More than three years after he killed one San Diego police officer and severely wounded another, Sagon Penn lives today in the shadows, in a city others say he should leave, in fear of the next time he will face a policeman.
In an interview with The Times--his first public interview--Penn described a life that remains shattered by the confrontation that occurred March 31, 1985, on an Encanto driveway--a life that acquittal last year on criminal charges has not repaired.
Penn stays some nights at his girlfriend's apartment. He sleeps sometimes at his grandfather's home, other nights at his father's. Some nights he cannot be found, and longtime friends go days--sometimes weeks--without hearing his voice. Then he suddenly pops up and, with a hug and a handshake, resumes an old relationship.
Fictitious Name at College
Penn is enrolled in college courses under a fictitious name to avoid the commotion of a teacher calling his real name in class.
He gave his baby girl her mother's maiden name to spare the child the anguish of living with his surname.
Penn, 26, who once took out an application to become a police officer, said he has abandoned those hopes. Instead, he said, he has been in contact with an out-of-town attorney and is considering filing a lawsuit against the San Diego Police Department to recover damages for his time lost in jail and for his own pain and suffering stemming from the shooting and its aftermath.
"There is a real soft spot here," Penn said, his long fingers rubbing his left temple, the spot where he said San Diego Police Agent Donovan Jacobs pummeled him just moments before Penn grabbed Jacobs' gun and opened fire.
"It hurt for months and months and sometimes still hurts. And that is an important part of the brain," he said.
When Penn thinks back to that March evening, and to the young man ordered from his pickup truck on the driveway, he sees a person he no longer can recognize.
Then he was two days away from starting a job as a community services officer. He was thinking of college.
"I might have made something of myself," he said.
But then came the racial attack by a white police officer on a young black man, the crack of Jacobs' fists, and the young black man firing a police revolver. The gunfire killed Police Agent Thomas Riggs and wounded Jacobs and civilian ride-along Sara Pina-Ruiz.
"Sagon Penn was killed that night, too," Penn said. "He no longer exists."
During two lengthy and highly publicized trials that ended in his acquittal, Penn stood mute to the courtroom and to the public. His three-hour interview with The Times at the home of friends in East San Diego marked the first time he spoke publicly about an episode that wrenched the city.
Penn's physical appearance no longer matches the photograph shown in countless newspapers and on TV screens, that of a young, attractive, well-mannered black man with short-cropped hair, dressed in a new dark suit.
He is a tall man, with long arms and a well-developed chest and biceps. His hair grows wild on the sides. Occasionally he grins like a little boy. But his eyes are large and intense, and he speaks in waves, fast and slow, throwing out hand gestures to match the cadence.
Bewilderment, Then Fright
Through much of the interview, Penn stood in the center of his friends' living room, describing the bewilderment and then fright that enveloped him when he was stopped by Jacobs.
During the interview, neighbors and friends arrived, announcing a police raid in progress down the street at a suspected drug house. When they saw Penn standing in the middle of the living room, they stopped talking. They listened.
Penn described how Jacobs had stopped him and ordered him out of his pickup truck and then angrily--and falsely--accused him of being a gang member, shouting at him: "Are you Blood or Cuz? Are you Blood or Cuz?"
He said Jacobs demanded to see his identification, and he handed over his wallet.
"He didn't hardly even look inside," Penn said. "I told the officer to look inside. I wanted him to know there were no drugs or anything in there."
But he said Jacobs pushed the billfold back at him, called him a nigger, and grabbed his arm when Penn tried to turn away from the scene.
"I pulled away. I put both arms up in the air," Penn said.
Jacobs kept coming, he said.
"He beat me down, over and over," Penn said. "He beat me down. He beat me down."
Penn remembers falling backward. He remembers fearing for his life. He remembers seeing the officer's gun. And he remembers running--fast, hard, sweating--to his grandfather's house.
In describing what happened next--his voluntary surrender to police later that night--Penn's temper flared. He said he turned himself in because he trusted that police would believe him when he said he fired the gun only in self-defense.
"The police were nice to me at first," he said. "But that didn't last."