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Father to Sue County Over Son's Killing

Deputies could have dealt with the mentally ill man, shot outside a Thousand Oaks swim club, with nonlethal tactics, an attorney says.

November 15, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

The father of a 19-year-old mentally ill man fatally shot by a Ventura County sheriff's deputy said through his attorney Friday that he plans to file a federal lawsuit against the county and the department after the district attorney found that the shooting could not be "conclusively justified."

Attorney Walter Krauss, representing the victim's father, Donald H. Daniels, said his client would file suit in federal court in Los Angeles next month seeking $5 million in damages. Krauss said the suit would focus on allegations that deputies violated James Daniels' civil rights through the use of excessive force.

In an analysis of the shooting released this week, Dist. Atty. Greg Totten concluded that the circumstantial evidence surrounding the April 8 incident suggests that Deputy Vincent Camou "acted in lawful defense of others" when he shot Daniels eight times with a 9-millimeter handgun as he approached the entrance of a Thousand Oaks swimming school armed with a box-cutter type of knife.

An autopsy found that six rounds hit Daniels in the back.

Camou, now a sergeant assigned to the Main Jail in Ventura, exercised his 5th Amendment rights and declined to speak to sheriff's and district attorney investigators, according to the district attorney's probe.

"The killing of James Daniels cannot be conclusively determined to be a justifiable homicide absent a statement from Deputy Camou," the report found. "However, a reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the circumstantial evidence surrounding the shooting is that he honestly and reasonably believed that the children and adults around the swim school were in imminent danger."

But Krauss dismissed the finding.

"If the deputy really felt that the victim was in danger of hurting somebody, why didn't he talk to the D.A. about that?" Krauss asked. "What they should have tried to do was save [Daniels], rather than killing him."

Daniels, a paranoid schizophrenic with a long history of mental illness and numerous run-ins with law enforcement, became the subject of a police chase April 8 after patrons of a neighborhood pizza parlor saw him slashing his wrist in the parking lot. His knife had a 3/4-inch blade.

When deputies arrived, a foot chase ensued, with Daniels ignoring repeated commands to drop the knife. During the chase, officers doused Daniels with pepper spray and shot him twice with a bean-bag shotgun but failed to stop him as he made his way up the driveway of the Daland Swim School in the 100 block of Wilbur Road.

When Daniels refused to heed orders to drop the knife, Camou shot him four times but drew no immediate reaction, according to the report. Camou then shot him four more times, and Daniels collapsed.

Attorney Alan E. Wisotsky, who represents local law enforcement agencies in cases involving officer shootings, said the report illustrated that the deputies attempted several other ways to stop Daniels before the shooting.

"With the tools that these deputies had, at the time," he said, "I believe they attempted everything at their disposal short of lethal force as long as they could."

Camou could not be reached Friday for comment.

But Krauss maintained that the officers, eight of whom were involved in pursuing Daniels at one point, could have apprehended him without using deadly force.

"I'm sure they could have overwhelmed him," Krauss said. "They should have been able to subdue him, especially since he wasn't high on drugs. They didn't have to shoot him."

Toxicology results revealed that Daniels had no controlled substances in his body at the time of his death.

But Wisotsky countered that a lack of an illegal substance in Daniels' bloodstream doesn't minimize how dangerous he was that afternoon to himself and to the people gathered at the swim school.

"How can this guy be cutting himself to the bone and not feel it? How can he resist the pepper spray, two rounds from a bean-bag shotgun and the first four rounds from the 9-millimeter?" he asked. "No, it's not cocaine or meth or PCP. Obviously this guy was messed up chemically due to his mental illness."

If Daniels' case ends up in court, Wisotsky said that he wouldn't have much difficulty representing the Sheriff's Department, despite the district attorney's findings.

"I'm confident," he said, "that when a jury hears all the evidence and understands the responsibilities and guidelines that police officers are to follow, that they will determine there was no violation of civil rights or any wrongdoing by Camou or any other officer."

But such cases are not always easily resolved.

In September, a federal jury ordered the county to pay more than $2 million to Anthony Morales, a retired Fillmore police officer who was shot in the back by a rookie sheriff's deputy two years ago as Morales tried to disarm his intoxicated son at a wedding reception.

And in April, the city of Oxnard agreed to pay more than $1.5 million to the family of Robert Jones Jr., 23, a mentally disturbed man killed in 2001 by police while cowering in his bedroom closet with a butcher knife.

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