The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has released the names of the three sheriff’s deputies involved in the incident on April 7 at 939 Palm Ave. in which deputies shot and killed one young man fleeing a knife attack and seriously wounded another.
The deputies — Michael Fairbanks, Gerardo Valdivia and Byron Holloway — are back on duty in West Hollywood, which contracts with the Sheriff’s Department for police services. They were put on paid leave for two weeks after the shooting and underwent counseling and training that the department requires in such situations before being put back on the job.
The Sheriff’s Department historically has refused to release the names of officers involved in shootings. The names of the deputies in the 939 Palm shootings were released after WEHOville.com filed a petition seeking the information under the state’s Freedom of Information laws. The California Supreme Court ruled in May in a case involving a killing by a deputy in Long Beach that police departments could not withhold the names of officers unless there was specific evidence that such a release would endanger the officer involved. Before the ruling, law enforcement agencies in California have increasingly begun to withhold such information from the public, with a notable exception being the Los Angeles Police Department, which routinely makes such information available.
“The records you requested are sensitive and the release of said records may adversely affect the criminal investigation,” the Sheriff’s Department said in a June 23 letter to WEHOville. But, it said, it was releasing the names because of the Supreme Court ruling. The department’s reluctance to fulfill the request was evident in its failure to respond to it within ten business days, as required by state law, and by the recalcitrance of officers at the department headquarters in Monterey Park, who were asked by WEHOville on several occasions why they hadn’t responded to the request as required by law and who refused to say when they would. While the Sheriff’s Department gave WEHOville the names of all three officers involved in the incident, it refused to identify the actual officers who shot Winkler and Mulligan.
The family of John Winkler, the young man who was shot and killed, is seeking $25 million in damages from Los Angeles County. If the county Board of Supervisors declines to pay those damages, Winkler’s family will be permitted to file a civil lawsuit.
Winkler, 30, was one of three young men in the apartment at 939 Palm who were attacked by Alexander McDonald, 27, one of the residents of the apartment. When deputies arrived, Winkler rushed out of the door behind Liam Mulligan, who also had been attacked and was bleeding profusely. They shot and killed Winkler, believing he was the attacker, according to a Sheriff’s Department statement, and wounded Mulligan. McDonald was found inside attacking another man whose has been identified only by his last name, which is Moretti.
The Sheriff’s Department attributed the mistake in part to the fact that deputies had been told that McDonald, the attacker, was thin and wearing a black shirt and that Winkler also was wearing a black shirt when he attempted to flee the apartment. However, in its request for damages, the Winkler family said that deputies had been provided a photo of McDonald and should have been able to see that Winkler didn’t resemble him.
McDonald has been charged with one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and one count of torture, with the apparent reasoning that his attack prompted the mistaken killing of Winkler by the deputies. He remains in jail in lieu of $4 million bail.
The shooting death of Winkler and the wounding of Mulligan stirred outrage among some West Hollywood residents, about 50 of whom staged a memorial service in front of 939 Palm on April 13 and marched to the West Hollywood station of the Sheriff’s Department in protest. Various residents have complained to the City Council about its failure to express sympathy for Winkler and Mulligan at Council meetings and the strong defense by some Council members of the Sheriff’s Department. At a Council meeting on June 2, Mayor John D’Amico invited Capt. Gary Honings, who supervises the Sheriff’s Department’s West Hollywood station, to respond to criticism of the department.
“It’s a tragic situation what happened on Palm,” Honings said. “We regret it… There’s nothing we can do to rewind that incident…” Honings asked that the deputies’ feelings also be acknowledged. “As horrible as this was for the victim’s family, I know the deputies have to be traumatized,” he said.
Councilmember Jeffrey Prang defended the Sheriff’s Department, saying that he learned in a simulated situation how difficult such an encounter was for a law enforcement officer. Councilmember John Duran also defended the officers. “We stand firmly with you and the Sheriff’s Department,” Duran said to Honings.
At the Council meeting on June 23, WeHo resident Coe Holbrook described the comments by Council members in support of the Sheriff’s Department as a “lovefest,” that “raised more questions than answers. Not one of you ask any questions,” he said. “It’s bureaucrats protecting bureaucrats.”
Honings has said that multiple investigations of the incident are underway by the Los Angeles County Office of the Inspector General, the county Office of Independent Review, Sheriff’s Department’s Internal Affairs Division, the Sheriff’s Department’s Homicide Bureau and the county District Attorney. He said it might take a year for those investigations to be concluded.
The state Supreme Court’s decision to require that officers in such shootings be identified came in a case filed by the Los Angeles Times, which sought the names of Long Beach police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Douglas Zerby, who was killed when officers mistook the garden hose nozzle he was holding for a gun.