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911 callers say man shot and killed by police needed help

Roketi Su'e's girlfriend said he had been saying he wanted to kill himself. Her son said Su'e was calm before police arrived.

May 21, 2008|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

The girlfriend of a Long Beach man killed in a police shooting said Tuesday that when she and her son called police Saturday to report an "absolutely insane" man on their street, they were seeking help for a mentally distraught friend, not a police showdown.

The mentally ill man, Roketi Su'e, 46, was saying that he wanted to kill himself, but girlfriend Kathryn Holub, 48, said in a telephone interview she didn't think he was violent.

"All he was doing was yelling," Holub said. "God loved him. I miss him. . . . I feel like people are looking at me like the bad guy, because I called 911 to get some help."

Su'e's family and the police both held news conferences Tuesday, and offered starkly different versions of events leading up to the shooting.

Deputy Police Chief William Blair told reporters that Su'e charged two officers and wrestled with one of them for his baton, causing both men to fall. Su'e allegedly grabbed the baton and punched the officer in the face, Blair said.

"The other officer, seeing that the suspect was now armed with a baton and was attacking his partner, fired several shots, striking the suspect in the torso," Blair said.

The incident lasted about two minutes, and Blair said Su'e was on the ground with the baton when he was shot. Blair declined to identify the officers, but said that one was a four-year department employee and the other was a recent Police Academy graduate with six weeks in the field.

Police also released copies of 911 calls that Su'e's girlfriend and her son made to police moments before police arrived.

"There's a guy, he's absolutely insane, he's abusing the neighbors. He's most likely suicidal," said caller Billy Moses, 19. While answering questions from a dispatcher, Moses said that the disturbed man was calling himself the devil and threatening to kill himself, but that he was not on drugs and was not armed.

At one point, Moses handed the telephone to Holub, who said that Su'e had been living with her for several weeks after his family evicted him. He had not eaten, drunk or slept for days, she said.

"I'm a nurse, and there's something definitely wrong," the woman says. The call ends when the dispatcher reports that police have arrived on the scene.

After Saturday's shooting, neighbors and relatives have offered a very different account of the confrontation with police. They say that he was shirtless and unarmed when officers hit him in the knees, Tasered him, struck him in the face and, finally, shot him five or six times in the back as he lay face down.

Despite telling the 911 dispatcher that Su'e was acting insane and abusing his neighbors, Moses said Tuesday that after he made the call, Su'e's mood changed completely. In a telephone call with a Times reporter, he said Su'e calmed down and went to a birthday party down the street, where he danced and played ball with the neighborhood children.

"I guess his episodes go on and off," Moses said.

While his mother stayed in the house, he saw the shooting, Moses said, adding that Su'e put his hands in the air when he saw the police and did not attack them.

"His very last words were, 'I'm down, I'm down,' before they kicked him," he said. Moses said he had known Su'e for 18 months and never saw him violent. He said he called police to help Su'e get counseling.

At a morning news conference Tuesday, Su'e's family called him a child-like man who loved children and played guitar at the local church. He was dying of lung cancer, losing weight rapidly and was diagnosed with schizophrenia about two years ago, relatives have said.

They question why police did not dispatch their Mental Evaluation Team.

"Roketi is like a son to me, the best kid I've seen," said relative Saufo'i To'omalatai, 65, a Samoan chief and pastor of the First Samoan Christian Church in Long Beach. "Everyone knows him in the community as a kid."

Su'e's family plans to file a wrongful death claim in state court against the Long Beach Police Department, possibly as early as this week, attorney Brian T. Dunn told reporters Tuesday. He called the shooting a civil rights violation that harmed an entire community

Asked if Su'e was shot in the back, Blair said efforts to determine where the wounds were located are continuing. An autopsy was to have been performed Tuesday, and Blair said his department had requested a "security hold" on the autopsy report until investigations are completed by his staff, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office and the county coroner's office.

Blair called the hold standard procedure in an officer-involved shooting. It means that the report will not immediately be released to the family or the public, a coroner's office official said Monday.

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com

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