Sacramento Police and a witness describe what happened after Dazion Flenaugh broke free from custody and evaded police by jumping into south Sacramento backyards. Officers said he was holding two knives and threatened them. Ed Fletcher The Sacramento Bee
Sacramento Police and a witness describe what happened after Dazion Flenaugh broke free from custody and evaded police by jumping into south Sacramento backyards. Officers said he was holding two knives and threatened them. Ed Fletcher The Sacramento Bee

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South Sacramento mother seeks answers, mourns mentally ill son shot by police

By Anita Chabria and Cynthia Hubert

achabria@sacbee.com

October 23, 2016 04:00 AM

The encounter between Dazion Jerome Flenaugh and police on a cool morning last April began peacefully enough, with an officer helping Flenaugh into a patrol car. It ended with a frenzy of bullets that left Flenaugh dead on a south Sacramento street.

A witness said Flenaugh, 40, was tranquil when officers approached him while responding to 911 calls about a man roaming the area, peering into windows. He was not handcuffed when he was put in the car.

But within minutes of Flenaugh being locked in the back of the police cruiser on April 8, his calm switched to panic before he fled on foot. Officers would pursue Flenaugh in a chaotic chase during which police say he armed himself – first with a pickax and then two knives – and broke into a home before being shot multiple times.

Flenaugh was the second of eight people shot and killed by police this year in Sacramento County. His mother, Christina Robbins, said he had untreated bipolar disorder.

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Six months after the shooting, members of the Flenaugh family said they haven’t been told exactly how he died, including how many times he was shot.

Robbins and her family have seen the family of Joseph Mann, another homeless mentally ill man shot by Sacramento police, fight their own battle to obtain information. In the Mann case, the Sacramento Police Department released dashcam videos of the pursuit and shooting only after The Sacramento Bee obtained and published surveillance video and Sacramento City Council members pushed for answers.

“I can’t even put my feelings into words,” said Robbins. “When I last saw my son, he was a full walking, talking human being, and at the end, all I end up with is a box of ashes. … My son is dead. I need to know the truth. If you’ve got the truth, just tell it.”

From interviews with family members, neighbors, authorities and others, The Bee has attempted to reconstruct the circumstances that led to Flenaugh’s death.

The Sacramento Police Department on Saturday morning also responded to a Bee request for information. A spokesman said the department concluded its investigation of the incident in June and handed off its findings to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. The three officers involved have been returned to regular duty, and the department is not conducting an additional internal affairs investigation.

Flenaugh spent many of his days in the River District neighborhood north of downtown, and others roaming Parkway, the modest neighborhood of single family homes off Mack Road where his mother lives. The night before the shooting, he showed up at Robbins’ tan and white house, where he sometimes slept in her converted garage. Robbins called Flenaugh, the second-oldest of her five children, by the nickname “Jay.”

Robbins said Flenaugh had been homeless for a number of years and had never found steady work after serving jail time in the Bay Area when he was 19. He was sentenced to state prison in 1997 for grand theft in Alameda County. The stolen property: a farm animal, according to records. His sentence was suspended, and he was placed on probation.

Robbins said she discovered her son had been diagnosed as bipolar by looking at his jail release papers.

Flenaugh later accrued a series of misdemeanor criminal offenses in Sacramento County, including one in 2005 for carrying a concealed “dirk and dagger,” or knife.

Shortly after Flenaugh arrived at the house, he came into Robbins’ bedroom where she was resting, she said.

“He got on his knees at the end of my bed. He said, ‘Mama, I just need a safe place to stay, I need mercy,’ ” she said.

“Mercy?” she recalled thinking, “I don’t know how to take that.”

But she said she told him, “ ‘OK you can stay, take a shower, clean up.’ 

She and Flenaugh sat at her kitchen table that evening and ate chicken burritos. Flenaugh told his mother that he was having trouble with police, she said.

“He said the police had been harassing him and he was stressed out,” she said. Flenaugh was worried people were in front of the house, she said, and kept peering out of the window near the front door.

They went to bed.

When Robbins woke up the next morning, she said, Flenaugh was gone. The side door to the garage was open. His phone was on the charger and his backpack was on a table. A Bible he liked to read was sitting on a chair on the front porch.

Robbins said she thought her son might have gone to buy cigarettes.

‘Maybe a blue house’

She began shampooing her rugs at about the time events were escalating for Flenaugh a few blocks away on a curved street of neatly kept homes.

Penny Reeder, a resident, said she spotted a thin, wiry man she did not recognize standing across the street from her home that morning at around 8 a.m. He was holding one hand up to his ear, as if he was talking on the phone. But he had no phone.

Reeder worried that the stranger, who started walking up and down the street and into driveways, might be casing homes to burglarize. Before leaving for work that day, she asked her neighbor, Geoffrey Jones, to watch him.

Jones, who has lived for two decades on Prescott Way, where officers first encountered Flenaugh, watched the man wander the street from his front porch. He said Flenaugh appeared confused.

“I’m lost,” Flenaugh told Jones as he stepped onto his driveway.

“Where do you want to go?” Jones recalled asking him.

“I don’t know,” Flenaugh answered. “Maybe a blue house.”

Flenaugh seemed cooperative with the officer who arrived a few minutes later, answering questions and willingly entering the police car without handcuffs, said Jones, who thought the situation was over.

Within minutes of being locked in the cruiser, Flenaugh’s calm vanished. He became agitated, kicking at the door and hitting the barrier between the front and back seats, according to witnesses and a Police Department press release issued the day of his death.

The press release said an officer opened the door of the cruiser to check on Flenaugh’s welfare. He bolted, running down the street. Police chased, with more cars responding.

“He ran right past me,” said Jones. “He was not fast. He had heavy feet, heavy jeans, a big afro. I thought police would pick him up, take him downtown, and it would be a done deal.”

Reeder said home surveillance video that she turned over to police showed that Flenaugh ran to her home and attempted to break in. Reeder said she did not keep a copy of the footage.

The video, Reeder said, captured Flenaugh “running at full tilt,” carrying a pick ax that he may have been taken from another resident’s backyard. He “wailed on the front door,” badly damaging it before jumping a fence and attempting to enter through the home’s back door.

He never got in, she said.

Flenaugh ran one street over to Lerner Way, passing the yellow roses and palm trees in the front yard of Albert Gray’s home. Gray said Flenaugh kicked in two wooden fence boards to gain access to his backyard. He saw Flenaugh run past and jump the fence into another neighbor’s yard. Then he heard screams.

The yard Flenaugh jumped into belonged to Gracia Camargo. Carmago said she was getting ready for work when her dog began barking. She went to her open back door just in time to see Flenaugh leap over with the pickax. She locked the door as Flenaugh approached.

“He said, ‘Open it,’ and waved the ax,” Camargo said. “I just said, “No, please don’t hurt me,’ and I just started running.”

Camargo said Flenaugh seemed “a little bit in his own world.”

Carmago ran into her front yard. Flenaugh used the ax to break her glass door and enter, apparently cutting himself in the process. Camargo later found blood in her house. Flenaugh then discarded the ax, according to police, and armed himself with two knives from Camargo’s kitchen drawer.

She said one was a table knife and the other a cutting knife with a blade about 4 to 5 inches long.

Flenaugh then apparently made his way through an adjoining backyard and out to the side street, Wardell Way, and back onto Lerner Way. Gray rushed out of his house when he heard Camargo yelling, and the two were in the front yard when Flenaugh appeared again from the side street, according to Gray.

The press release issued by the Police Department on April 8 said Flenaugh confronted a citizen about this time in the pursuit and attempted to stab him several times.

Gray said he and Carmago were the only ones near Flenaugh, and that he did not attempt to stab them. “When I told him to get away, he just walked,” Gray said.

Flenaugh jumped another fence into the backyard of Quang Nguyen, who lives across the street from Gray. Nguyen said Flenaugh waved a knife at him as Nguyen stood in his kitchen, then Flenaugh ran through the backyard and jumped another fence to the west of Nguyen’s house.

Nguyen said a neighbor called 911 and two police cars arrived within minutes. He said the officers drew their weapons and he directed them to where Flenaugh ran.

Quang’s neighbor, Julian Delgado, was in the backyard with his girlfriend when Flenaugh jumped in. Delgado said Flenaugh told him, ‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ and asked Delgado not to tell police where he was. Delgado told his girlfriend to go inside and lock the door, while he opened the garage door to let police in. Delgado said at least one officer also jumped his rear fence and pursued Flenaugh, and at least one officer was armed with a Taser, identifiable through its yellow coloring.

Flenaugh again jumped a fence to escape.

Nguyen said he followed police as they drove three houses down to Center Parkway, where they turned northwest onto the broad boulevard, the direction Flenaugh had gone. Officers confronted Flenaugh in a front yard a few houses down, Nguyen said.

‘Face down in the gutter’

In the press release issued after Flenaugh’s death, the Police Department said he hid near a car, ignored multiple commands to drop his weapons and charged officers.

“Fearful for their lives and for the safety of community members, officers shot the suspect multiple times as the suspect charged at them with both knives in hand,” police said.

Danita Williamson said she was upstairs at her mother’s house when she heard gunfire out front.

Her first thought was for her daughter, who had walked outside for a cigarette. Williamson stuck her head out the second-story window and saw officers both to the northwest and southeast on the street. She said she heard 16 or 17 shots total coming from both sets of officers.

Police spokesman Bryce Heinlein said three officers, Dustin Southward, Jeffrey Carr and Eric Toomey, fired 16 rounds total, hitting Flenaugh seven times.

Williamson estimated officers to the northwest were about 40 feet away from Flenaugh, and the officers to the southeast about 15 feet.

Williamson said police yelled at her to get her head back inside the house. She said she did not hear police yelling prior to the shots, but she continued to watch the scene, leaning out of the window.

Flenaugh lay “face down in the gutter,” with his legs in the road, she said. He was pronounced dead at the scene by responding paramedics, the Police Department said in its press release.

Williamson said she did not see a weapon, but police later told her a knife was recovered at the shooting site. Williamson said she recognized Flenaugh from his wanderings in the area and had given him cigarettes many times.

“I don’t know what happened that day,” she said. “He was not a violent man.”

Shortly after Flenaugh was shot, two coroner’s deputies and a law enforcement chaplain went to Robbins’ house to notify her, said Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin. They asked to look in Flenaugh’s belongings for an identification card, which Robbins allowed.

Two police officers arrived shortly after and asked to search Flenaugh’s belongings, Robbins said. This time, the family declined.

That, Robbins said, was the last time she heard from police.

“From that day, I have not heard anything from anybody in authority,” she said.

Heinlein said homicide detectives have made “multiple attempts to meet with and talk to Mr. Flenaugh’s father,” and he has refused to talk or return calls.

Damon Flenaugh, Dazion Flenaugh’s brother, said their father, Louis Flenaugh, “hasn’t been in the picture,” and lives in Richmond. Damon Flenaugh questions why the department did not contact his mother.

Heinlein said the department concluded its homicide investigation and sent it to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office on June 17. Shelly Orio, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said her office is investigating whether any laws were broken.

In addition to wanting to know why Flenaugh was shot, family members said they have questions about the policies and procedures that allowed the situation on Prescott Way to escalate. Robbins said that she believes her son was running from fear, and that knowing Flenaugh was behaving irrationally, officers could have used nonlethal force and de-escalation techniques.

“He did not start out with those weapons,” she said. “I just need to know what made my son so afraid.”

Brittany Flenaugh, Dazion Flenaugh’s niece, said that her uncle was safely detained in the back of the police car when he began acting violently and could have been transported either to jail or a care facility without endangering officers or the public.

Heinlein said there is “no formal internal affairs investigation” of the Flenaugh case. An internal affairs investigation would be conducted if officers were suspected of violating department policy. Heinlein said all three officers are back on regular duty.

Based on what she saw on her home security video, Reeder said she believes the police acted appropriately. “I think they probably were justified in shooting him,” she said. “They’re doing their jobs, protecting all of us.”

Joel Fay, a psychologist and former cop who teaches crisis intervention training, said he could not speak directly about the Flenaugh case. But he said officers sometimes find themselves in a no-win situation when confronted with someone who is mentally ill and potentially dangerous.

“What if someone is running down the street, you let him go and he kills someone?” Fay asked. “The challenge is that, if you pursue someone because he is a danger to himself or others and the encounter goes bad and he dies, you get blamed.”

Robbins said the silence on the part of the Sacramento Police Department compounds her pain. She said she has no intention of giving up on her search for answers.

“I am a bitter, broken mother,” she said. “I won’t forget and I won’t forgive and I’m not going to apologize. … I am going to find out the truth. Some kind of way, it’s going to come out.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa. The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this report