Sonoma County sheriff intends to fire deputy involved in fatal car mix-up

The Sonoma County Sheriff announced on Friday that he intends to fire a deputy seen on body worn camera slamming a Petaluma man's head into a car while he was simultaneously being Tased because authorities thought he was driving a stolen green Honda, which in the end, turned out to be his.

"The entire situation is extremely troubling," Sheriff Mark Essick said. He said that if viewers were concerned at the way Deputy Charlie Blount handled the situation regarding David Ward, who died after the police interaction on Nov. 27, so was he.

As a result, Essick said he served Blount a notice of termination. Blount has been on administrative leave since Ward's death and he will remain on leave until the investigation is complete and the appeals process is over. 

Petaluma man dies after stolen car mix-up

Essick made his statements on a department video, showing for the first time what transpired that day. In an interview, Essick elaborated that he did not feel Essick tried to de-escalate the situation.

The man whose head was slammed, David Ward, 52, ended up dying.  Authorities realized minutes after Ward was struck and stunned that the car belonged to him. Essick added that his department released the video to be transparent and to show what happens, "good or bad." In addition to the edited version released on the department's YouTube page, the sheriff also released 45 minutes of separate raw body camera footage to this news organization following a public records request based on two new California police transparency laws, SB 1421 and AB 748. 

Ward's mother, Ernie Ward, 85, told KTVU she had not watched the video but knew about Blount.

"I think that was good," she said. "He needs to be fired."

WARNING GRAPHIC: Deputies slam man's head into car, Tase him

Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff's Association President Mike Vail, who acknowledged this is a "troubling time" for the office and for the deputies, referred calls to attorney Harry Stern. Stern fought back, arguing that  his client did nothing wrong. 

"Deputy Blount didn’t cause David Ward’s death," Stern said in a prepared statement. "Frankly, Mr. Ward caused his own death by inexplicably taking a number of bizarre actions that confirmed in the deputies’ minds that he was an armed car-jacker, rather than the victim of that crime."

Stern said that in his opinion, the medical evidence will show that Ward died from a serious pre-existing condition and had methamphetamine in his system---"most significantly, there were no indications of trauma to his neck. " How Stern knows this is unclear. The Marin County Coroner, which is investigating the death in this case, has not yet publicly released a cause of death. 

In an interview, Deputy Chief Coroner Roger Fielding said he found Stern's comments "surprising." The cause of death won't be known for about six months, Fielding said. 

Stern added that he views the sheriff's "hasty decision as a product of panic, political expediency and hindsight." Blount's actions during this arrest "were entirely reasonable under the circumstances known," Stern said, "keeping in mind that videos of uses of force, even when justified, are often upsetting and graphic."

Essick did not mention the other deputy in the video, Jason Little, who was seen using a Taser on Ward while Blount was holding him in a carotid neck hold. In an email, department spokesman, Sgt. Juan Valencia, said that Little is on administrative leave, and that is all he could legally say. 

Deputies were chasing Ward in what turned out to be a fatal car mix-up. 

Ward had reported his Honda stolen on Nov. 24 in a carjacking. Three days later, Ward had somehow learned that his car had been found and he went to pick it up early in the morning. How he learned this has not been publicly revealed. On the morning he died, Ward was on his way home in his own car, but he had not yet reported it to sheriff’s deputies, so they did not know who was driving it when they tried to stop him.

David Ward loved nature and was creative, his sister said. (Catherine Aguilera)

An off-duty officer spotted Ward's Honda and called it in, the sheriff had previously reported. Ward did not stop for authorities. The newly released video describes that Ward led deputies on seven-minute chase until they were able to box his car at Sutton Road. His sister, Catherine Aguilar, speculated that he might have panicked and was racing home to get his oxygen tank.

Carjacking suspect arrested after fatal stolen car mix-up

But once stopped, Ward appeared to both semi-comply with officers and fight with them. He didn't immediately get out of his car or keep his hands up, the video shows, and the deputies yell that both of them had been bitten.

Ward suffered from physical disabilities that made him move extremely slowly, according to a previous interview with his mother. She said he uses a wheelchair and cannot walk easily. She said if he had been asked to get out of the car, it would have taken him at least 10 minutes.

David Ward's 2003 green Honda Civic was reported carjacked on Nov. 24, 2019. It was somehow recovered, unbeknownst to police.

The body camera angle also does not always show a clear picture of what Ward is doing. The vantage point is from Little’s chest, and Little is heard screaming at Ward several times to keep his f---ing hands up.

Ward does not take the opportunity to clearly state that he has recovered his stolen car. But there is also no indication that he was armed. And there was no indication that he was moving in a threatening manner toward officers.

The video shows Blount approaching the Honda, pointing his gun at Ward's head through the drivers' window. Little's gun is also raised at Ward's head from a different angle.

Blount tells Ward to unlock the car. Ward appears disoriented and confused. Lights and guns are in his face. He puts his hands over his head. He unlocks the car door and then puts his hands back on his head.

"I can't believe this," Ward is heard saying. "I'm the injured party in this....Why are you f---ing harassing me all the time?"

Little grabs at Ward, telling him to give him his hands. Blount tells him to get out of the car. Ward is heard groaning and screaming about his legs being in pain. "I'm getting out," he tells the deputies.

Little realizes that Ward is stuck in the car and that's why they are having trouble pulling him out. Little then yells that Ward has bit him.

Nine minutes into the video, Blount grabs Ward's head and slams it into the Honda. An audible crunch is heard. At the same time, Little is using a stun gun on him, and Blount is simultaneously putting Ward into a carotid neck hold. It's hard to see the neck hold, but the sheriff described it in a previous news release

At that point, there is mostly silence. Heavy breathing is heard. Ward isn't moving, and a deputy calls for medical help.

Six minutes after the head slam,  Deputy Nick Jax comes out and says that Ward is the rightful owner of the car.

Little asked, "Then why did he run?"

Jax answered: "I don't know why he ran."

Jax explained that he had just been with Ward about two hours earlier discussing the stolen car. When Blount hears this, his response was "Oh, well." 

Ten days later, deputies ended up arrested Driden Adrian Estrada, 32, for taking Ward’s car. Estrada had been living at Ward’s home in Petaluma as a caretaker.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was updated on Dec. 22, 2019 to reflect the coroner's comments. 

Sonoma County Deputy Charlie Blount slams David Ward's head into his Honda. Nov. 27, 2019