San Mateo Co. Sheriff admits to wrong initial information in man's Taser death

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By Bay City News Service

The San Mateo County Sheriff's deputies who killed Chinedu Okobi during a violent confrontation in October will not face criminal charges, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Friday.

But John Burris, an attorney for Okobi's family, said the incident appeared to be in violation of the sheriff's office's use of force policy and questioned whether the force used was appropriate. He vowed to pursue a civil case on behalf of the family.%INLINE%

An initial statement by the sheriff's office distributed after Okobi's death had said that Okobi was stopped when he was found running in and out of traffic in the 1400 block of El Camino Real in Millbrae on Oct. 3 and then "immediately assaulted the deputy."

However, a 13-page letter from Wagstaffe to Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, along with a collection of videos of the incident released Friday, shows that Okobi only punched Deputy Joshua Wang after he had been taken to the ground, Tased multiple times, and gotten back up.

On Friday, Burris criticized the initial statement by the sheriff's office, saying that in in-custody deaths and officer-involved shootings, "the initial statement is often to cast the person in the most negative light possible in order to justify their conduct."

The sheriff's office acknowledged in a statement on Friday that the initial release contained incorrect information.%INLINE%

"After reviewing the District Attorney's investigation and the video of the incident, we now know that Mr. Okobi initially resisted the deputies' attempts to detain him and Deputy Wang was struck in the face later in the encounter," the sheriff's office said.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Detective Rosemerry Blankswade said that sheriff's office investigators did not take statements from the deputies involved after Okobi's death. The San Mateo County Sheriff's Office conducts its own internal review only after the district attorney's criminal investigation is over, Blankswade said.%INLINE%

She said that most agencies in the county follow this protocol. Other agencies in the region, like the San Francisco Police Department, conduct investigations concurrently.

Because the investigations are not conducted concurrently, investigators in the sheriff's office did not even see video of the encounter before Friday, Blankswade said.

Wagstaffe posted the letter to Bolanos on Friday morning, stating that neither Wang, the only deputy to use a Taser, nor the other deputies involved, identified as John DeMartini, Alyssa Lorenzatti, Bryan Watt and Sgt. David Weidner, will face any prosecution by Wagstaffe's office.

Wang had initially attempted to stop Okobi for jaywalking. But Okobi refused to stop and talk to Wang, crossing the street again in an apparent effort to avoid him. 

Wang called for backup, and as more deputies arrived they tried to put Okobi in a control hold. Okobi had his hands up as the other deputies arrived, pushed him, and said, "stop resisting."

As Okobi tried to pull away from the deputies, Wang deployed his Taser for the first time and then twice more in quick succession. 

"What did I do?" Okobi cried out as he writhed in pain on the ground.

Eventually he pulled the Taser prongs off him and stood up again. As the deputies tried to take him to the ground again, he punched Wang. Wagstaffe said that Wang needed seven sutures on his face.

The deputies got Okobi to the ground again, and in addition to the Taser, used batons and pepper spray.%INLINE%

In a news conference on Friday, Wagstaffe stressed that his evaluation of the deputies' conduct was only to determine whether it was legal under California law, not whether the deputies were in violation of sheriff's office policy or whether the deputies could have handled it better.

"This is not a case where I'm trying to put any blame on Mr. Okobi," Wagstaffe said. "I don't want to do anything to demonize the deputies or Mr. Okobi in any manner."

An autopsy found that Okobi died from cardiac arrest. He had an enlarged heart, which put him at greater risk of cardiac arrest following a Taser deployment. 

At a hearing on Tasers called by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors last month, Dr. Zian Tseng, who researches sudden cardiac death at the University of California at San Francisco, said that multiple Taser deployments, like those inflicted on Okobi, also increases the chances of cardiac arrest.

Regarding the presence of heart disease, Wagstaffe said, "Obviously law enforcement didn't know that, I don't even know that he knew that."

The incident drew widespread attention after Okobi's sister, Ebele Okobi, Facebook's public policy director for Africa, publicly accused the sheriff's office of lying after she viewed the video.

"We're devastated as a family but not surprised," Ebele Okobi said, speaking by phone from London during a news conference in her attorney's office on Friday. She said that she understood criminal charges would not bring her brother back, "but it would have shown that someone we love mattered to this county."

Okobi's death also drew concern as the third Taser-related death in San Mateo County last year -- an unprecedented number of deaths during arrests in the county of fewer than 800,000 people. 

Wagstaffe also cleared deputies in the previous two deaths, Warren Ragudo in Daly City and Ramzi Saad in Redwood City. A fourth person was killed by law enforcement in the county in December, Kyle Hart in Redwood City. Officers also used a Taser on Hart before shooting him.

Burris, the Okobi family's attorney, reiterated his call for a moratorium on Taser use in San Mateo County. 

"Tasers were a substantial factor in causing [Okobi's] death," Burris said.

The sheriff's office said Friday that it had no plans for a moratorium on Taser use. 

Burris questioned why the deputies used a Taser quickly in the confrontation with Okobi, as the sheriff's office policy calls for deputies to only use Tasers as the last step before resorting to deadly force. 

Furthermore, he said the deputies treated Okobi as if he were on drugs, even though toxicology testing revealed that he had no drugs, medication or alcohol in his body when he died. Burris also questioned the justification for the initial stop.

"The cops created a confrontation and fought their way out of it," Burris said. "The DA has to support the police. That's his job, he always does."

In response to the heightened scrutiny into Okobi's death, Wagstaffe posted video of the encounter on his website on Friday. San Mateo County sheriff's deputies do not yet have body-worn cameras, so the video is a collection of dash camera footage, surveillance video and cellphone video by bystanders. 

Wagstaffe also released portions of the autopsy report and said he would release hundreds of pages more on Friday afternoon, including interview transcripts and a 57-page report by his lead investigator.