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Federal judge throws out judgment in fatal Santa Rosa police shooting

Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 at 6:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 at 7:12 a.m.

A federal judge has granted a new civil trial for a Santa Rosa police sergeant who was found to be at fault in the shooting death of a mentally ill Santa Rosa man, police said Tuesday.

Judge Jeffrey S. White ruled there was insufficient evidence for the September verdict against Sgt. Richard Celli, who along with two other officers shot Richard DeSantis, 30, outside his home in 2007.

Jurors awarded the family $500,000 plus attorney fees.

In granting the city of Santa Rosa's motion for a new trial, White found Celli was credible in testifying that he fired his gun because he feared for the safety of himself and the other officers. Also, White said there was no evidence that Celli acted with intent to harm DeSantis outside of legitimate law enforcement purposes.

"The court recognized that the situation was escalated by Mr. DeSantis when he charged at the officers and that the offi-cers, including Sergeant Celli, did not do anything to provoke the situation," Chief Tom Schwedhelm said in a written statement.

The judge has asked both sides to try to settle the case within 90 days; if not, a new trial date will be set.

The city's appeal effectively froze any payment to the family, the chief said.

DeSantis, a disabled ironworker, had gone off his medication for bipolar disorder in preparation for returning to work the Monday after Easter 2007.

Around 1 p.m., he said he heard noises in the attic and began shooting a Glock semiautomatic pistol into the ceiling of his South Avenue home in Roseland in what his wife has called a manic episode. Patricia DeSantis called 911 for help.

When officers arrived, DeSantis was not wearing a shirt, had nothing in his hands and initially complied with orders to get on the ground, his attorney said.

Patricia DeSantis testified that she told officers she had recovered the gun.

Officers never got the chance to pat him down to confirm that he didn't have a weapon because he jumped up suddenly and charged at them, according to police accounts. One officer fired a nonlethal projectile at DeSantis, striking him in the arm.

Testimony differed about the effect of the rubber bullet, but Celli said it didn't stop DeSantis.

Celli then fired his assault rifle, striking DeSantis once in the chest. Officers Travis Menke and Patricia Mann also fired their pistols immediately afterward, striking DeSantis at least once.

An eight-member San Francisco federal jury concluded that the shooting of DeSantis did not have a "legitimate law enforcement purpose." The verdict was a blow to city officials, who fully backed the actions of all six officers who responded to the 911 call and spent nearly five years trying to get the lawsuit thrown out.

The judge previously dismissed several parts of the lawsuit, including removing the city as a defendant in the case. Celli was held personally liable by the jury, but the city will pay any judgment upheld by the courts.

The DeSantis shooting was one of several in 2007 and 2008 involving Sonoma County law enforcement officers killing people in mental distress. Then-District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua cleared all officers of wrongdoing.

The family of Jeremiah Chass, a 16-year-old Analy High School student who was shot seven times by sheriff's deputies after efforts to subdue him in his parents' minivan failed, settled their lawsuit with the county for $1.75 million.

In another case, 24-year-old mental health client Jesse Hamilton was shot by a Santa Rosa officer after failing to drop a butcher knife while approaching officers. The city was dropped from a federal lawsuit after it convinced a judge officers did not use excessive force.

Staff Writer Paul Payne can be reached at 568-5312 or Paul.Payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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