Los Angeles County has settled a lawsuit against a Lakewood station sheriff's deputy by paying $50,000 to the 8-year-old son of a man who was fatally wounded during a traffic stop in 1984.
The recent award by the county Claims Board ends a wrongful-death suit filed by the family of Danny Ray Keele, a part-time janitor who was shot while sitting in his car in the parking lot of a motel on Lakewood Boulevard in Bellflower where he was staying with his girlfriend and young son.
Keele, 25, who had been pulled over for weaving in traffic, was shot in the back at close range after he allegedly grabbed the gun hand of rookie Deputy Steven Minnis, who had leaned into Keele's car to investigate, county lawyers said.
Keele had failed to get out of his car as ordered, and lab tests showed later that he was under the influence of the hallucinogenic drug PCP, lawyers said.
But in recommending settlement, the county counsel's office said that expert witnesses hired by the Keele family were prepared to testify that the deputy, on the job just six months, did not follow acceptable police procedures when approaching Keele.
In addition, witnesses at the motel contradict deputies' accounts of the shooting incident, said Patrick J. Gardiner, principal deputy county counsel, in a report to the Claims Board. Minnis was on patrol alone, but other deputies arrived just after the shooting, the lawyer said.
"There was enough that a jury could probably have gone either way," and its award could have exceeded the $50,000 settlement, Gardiner said in an interview.
Samuel Paz, attorney for the Keele family, said the death resulted from bad judgment by an inexperienced deputy.
"It's pretty straightforward," Paz said. "If you have someone who you think may be dangerous, you should not go one-on-one. The deputy is supposed to call for backup and maintain the status quo.
"But he walked up to the car, told Keele to freeze, stuck his gun in his back and leaned over and started looking into the car and into the guy's eyes. That's when the gun went off," Paz said.
Paz said Minnis has changed his account of what took place at the Hazy 8 Motel in Bellflower that hot July evening five years ago.
According to a report by another deputy, Minnis first said that Keele had jumped from his car and struggled with the deputy before his gun went off. Minnis also told sheriff's homicide investigators a similar story a few hours after the shooting, Paz said the investigators reported.
But a witness in a nearby motel room said that immediately after she heard the gunshot, she saw Minnis standing alone next to the car. Minnis then pulled Keele nearly out of the car before other deputies arrived, the woman said in a sworn statement, according to Paz.
The county's Gardiner said Minnis "was in shock" after the shooting and the initial account was a misunderstanding.
Disagree on Struggle
Both sides now agree that Keele was shot while sitting in his car. But they disagree on whether a struggle took place.
Paz said there is no forensic evidence that Keele ever laid his hands on the deputy's revolver. But Gardiner said, "The deputy breaks loose, and that's when he shoots. The deputy thought he was going to get disarmed. He was protecting himself."
Since the shooting, Minnis' record has been cleared of accusations of excessive force, Gardiner said. "This is a bad situation, but the guy's a good cop," he said.
Paz said the county was fortunate that Keele's work history was spotty and that his survivors could show only limited loss of support as the result of his death.
"If the fellow had had a decent job, this case would have cost them four times this amount," Paz said.
About $33,000 of the award was placed in a trust account for Keele's son when he reaches 18. The remaining $17,000 paid attorneys' fees, funeral costs and other expenses incurred by the family.