The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted today to pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a man who was shot in the leg by West Hollywood Sheriff’s deputies in 2014 while fleeing a knife attack at his apartment at 939 Palm Ave. In the same incident the deputies killed his friend, John Winkler, who they mistook for the attacker.
The settlement goes to Liam Mulligan, 30. Last August, the county supervisors approved a $5 million payment to the family of Winkler, who was 30 when he was killed.
On April 7, 2014, Mulligan was in his apartment watching a basketball game on television with Winkler and Chris Moretti, another friend who was visiting from Australia. Mulligan’s roommate, Alexander McDonald, who appeared to be under the influence of drugs, entered the apartment and allegedly attacked Mulligan with a knife and threatened to kill Winkler and Moretti. A third roommate, Sarah DeLuca, was in her bedroom.
West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station deputies Michael Fairbanks, Byron Holloway and Gerardo Valdivia arrived at the apartment shortly after 9 p.m., responding to a call from a neighbor down the hall who said McDonald was wielding a knife and had threatened her. The deputies said they knocked on the apartment door multiple times but got no response.
Then Mulligan, bleeding from the neck after having been stabbed by McDonald, suddenly ran out the apartment door and was shot in the left thigh by one of the Sheriff’s deputies. Winkler, also attempting to escape, ran out behind Mulligan and was killed with a shot to the chest.
Mulligan was transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where he underwent surgery on his leg. He was discharged ten days later but continued to undergo medical treatment, including physical therapy and psychological counseling.
“The LASD clearly committed an assault and battery when it shot and seriously injured him,” said the claim filed by Mulligan’s attorney. “The LASD further breached their duty of care to Mr. Mulligan to carry out their law enforcement duties in a reasonable manner, including the use of any firearms or any force whatsoever. “
The L.A. County District Attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division conducted an investigation of the shooting. It concluded that Winkler was shot in the chest by Deputy Valdivia. Valdivia told investigators that he thought Winkler was the person who had attacked Mulligan and that Winkler would attack him or one of the other deputies. Winkler was shot two more times, but the investigators were unable to find bullets to determine which of the deputies fired those shots. Deputy Rodriquez also shot Winkler, using a shotgun loaded with a beanbag round, which is designed to immobilize a suspect without killing him. Deputies handcuffed Winkler after shooting him and while he was lying on the floor dying. Mulligan told the deputies that the attacker was still inside the apartment, at which point they entered and found McDonald attacking Moretti. It was not determined who shot Mulligan.
McDonald was arrested and charged with the murder of Winkler, with the reasoning for the charge apparently being that the deputies would not have killed Winkler if they hadn’t been called to respond to McDonald’s attack. He also was charged with the attempted murders of Mulligan and Moretti and with torturing Moretti. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is being held in prison awaiting trial in lieu of $4.1 million bail.
In evaluating the deputies’ contention that they thought Winkler was the attacker, the Integrity Division had to consider conflicting accounts. Two women who lived down the hall from the McDonald/Mulligan/DeLuca apartment, Anny Wesley and Catherine Novis, said that Novis, who used to date McDonald, showed the deputies photos on her mobile phone of McDonald and Mulligan to help them identify the men and distinguish them from one another. “The deputy took her phone and ‘showed everybody’ in her and Anny’s presence while he stood next to Nova in the hallway just outside their apartment,” the Integrity Division report said. “The deputy pointed to McDonald’s photo and said, ‘That’s our guy’.” However the deputies told Integrity Division investigators that did not recall seeing the photo of McDonald.
The Integrity Division concluded that the deputies should not be prosecuted because “California law permits the use of deadly force in self-defense or in the defense of others if it reasonably appears to the person claiming the right of self-defense or the defense of others that he actually and reasonably believed that he or others were in imminent danger of great bodily injury or death.” That argument also has been applied in federal cases after a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tennessee V. Garner. However, that standard has come under criticism with the controversial decisions by grand juries not to indict police officers in shootings of unarmed black people in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. “There is built-in leeway for police, and the very breadth of this leeway is why criminal charges against police are so rare,” Walter Katz, who served on the L. A. County Office of Independent Review until it disbanded in July 2014, said in a story in The Nation. In the same story, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine Law School, said recent Supreme Court decisions “are … a series of obstacles to holding police accountable for civil rights violations.”
Civil suits such as those filed by Winkler’s mother and Mulligan require a lower standard of proof than do criminal suits. In reviewing the Winkler civil claim, Superior Court Judge Molly Gee instructed the Sheriff’s Department to prepare a corrective action plan, which would outline training the department would conduct to reduce the chance of similar shooting deaths in the future. Despite numerous requests from WEHOville for a copy of the plan, the Sheriff’s Department has refused to release it. Deputies at the West Hollywood Station have told WEHOville that no such training has taken place, and it is unclear whether the plan was ever created. The station also is supposed to have conducted its own investigation of the deputies’ conduct, but no results have been made public.
The 939 Palm shooting also revealed serious management issues at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station. While the Integrity Divisions gave its report to the Sheriff’s Department on March 6, then-Capt. Gary Honings had been unaware of it until he was informed of its findings by WEHOville in April after he had appeared at a City Council meeting and said the investigation was still underway. In an earlier instance, Honings had appeared before the council to talk about what he described as the city’s outstanding reputation for safety, unaware of a Sheriff’s Department study that listed West Hollywood as ranking No. 1 in serious crimes among the 23 areas it served. Honings took an early retirement last year and was replaced in February by Capt. Holly Perez.
The 939 Palm incident sparked outrage among some West Hollywood residents, about 50 of whom rallied outside the apartment building shortly after the shooting to protest what they saw as over-reaction by Sheriff’s deputies and demand that the City of West Hollywood hold the Sheriff’s Station accountable. City Council members strongly defended the deputies, even before issuance of the investigative report. At a meeting at which residents demanded the council take action, then-Mayor John D’Amico and council members Jeffrey Prang and John Duran offered the deputies their support. “We stand firmly with you and the Sheriff’s department,” Duran said at that meeting.
However earlier this year, after a surge of complaints about assaults and other crime in WeHo, the City Council agreed to fund a study by an outside consultant of the services provided by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, for which the city pays $18 million a year. That study included a survey in April of citizen satisfaction with the local Sheriff’s station, the results of which have not yet been released.