Los Angeles DA Declines to Prosecute Sheriff’s Deputies in 939 Palm Ave. Killing

Shooting at 939 N. Palm Ave. (Photo by Jon Viscott)
Liam Mulligan being removed after being shot by a deputy at 939 N. Palm Ave. (Photo by Jon Viscott)

The Los Angeles County District Attorney has decided not to prosecute three West Hollywood Sheriff’s deputies in the killing of one young man and the wounding of another at 939 Palm Ave. last year.

John Winkler
John Winkler

The decision is documented in a chilling and gruesome account of the events at the Palm Avenue apartment building that was prepared by the D.A.’s Justice System Integrity Division. (That account is reproduced in its entirety on the pages listed at the bottom of this story). In a letter dated March 6 to the Homicide Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Integrity Division concludes 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.”

In the letter, the Integrity Division confirms previously reported stories about the incident, which occurred on April 7, 2014. Around 9 p.m. that evening Alexander McDonald, 28, apparently under the influence of drugs, allegedly attacked his roommate, Liam Mulligan, 28, with a knife. McDonald also is accused of stabbing Chris Moretti, a friend of Mulligan’s who was visiting from Australia. Mulligan, Moretti and another friend, John Winkler, 30, who had recently moved to Los Angeles from Washington State, were watching television when McDonald entered the apartment and began threatening them. Another roommate, Sarah DeLuca, was in her bedroom.

Liam mulligan, 939 palm ave.
Liam Mulligan

The Integrity Division letter says that West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station deputies Michael Fairbanks, Byron Holloway and Gerardo Valdivia arrived at the apartment shortly after 9 p.m. after 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 door multiple times but got no response.

Then Mulligan, bleeding from the neck after having been stabbed by McDonald, 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 gunshot to the chest. According to the Integrity Division, Winkler was shot in the chest by Deputy Gerardo Valdivia, who said he thought Winkler was the person who had attacked Mulligan and that he 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. Another deputy, Blanca Rodriquez, also shot Winkler, using a shotgun loaded with a beanbag round, which is designed to immobilize a suspect without killing him. After being shot and while lying on the floor dying, deputies handcuffed Winkler. Mulligan then told them that the attacker was not Winkler and was still inside the apartment, at which point they entered and found McDonald attacking Moretti.

The Integrity Division letter offers more graphic details. “McDonald and Moretti were on the living room floor wrestling,” the letter says. “Moretti screamed, ‘Help! Help!’ McDonald was on the bottom and he held Moretti on top of him. McDonald was choking Moretti with his left hand while McDonald had his right hand inside Moretti’s mouth. It appeared that McDonald was attempting to tear Moretti’s mouth apart. Moretti(‘s) eyes were rolling to the back of his head. Moretti also had stab wounds to his torso.”

Alexander T. McDonald
Alexander T. McDonald

The letter says that Valdivia and Fairbanks ordered McDonald to release Moretti. When he didn’t do that, they kicked him in the side and in the head until he released Moretti. McDonald fought with deputies Valdivia and Rodriguez, the report said, before they were able to handcuff him.

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 in lieu of $4.1 million bail.

Mulligan, who had lived with McDonald and DeLuca for two years, told investigators he had never seen his roommate behave in such a bizarre manner. “One of you is going to die tonight,” Mulligan quoted McDonald as saying. “Maybe you will all live, we’ll see what happens.” DeLuca, who was in her bedroom when McDonald entered the apartment, said McDonald yelled at her, saying “Sarah, I want you to text everyone and tell them I am going to kill these three guys!”

While the Integrity Division informed the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department of its findings on March 6, it apparently didn’t inform the City of West Hollywood or the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station of the decision. Captain Gary Honings, who heads the West Hollywood Station, told the City Council Monday that investigations of the matter were ongoing. Honings said yesterday that he was unaware of the D.A.’s decision when WEHOville informed him of it. Lt. David Coleman of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said an investigation as to whether the deputies violated department rules and procedures is still on-going. The deputies involved are still working at the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station.

Sim Osborne, an attorney representing Winkler’s family in a $25 million claim against the Sheriff’s Department, also said yesterday that he was unaware of the D.A.’s decision. Los Angeles County has negotiated a settlement with Osborne’s family for an undisclosed amount that must be approved by the County Board of Supervisors. Such settlements often are made even when the district attorney decides not to pursue criminal charges in an effort to protect a local government from damages that might be awarded by a jury in a civil trial. Mulligan has also filed a $25 million claim against the Sheriff’s Department.

In evaluating the deputies’ contention that they fired at Winkler because they thought he 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 of 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 Novis in the hallway just outside their apartment,” the Integrity Division letter says, quoting the women. “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 a photo of McDonald.

The deputies also said they thought only two men were in the apartment, leading them to suspect that either Winkler or Mulligan was the attacker. And they explained that another neighbor who had been accosted by McDonald said he was wearing a black t-shirt, which Winkler also was wearing. Mulligan, however, was wearing a white t-shirt when he was shot. “Rodriguez saw Winkler directly behind Mulligan when the door opened,” the Integrity Division letter says. “Winkler appeared to be grabbing Mulligan. Rodriguez said it appeared to her that Winkler threw Mulligan down to the ground. Rodriguez saw Winkler raise his hands to his chest and they were covered in blood. Rodriguez heard gunshots as Winkler fell and slid across the floor towards the elevator.” Valdivia said he shot Winkler as he saw him “running out, screaming, and I mean flying out of that apartment … with his hands clenched up in the air… and (his arms) moving in a stabbing motion.”

The incident was particularly shocking for some people because McDonald, who was a design director for a mobile app company in Santa Monica, had a reputation for being friendly and somewhat shy. Toxicology experts tested McDonald to determine if he had ingested cocaine laced with a substance known as bath salts that is known to cause bizarre and violent behavior. The results of those tests will not be made available until his trial.

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, however, have strongly defended the deputies, even in the absence of an investigative report such as that issued on March 6. At a meeting last June at which residents demanded the Council take action, Mayor John D’Amico and Councilmembers 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.

Page 2: D.A.’s Justice System Integrity Division conclusion
Page 3: Knife-wielding Alexander McDonald frightens his neighbors
Page 4: McDonald, “freaking out,” alarms his roommate Liam Mulligan
Page 5: McDonald begins stabbing visitor Christopher Moretti. “One of you is going to die tonight.”
Page 6: With deputies outside, McDonald continues his attack. “We’re all going to die tonight.”
Page 7: Roommate Sarah DeLuca hears screams from her bedroom.
Page 8: Neighbor says her roommate showed deputies photos to identify McDonald and Mulligan
Page 9: Catherine Novis says she showed deputies photos of McDonald and Mulligan.
Page 10: Deputies rescue frightened neighbor hiding in her apartment
Page 11: Winkler and Mulligan flee apartment, “running out, screaming,” and are shot by deputies
Page 12: Deputies enter apartment and discover McDonald attacking Christopher Moretti, “attempting to tear (his) mouth apart”
Page 13: Legal analysis. Deputies say they didn’t see photos identifying McDonald and Mulligan
Page 14: Conflicting evidence
Page 15: “Based on the foregoing, we are closing our file and will take no further action in this matter.”

  1. This was so orchestrated by the police to blame the killing on Alex! Just after the shooting, with John dying in the hallway and being rushed to the ambulance, his roomate who just came down to see what was going on, asked the policeman how John was attacked and the policeman said he was stabbed in the heart by the perpetrator ( Alex) when he clearly knew they had shot him and most likely killed him. So, from the very beginning they were lying and trying to cover up the wrongful shooting! The LAPD NEEDS TO CLEAN THEIR HOUSE and get a new, INTELLIGENT police force who think before they kill unarmed people!

  2. Thank you for reporting on yet another example of police not thinking and firing their weapons impulsively. Neither of these young men were armed and clearly were escaping the apartment. The fact that none of these officers were suspended from duty and not prosecuted is so wrong! Wow what would have happened if either of these young men had been black of some other minority? Well looking at all the news elsewhere of such outrage and marches over inappropriate police killings of men of color…so sad! Hopefully their a___es will get sued off in civil court!

  3. No. The Lasd knew it was a “knife” hostage situation. So they decided to use not tasers, but actual bullets to shoot anyone and everyone who ran out of the apartment? Only 2 people ran out and both were shot, Mulligan was shot in the thigh and Winkler shot in the heart. Running out of a hostage situation is left exclusively for the hostages. It’s not rocket science to realize people running out are victims. Any other excuse at all for same shirt color, mistaken identity, or any other bogus PR statement from Lasd for why they indiscriminately fired on everyone who ran out of the apartment is just them trying to make up for reckless, poorly trained, police misconduct. There was 15 feet between the door and the stairwell where all half dozen or more officers were situated. Then after the death numerous officers changed stories and told people at the hospital only an after later, that John was killed by Alex defending his friends in the apartment. This is 1 of the many examp!
    les of why the Lasd has the worst reputation of any major city’s law enforcement department.

  4. There will never be a happy ending to this story for anyone involved. It is truly the worst of all circmstances, with no possible happy ending. It is one of the saddest stories I can remember since moving here in 94.

  5. There is no community leadership in West Hollywood. Just the corrupt city officials (such as John Duran and Deputygate) that hire the third rate and corrupt LA County Sheriff’s to police the city. The City Council and the overpaid City Manger care about one thing – developers like Irwin and Siegel (8150 Sunset and the ICM Building). The LA County Fire Department is great – but when you come to the deputies (not Duran’s deputy) they are from hunger. WEHO is the gay Ferguson and North Charleston. Only African-Americans aren’t shot – innocent gay men like the victim of our so-called “police” in the above story! Where are pay-offs? Where’s the FBI regarding investigating corruption in West Hollywood? As for the DA of Los Angeles… a joke.

  6. It would have been less disconcerting if a member of our community leadership, while expressing hard line “support” for those who took the life of this innocent young man, had the thoughtfulness & presence of mind to have included in their comments some semblance of sympathy for the family of those who suffered the loss of their loved one. Leaders can do that.

  7. All in a matter of seconds. An unfortunate situation with an unfortunate outcome. I’m sure the Sheriffs acted in what they thought -in those split seconds – was the right response. Very unfortunate. Thoughts go out to the families and the victims.

  8. Yes, this definitely looks like excessive force. Shot four times? The only “defense” I can see for that is if 1) they did think Winkler was McDonald and 2) they thought Winkler (confused as McDonald) was chasing Mulligan and 3) they all fired at once, or nearly at once. In other words, they thought Mulligan was still being attacked, and because he and Winkler were right on top of each other, that Winkler needed to be taken down (i.e., they weren’t fearing for their own lives).

    Its hard to judge. But I would think that if someone was shot in the chest and went down, was there a reason to keep firing? Then again, if this all happened over a span of say 2 or 3 seconds, maybe there wasn’t time to think?

    The reality is, no matter how much officers are trained, they never know what they will actually do in a situation like this, until they find themselves in one, which for most cops, probably never happens once in their careers.

  9. After all this time, I’d think that the toxicology report would be public information, but perhaps not. Don’t we, as the public, have a right to know what drugs, if any might have led to this tragic, bizarre behavior?

    There are two other things that stand out to me. First is the discrepancy between the two women who gave statements that they showed the deputies pictures of the attacker (McDonald) and one of the victims (Mulligan) inside the apartment and the deputies who told the investigators that they “did not recall” seeing the photos. Second is the assertion that the investigators were unable to find two of the bullets that hit Winkler so they were unable to determine who fired the shots. Really? They couldn’t have determined how many bullets were fired from each service weapon, analyzed the other bullets fired and by process of elimination figured out where the bullets came from? And it’s hard to believe that two bullets who hit a person in a very limited crime scene area just disappeared? They weren’t in his body? Or maybe someone “lost” them.

    Since there will be no criminal charges (I’m not surprised about that), I assume there will be zero disciplinary action by the LASD either. Very frustrating and sad.

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