Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Report Finds Police Slaying of Mentally Ill Man Was Justifiable

Probe: The D.A.'s office interviewed hospital employees, security guards, the victim's roommate and peers of the officer who shot Jonathan Baker.

February 13, 2001|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura police were justified in killing a mentally ill man who stabbed three employees at a Ventura hospital last fall, said a report released by the Ventura County district attorney's office Monday.

A four-month investigation concluded that police tried to disable 48-year-old Jonathan Wesley Baker with beanbag rounds and rubber projectiles but used a bullet after he lunged at them with a small pocket knife.

Officer Jim Brittle, 37, who fired the single round that killed Baker, refused to give investigators a statement about the Sept. 30 confrontation at Community Memorial Hospital.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Jim Ellison, who prepared the 25-page report, said a central question was whether Brittle, a 15-year law enforcement veteran and SWAT member, believed he and his fellow officers were in imminent danger when he fired. If so, the shooting was justified.

Prosecutors were unable to question Brittle directly on that point because he declined to answer questions about the shooting, Ellison said. Such refusal, which was within Brittle's right, is not uncommon when officers are involved in a fatal shooting, he said.

"He has a right not to talk," Ellison said.

Without Brittle's statement, Ellison based the report's finding on interviews with the other officers involved, hospital employees, security guards and Baker's roommate.

Ellison said it was clear that efforts to get Baker to drop the knife were unsuccessful, that he did not respond to police orders and gave no indication that he would act in a reasonable manner. Therefore, he said, Brittle's decision to use deadly force was reasonable under the circumstances.

Lou Matthews, a member of the Ventura chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said it's hard to hear someone say all the proper procedures were followed when a sick person ends up dead.

"I don't blame the officers; I blame the mental health system," she said. "The system isn't working, and that's the bottom line. Mental illness left untreated can be deadly."

Baker's former roommate was outraged by the report.

"There was no way they had to shoot him," said Pearce Miller, 36, of Ojai. "It makes me feel like standing up and shouting that this is completely wrong."

Miller said Baker's knife was barely more than an inch long and was part of his key chain. The officers could have easily swarmed Baker and didn't need to use deadly force, he said.

Ellison disagreed, saying the knife was at least 2 inches long. A knife doesn't have to be long to be deadly, he said. During the incident, Baker had stabbed three people before police arrived, he noted.

"We have had homicides involving weapons smaller than this," Ellison said. "You don't need to go very deep with a knife."

The report gave a detailed account of the incident. Baker, who had a history of depression and paranoia and was taking psychiatric drugs, was living at the El Camino Hotel in Ojai.

On Sept. 30, he left the hotel without his medications, which he usually carried in a fanny pack.

The report said Baker showed up at Ventura County Medical Center in Ventura saying he needed a tetanus shot but left before being treated. About 9:30 p.m., Baker arrived at Community Memorial's emergency room. Security guard James Politano was keeping an eye on him, because he looked like a transient, the report said.

The events unfolded as follows, according to the report:

Another security guard said he heard Baker yell, "They're going to kill me!" three times before suddenly stabbing Politano in the upper chest and neck. Jeff Bifano, the other guard, confronted Baker and was stabbed in the stomach.

Jaime Cadang, another hospital employee, was stabbed in the forehead. None of the men sustained life-threatening injuries.

When police arrived, they found Baker locked inside a waiting room. They called the county Behavioral Health Department's crisis team. Then they realized two people were hiding inside the bathroom in the waiting room.

Fearing Baker might find and stab the two women hiding inside, police mounted a rescue operation.

The officers kicked open the door and fired a rubber projectile at Baker. Four more rounds were fired, but had no effect.

At that point, the report said, Baker lunged at the officers with the knife, and Sgt. Thomas Taylor shouted, "Kill him!" and "Use lethal!"

Officer Brittle fired once, hitting Baker in the torso. Baker crumpled to a sitting position against a wall. He was handcuffed and put onto a gurney. He died later in surgery.

Toxicology reports showed Baker had diazepam, a tranquilizer commonly known as Valium, in his bloodstream at the time of his death.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|