverso
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey justifies the forced entry by officers based on David Phillips’ third 9-1-1 call as Desmond wielded a knife and kicked at his father’s locked bedroom door. But the frantic portion of David Phillips’ call lasted just 35 seconds, after which Desmond moved into the living room. The house had quieted for about 30 seconds when police busted open the front door and, to their surprise, found Desmond standing next to it.
David Phillips’ next-door neighbor, Lawrence Clark, was watching as two officers – apparently Fliehr and Gagnebin — stood outside the front of the Phillips apartment the evening of March 17 behind a ballistic shield, which was left behind when they entered the home. He described their demeanor as appearing to be “very nonchalant.”
“They didn’t have that sense of urgency you would expect,” Clark told ChicoSol. “There was no de-escalation.”
A third policeman on the scene was Jared Cumber, a 12-year veteran and the senior officer at the front of the house who made the decision to force entry and who fired a Taser at Desmond that apparently malfunctioned.
“The officers that are right there at the door (were) making those decisions that are agreed to with sergeants,” DA Ramsey said.
While Ramsey’s report on the killing went into considerable detail about Desmond’s mental and medical histories, little has been revealed by authorities about the officers involved beyond Fliehr’s and Gagnebin’s educational backgrounds.
Google searches of the officers’ names reveal more about their pasts – and, in the case of Sgt. Lefkowitz, his mindset.
- According to this Chico News & Review account, Lefkowitz, a member of Chico PD’s SWAT team at the time, spoke to the City Council in 2011 in favor of the $250,000 purchase of a new armored rescue vehicle that some foes referred to as a “tank.” Lefkowitz “said he didn’t want to have to tell his two young children – who trooped to the lectern with him – that the council supported ‘the bad guys, not the good guys.’”
- Cumber was one of five Chico police officers who fired at least 19 shots in killing Breanne Sharpe, 19, in 2013. Although only two of the shots struck Sharpe, she was killed by a bullet into the back of her head as she allegedly backed a vehicle she had stolen toward officers. Ramsey ruled the shooting justified.
- Gagnebin graduated in 2008 from Chico’s Pleasant Valley High School, where he played football, wrestled and was listed at 5 feet 11 inches, 200 pounds, as a senior. He was hired as a trainee in July 2015, trained at the Butte College police academy, and sworn in as an officer in December 2015 – just 15 months before shooting Phillips.
Gagnebin holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from California State University, Sacramento, and a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Arkansas, according to Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien. Online photos show Gagnebin flexing a muscular physique in the 2016 Tahoe Show, where he took eighth place in the “classic physique” category.
- Fliehr, who holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Chico State, served as an intern at Chico PD, was trained at the Butte College academy and then, in December 2014, became a Chico police officer.
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol.