by Dave Waddell
Court testimony last week by former Chico police Sgt. Scott Ruppel uncovered a secret that city officials have tried their darnedest to keep the public from knowing: Ruppel took no time off from work after shooting Tyler Rushing twice at point-blank range in July 2017.
Rushing’s father, Scott Rushing of Ventura, called the revelation “monstrous, sickening, disturbing.”
“How can a mentally healthy human being kill another in a violent shooting one day, and the next day work your shift like the events of the prior evening were just another day at the office?” Scott Rushing said.
Based on Ruppel’s testimony, it’s not actually known on what day he returned to work, only that he missed no regular shifts. City officials have refused to divulge any information, although Police Chief Mike O’Brien announced two days after the Rushing shooting — which was on a Sunday in summer 2017 — that Ruppel was on paid administrative leave.
ChicoSol tried unsuccessfully for several weeks to obtain the particulars on Ruppel’s post-shooting work status, at one point submitting a Public Records Act request for the information. The request was denied by city officials based on an assertion that they could refuse to provide such basic employee information because the Rushing family had a wrongful death claim pending against the city.
City officials also have refused to disclose to ChicoSol when officers Alex Fliehr and Jeremy Gagnebin returned to duty after shooting and killing Desmond Phillips, a young black man in mental crisis, three months before the Rushing shooting.
“My position is based upon a review of your questions completed by our city attorney,” O’Brien told ChicoSol at the time.
A Butte County Superior Court jury on Oct. 26 acquitted Ruppel of misdemeanor assault under “color of authority,” a charge resulting from the then-sergeant putting a handcuffed suspect into a chokehold for about eight seconds. The choking, recorded on another officer’s body camera, took place about three weeks after the Rushing shooting. Ruppel testified he was fearful of being spit on by the suspect, William Rowley III, and Ruppel’s attorney said the chokehold was in self-defense.
Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who personally tried Ruppel, said the self-defense argument apparently swayed the jury.
“After the verdict, my investigators were able to talk to some of the jurors who said the jury felt the (prosecution) had not disproved beyond a reasonable doubt Ruppel’s claim of self-defense,” he said. “Such is the law of self-defense — regardless of officer or civilian.”
Ramsey said he was disappointed at the acquittal because he felt prosecutors showed Ruppel’s actions were not reasonable against a “handcuffed, restrained suspect who was merely shouting and being a jerk at the moment he was grabbed around the throat by Ruppel.”
After the trial, Ramsey released a 10-minute video from Chico police officer Alan Gilbert’s body camera. The video captures the constantly profane Rowley’s Aug. 15, 2017, arrest, including part of Ruppel’s chokehold while Rowley’s hands were cuffed behind his back and his seatbelt latched. (Sergeants such as Ruppel were not required to wear body cameras.)
The video shows officer Gilbert backing out and away from the police SUV after the choking begins. Though Rowley can no longer be seen on the video, his multiple gasps for air can be heard. Gilbert’s camera then records other officers running towards Ruppel and Rowley, with Gilbert saying “Code 4” into his radio, which means everything’s currently under control.
After Rowley is carried by officers from the SUV, he accuses them of pulling his hair and tells Ruppel: “You just fuckin’ choked me out, you asshole!”
After the choking, Gilbert almost immediately approaches Rowley’s father, also named Michael. It was the elder Rowley who called police because his son had struck him and vandalized his property. The following exchange ensued:
Gilbert: “You’re signing a citizen’s arrest for battery, correct?”
The elder Rowley: “Yeah. Sure. Yes.”
Gilbert: “Yeah, you are.”
Later, Gilbert tells another officer, according to his body cam video: “I told the dad he’s signing a C.A.”
Rushing was shot twice by Ruppel after the then-sergeant tried to talk him out of a bathroom at a downtown title company on July 23, 2017. Rushing had fled into the bathroom after being severely wounded by a private security guard. Rushing died from his wounds.
Ruppel, 51, retired in September 2017 in the midst of a Chico PD internal affairs review of the Rowley stranglehold.
At Ruppel’s week-long trial, the Rushing shooting was not specifically mentioned, but rather referenced vaguely in questioning by DA Ramsey as an “event” three weeks earlier. Ruppel testified that he was not hurt in the incident, had attended one counseling session and had not missed any work as a result.
“I did not miss a day of work” were Ruppel’s exact words, according to notes of his testimony taken by Erica Traverso, a member of the Justice for Desmond Phillips group and an outspoken critic of police shootings.
Ruppel also testified that he was on overtime when he choked Rowley, according to Traverso. As previously reported exclusively by ChicoSol, Ruppel worked an extraordinary number of overtime hours hours during his 19-year Chico PD career – so much so that in one year, as a sergeant, he was Chico PD’s highest-paid employee.
Two days after the Rushing shooting, on July 25, Chico PD issued a news release, under the headlines, “In the Line of Duty: Chico Police Members Sustain Injuries Prior to Fatal Shooting” and “Wounds Just Inches from Life-Threatening Outcome.”
The release quotes O’Brien: “The officers involved are on paid administrative leave and are recuperating from their injuries. We are thankful for their service to the community and that both were not seriously injured in this unpredictable and dangerous situation.”
During a scuffle with Rushing, Ruppel was stabbed in the neck by what was believed to be a ballpoint pen Rushing pulled from officer Cedric Schwyzer’s shirt pocket. While Ruppel testified last week that he was not hurt in the incident, the Chico PD news release claimed he “sustained a serious stab wound to the right side of his neck and received treatment at Enloe Medical Center. Doctors say the object which punctured Sergeant Ruppel’s neck narrowly missed the Carotid Artery, one of the largest arteries supplying blood to the brain.”
Officer Schwyzer received “numerous stiches” to treat a head wound, according to Chico PD. It is believed by investigators that Rushing struck Schwyzer with a porcelain shard from a broken toilet.
O’Brien did not respond to ChicoSol’s request for comment on Ruppel’s testimony about missing no work after the shooting. The police chief previously told ChicoSol that he follows Chico PD policies and state law in determining when an officer is fit to return to duty, with “the key component … (being) the … psychological examination.”
Ruppel’s attorney, Brett Sherman, did not return a call seeking comment.
Scott Rushing said he sat through all of Ruppel’s trial and found the jury to be “pro-police and anti-victim.”
“It was difficult for me emotionally,” Rushing said, “to be so near to the man who shot Tyler in the throat and back of the head.”
Tyler Rushing was shot by Ruppel just above the upper sternum and in the back of his upper neck, according to official reports.
Dave Waddell is news director at ChicoSol.