Sonoma County sued for violent death of driver who deputies thought was in stolen car

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

The Sonoma County sheriff and other authorities have been sued by the family of a man who died during a violent encounter with deputies who mistakenly thought he was driving a stolen car last year. 

The federal suit was filed Tuesday on behalf of David Ward's mother, Ernestine Ward. She is claiming excessive force, negligent supervision and wrongful death, among other allegations. 

The suit names retired deputy Charles Blount, current deputy Jason Little and Sebastopol police officer Andrew Bauer as defendants. Sheriff Mark Essick and the county of Sonoma are also named.  

And in a separate but parallel investigation, the Santa Rosa police department, which headed up a standard inquiry into the officer-involved shooting, forwarded their findings to the District Attorney on Tuesday afternoon, according to Lt. Dan Marincik. 

It's now up to the DA to decide whether any criminal charges will be filed against the officers. 

Petaluma man dies after stolen car mix-up

A Sonoma County Sheriff's spokesman said his office doesn't comment on pending litigation. 

The suit stems from what happened to 52-year-old David Ward on Nov. 27, 2019.

Ward had been the victim of a carjacking four days earlier but had learned that his green Honda Civic was somewhere nearby and he had gone to retrieve it. Ward's caretaker, Driden Estrada, was subsequently arrested for stealing Ward's car. 

But at the time, Ward had gone early in the morning to pick it up and hadn't notified authorities that it had been located. When deputies spotted what they thought was his stolen car, deputies approached Ward, mistakenly thinking he was the thief, and barked at him to get out of the car. At first, he led them on a chase. 

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

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

Authorities were finally able to block Ward in and make him stop.

When Ward didn't immediately comply with their orders to put his hands up and get out of his car, he was beaten, shocked with a Taser and choked by deputies until he died, the suit alleges.

Ward's mother had previously told KTVU that her son had been confined to a wheelchair and couldn't physically react to orders to raise his hands or exit his vehicle. 

Video cameras worn by the deputies show Blount, a 19-year veteran with the sheriff’s office, wrapping his arm around Ward’s neck and slamming his head into the side of the car as he tried to pull him out through an open window.

The video also shows Little firing his Taser twice at Ward through an open window of the Honda Civic. 

Last week, Dr. Joseph Cohen of the Marin County Coroner’s Office declared Ward’s death a homicide.

Cohen found that Ward died as a result of a physical confrontation with law enforcement, cardiorespiratory collapse, neck restraint, blunt impact injuries and the use of a Taser. The coroner also noted he had cardiovascular issues and was schizophrenic.

Blount had quietly retired from the sheriff's office in February, according to the lawsuit. That about two months after Essick had said he was moving to fire the deputy for his "troubling" actions during the traffic stop. 

Blount's attorney, Harry Stern, did not immediately respond for comment on Wednesday. Nearly five months ago, Stern was adamant his client didn't kill Ward. 

"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 in his prepared statement. 

Stern said that in his opinion, the medical evidence would 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," Stern said. 

The coroner found methamphetamine in Ward's system, as well. 

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

The suit also alleges that Blount's interaction with Ward was not his first violent encounter with a citizen. 

Blount had a "known and well-documented history of excessive force, particularly surrounding the use of chokeholds." It was a common belief, the suit alleges, that Blount was "going to kill someone one of these days." 

The lawsuit claims Blount choked a disabled woman in January 2015, slamming her body into the ground after he had caught her jaywalking. Then he allegedly perjured himself, the suit claims, by denying what he had done, despite the fact that there was cell phone video of the interaction. 

However, department leadership knew about Blount's history and "failed to discipline or restrain Mr. Blount for prior incidents of unjustifiable violence," the suit claims. 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez