Sagon Penn always dreamed of being an entertainer, his family said. He was preparing to begin acting classes in Los Angeles this month, and on Saturday he bought a pair of dance shoes in anticipation of chasing that dream.
Friends and neighbors know him as an all-around athlete, a gifted boxer and a part-time student of karate. He even did volunteer work for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, some say.
His karate instructor said the 23-year-old Penn is a spiritual man, a Buddhist who believes in nonviolence and self-discipline. Friends and family describe him as a Bible-toting man who has stopped strangers from fighting on the streets.
But early Monday morning, Penn's family and friends were trying to understand how he could shoot and kill a San Diego police officer, seriously wound another officer, then shoot an unarmed woman sitting in a patrol car.
According to Subrena Penn, 21, who talked to her brother from jail Monday morning, he acted in self-defense after the officers accused him of being a gang member and started beating him with night sticks.
"He said everything just happened so fast," Miss Penn said. "He said he just panicked. Just when things were going good for my brother, this happens."
Police records show that Penn, 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 160 pounds, had never had any problems with police, although in June of 1982 he was issued a citation for not having proper car registration.
Penn's great-aunt, Betty McDonald, said Penn was not the type of person to ever get into trouble, but, "Like all young people, he was trying to find himself."
A local karate instructor who helped teach Penn the martial art said Penn was well-liked and he even taught a children's karate class.
"Sagon holds a brown belt, one belt away from a black belt," said Orned (Chicken) Gabriel, who owns United Karate Federation. "It takes a lot of self-discipline to get that far. He has too much self-discipline to pick a fight with the police."
Gabriel said he respected Penn, and added that just last week Penn went with him to a child-support hearing and offered a prayer before the hearing started.
"Personality-wise, he was great," Gabriel said. "He's a really mellow person. The discipline was very much a part of his life."
Penn, a 1980 graduate of Hoover High School, had also toyed with the idea of becoming a professional boxer, his sister said. He met Muhammad Ali about a year ago and Ali invited Penn to his home for dinner.
Family members say Penn had little time for socializing because he attended vocational training classes and worked in his grandfather's restaurant, Yusuf Restaurant on Imperial Avenue.
Charles Haley, an SDG&E electrician who lives down the street from Penn, said he was surprised to learn that Penn had confessed to the shootings.
"He seemed intelligent enough to know that if you get into a situation with police you use your head," Haley said. "You don't get upset or nothing with what they're doing. He seemed really intelligent. I can't picture him . . . if you told me that he did something like this I wouldn't believe it."
Times staff writer Ralph Frammolino contributed to this report.