by Dave Waddell
Not long after Myra Micalizio was shot five times in the back and killed last year by a Butte County sheriff’s deputy, District Attorney Mike Ramsey declared before television cameras that Micalizio had tried to attack deputies with her vehicle.
Micalizio’s family never bought that scenario, but Ramsey reaffirmed it many months later when issuing a report clearing deputies Charles Lair and Mary Barker of any criminal wrongdoing in the killing. Micalizio’s three children – Lisa Rutledge, Sean McKelvie and Hali McKelvie – recently settled a wrongful death suit against Butte County for $250,000, said County Counsel Bruce Alpert.
Through many of her 56 years, Micalizio lived with undiagnosed mental illness and was in unprecedented crisis when shot dead on April 26, 2018. On that day, Micalizio was “delusional, depressed, and experiencing hallucinations,” while conversing with what she called her “imaginary friends,” according to her children’s lawsuit.
Micalizio wasn’t a criminal. She had no history of ever being violent. Her favorite nephew is a police officer. She showed such admiration for law enforcement that horrified family members could barely fathom the circumstances of her death. Greg Abrew of Oroville, Micalizio’s brother-in-law, a few months after the killing, recalled his first reaction: “I said, ‘No way. She would never do anything against the police.’”
In fact, just two days before she died, Micalizio had an encounter with a California Highway patrolman that, her relatives say, demonstrated her attitude toward law enforcement personnel. The officer described the encounter as unique.
Micalizio’s conversation with the CHP officer and other details not reported in Ramsey’s narrative of the killing have emerged with the release of investigative reports and witness statements obtained by ChicoSol from Butte County under Senate Bill 1421, the “Peace officers: release of records” law.
CHP officer Randy Siemens was handling a minor traffic collision on April 24 near Micalizio’s residence in the 6500 block of Lincoln Boulevard in the Butte County community of Palermo when Micalizio suddenly appeared. According to a report Siemens was requested to write after her shooting: “She approached my location, on foot … and asked what had happened. I explained I was investigating a minor traffic collision. She asked if she could help. I declined and thanked her, relating I had everything I needed from the collision scene. She turned around and began walking south on the east shoulder of Lincoln Blvd. She turned around, facing me again, and told me to stay safe. I thanked her once again, and she continued walking southbound. The entire contact lasted a minute or less. … The subject appeared to be coherent and able to care for herself. Following our conversation, I noted to myself that the encounter seemed odd. I had never had someone walk up to a collision scene, in my eight years with the California Highway Patrol, and ask if they could help.”
Brenda Widener-Abrew of Oroville, Micalizio’s sister, said the CHP officer’s account “describes the woman Myra was. She loved everyone … This doesn’t surprise me at all. If we had more Myras in the world, our world would be a better place.”
Micalizio’s conversation with patrolman Siemens wasn’t included in Ramsey’s Feb. 11 report, which quotes neighbors as saying Micalizio had recently been yelling and waving her arms in her front yard. Widener-Abrew believes Micalizio was seen responding to one neighbor’s verbal objections to Micalizio’s habit of feeding hungry cats.
Butte County provided hundreds of pages of redacted documents to ChicoSol on Sept. 19. Since deputy Lair’s history was the subject of ChicoSol’s request under SB1421, conspicuous by its absence in the mound of paperwork was Lair’s statement to investigators after the Micalizio shooting. That statement, however, was quickly retrieved from the Sheriff’s Office and forwarded to ChicoSol by Assistant County Counsel Brad Stephens, who had no explanation for why it was not included in the original batch.
Lair was interviewed several hours after the shooting by Jon Angle, an investigator for Ramsey. Chris D’Amato, a sheriff’s department detective, assisted Angle. Representing Lair at the interview was veteran Sacramento labor attorney Timothy Talbot.
Talbot also sat in with deputy Barker, who was interviewed mainly by Mark Bass, a Chico Police Department detective and member of Ramsey’s Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team. Bass, who himself has been involved in two fatal shootings as a Chico officer, was assisted by Tiffany Larsen, a Sheriff’s Office detective.
Ramsey kept Micalizio’s family in the dark about the details of her killing for 10 months before issuing his report exonerating Lair and Barker. From the outset, Micalizio’s brother, Tommy Widener of Oroville, wanted to know how many of the bullets came through the side of his sister’s 1999 black Mercury Sable. Bullets coming from the side, Widener kept saying, proved that Lair “had cleared danger” of being struck by the vehicle when shooting his Glock pistol.
As it turned out, most of Lair’s nine rounds, fired in rapid succession, entered from the side of the Sable, mostly through the driver’s side backseat window into the driver’s seat backrest. Based on state Department of Justice photos and diagrams included in Ramsey’s report, all five bullets of Lair’s that hit Micalizio appear to have been fired through that side window. Ramsey did not respond to questions related to the trajectory of Lair’s gunfire.
Deputies had been dispatched on a trespassing complaint over Micalizio’s “crazy” behavior to a residence in the 2100 block of Stanley Drive, which is a gravel road off Lincoln Boulevard about a half-mile from where she lived. Micalizio, who was unarmed, had apparently gotten it into her head that she was at a yard sale and asked residents if they had change for a trillion-dollar bill. She allegedly pointed a “finger gun” at them, and said she would “smoke them out” and call in the FBI. Her rantings could be heard on multiple 911 calls. She wore one blue latex glove.
The shooting began only about 10 seconds after deputies Lair and Barker arrived in separate vehicles. The deputies approached from the rear of Micalizio’s car, while the residents who had called 911 were outside, positioned near their trailer home. The front of the Sable faced them.
The residents said in statements that Micalizio got in her car and backed it rapidly toward Lair. But because they were in the deputies’ line of fire, they all fled with the sound of gunfire for safety behind the residence. Lair and Barker each wore a body camera, but neither turned it on until after the shooting.
The narrative that Micalizio was transformed by a mental crisis almost overnight from an admirer and supporter of police to someone trying to attack them with her car seems improbable to her siblings. More likely, they say, in her irrational, delusional, confused state, Micalizio was unable to understand Lair’s shouted commands and was trying to get away, not run over deputies.
After the shooting, the reversing Sable was moving slowly enough for Lair to open the driver’s door and try, unsuccessfully, to hit the brake with his foot. The Sable continued on an arc until it was halted by a nearby brush pile.
“As soon as I seen the pictures (of the bullet holes through the side window of Micalizio’s car) that answered all my questions,” Tommy Widener said last week.
As it turned out, the residents were in danger – not from Micalizio’s finger gun – but from deputy Barker’s Glock. Two of her six bullets, which all missed Micalizio, ended up hitting trailer residences on the property, with one round sailing through a bedroom. Another bullet is thought to have skimmed off the top of the Sable and sailed “into the woods.”
Ramsey’s report says Micalizio was unemployed, but she was a member of the United Domestic Workers of America and had worked as an in-home care provider to seniors and the disabled. At her death, she had been on disability for several months, family members said. Two executives of her union, writing about a year after she was killed, described Micalizio as a “warm, childlike and giving” person who had overcome “a life of trauma through faith. Her life was complicated, but it had value.”
Dave Waddell is a freelance writer who contributes to ChicoSol, mostly on law enforcement-related issues.