L.A. County Awards $5 Million to Mother of Man Killed by Deputies at 939 Palm

The attorney representing the family of then 30-year-old TV producer and Puyallup, Washington, native John Winkler today announced that the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) has approved a $5 million settlement with Winkler’s family after deputies mistakenly shot and killed him outside of a West Hollywood apartment on April 7, 2014. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted today to appropriate $5 million to cover the settlement.

In her initial request for a $25 million payment, Lisa Ostergren, Winkler’s mother, argued that deputies used excessive force in shooting her son as he ran out of an apartment at 939 Palm Ave. to escape Alexander McDonald, who allegedly was stabbing his roommate there. Winkler, 30, had only recently moved to Southern California from Seattle and taken a job as a production assistant at Comedy Central’s “Tosh.O.”

John Winkler
John Winkler

The settlement also required that the Sheriff’s department develop a plan that outlines the training and procedural steps to avoid similar tragedies in the future. Although Sim Osborn, the Winkler family’s attorney, has requested copies of the plan, the Sheriff’s department and its attorneys refuse to comply, he said.

“While we are pleased that the Board of Supervisors has finally approved the settlement that we reached four months ago, I am very concerned about the department’s failure to demonstrate they’ve learned from this tragedy,” Osborn said.

According to Osborn, Winkler’s family has requested a copy of the plan on a number of occasions, and representatives of the department have failed to comply. Osborn said the requirement for the corrective action plan was part of the settlement agreement, and ordered by Judge Dolly M. Gee last April.

“To even the most jaded bystander, it is clear that the Sheriff’s deputy who mistakenly shot and killed my son was either horribly trained, or simply ignored the established procedures,” Lisa Ostegren, Winkler’s mother said. “I won’t allow them to sweep this under the rug by writing a check; they have to stand and deliver.” 

“The only two explanations I can reach is that either the department is ignoring the judge’s order and did not create a corrective plan, or it is so poorly done that they are afraid to share it with the Winkler family,” Osborn said.

Osborn noted that any plan created by the Sheriff’s Department would be considered a public document, subject to public scrutiny. The Sheriff’s Department also initially resisted requests by WEHOville last year for the names of deputies involved in the shooting.  It did so only after WEHOville filed a freedom of information request in June 2014 citing a decision a month earlier by the California Supreme Court in a case involving an officer-involved shooting in Long Beach. 

Deputies Michael Fairbanks, Byron Holloway and Gerardo Valdivia went to the apartment building at 939 Palm Ave. on April 7 last year when a resident reported strange behavior by McDonald. When they approached the apartment door, Liam Mulligan, who had been knifed and was bleeding from the neck, rushed out, followed by Winkler. The deputies, who said they had been told that there were only two men in the apartment, said they shot and killed Winkler because they believed he was the assailant. Mulligan was wounded in the leg by gun fire.

When they entered the apartment, the deputies said they discovered McDonald choking and tearing at the face of Chris Moretti, a friend of Mulligan, and found a knife on the floor nearby. McDonald, 28, was arrested on charges of murder, attempted murder and torture and is being held on $4 million bail. The four men, who were friends, were visiting one another when McDonald allegedly attempted to take them hostage and began stabbing them.

The Sheriff’s Department has said deputies believed Winkler was the assailant because he was thin and wearing a black shirt, which is how McDonald had been described. But Sim Osborne, the lawyer filing the claim for Ostergren, questioned the “mistaken identity” explanation. “How deputies could have confused John for McDonald – two very different looking men – still baffles me and many other observers of the deputies’ conduct,” Osborn said. “These are the sorts of questions that we had hoped would be addressed in the ordered corrective plan.”

“We have many questions for the LASD, including how they could have confused McDonald for John – two very different looking men – when witnesses had given them a photo just moments earlier,” he said.

The L.A. County District Attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division investigated the shootings and concluded 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.”

But the investigators said statements by the deputies conflicted with those by Anny Wesley and Catherine Nova, two women who lived down the hall from the Mulligan/McDonald apartment. Wesley and Nova said they showed the deputies photos on a 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 report 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.

“It is a tragedy when any parent loses a child, but learning that John was killed by those sworn to protect him is almost too much to comprehend,” said Ostegren, Winkler’s mother. “There hasn’t been a single day in which John’s death doesn’t bring me to tears, and I can’t image a day in which I will stop grieving over him.”

The settlement will be paid from a contract cities trust fund.  The City of West Hollywood does not have its own police department and contracts with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for police services, paying over $18 million a year. Mulligan also has filed a claim for a $25 million payment.

  1. @Guy Privaton: In the Dorner case, the 2 women were not killed, although one of the ladies took 2 bullets to the back & their “look alike” pick up truck had 102 plus bullet holes, & bullet holes pierced the garage & front doors of several homes in the neighborhood as well as front yard trees. One LAPD official said they were lucky they did not kill any innocent people, including each other.The two ladies who were fired upon were awarded $4.2 million by the city plus $40,000.00 for their pick up, but to be sure they will not be delivering newspapers any more.
    Just blocks away 30 minutes later, a man was also fired at by an officer who mistook him for Dorner.

  2. Thanks Woody! 🙂

    It’s one of the topics I’m quite passionate about. I know many good cops personally. But the system forces conformance of its members for survival – which isn’t a bad thing by itself. But the current “system” of shoot first then protect each other won’t change with a whistle blower. It has to be someone at the top who sees the problem and addresses it fast. What bothers me is the complacency and forgetfulness of your average American citizen with these things. No public pressure = no change.

    Dorner was a HUGE eye opener for me. Regardless of the crime, he (and the situation) needed to be put on trial and critiqued. …Not executed on site then forgotten. (Not saying I don’t understand the desire to do it.) But due process needs to be respected or we are no longer the country we’ve been dying (daily) to defend. There were so many questions with the Dorner case. (For one example: the killing of the two women in the truck of whom the police said ‘looked like dorner’. What??? Dorner, one huge marine vs two skinny white women delivering newspapers???) The police execution of Dorner made it impossible to even attempt to hash anything out about the case. They could have easily “starved out” Dorner at the least. I think the very word ‘conspiracy’ used correctly applies to what happened. But at the core of what went wrong… is the same thing: What has developed (or devolved) into the COPS go to standard of practices in the field. It needs to change.

    Ferguson can be added to the list. I would argue Ferguson wasn’t a racial thing but was more of the same: poor training on how to react to danger and stress in the field. And of course… the unethical lying with police encounters/stops needs to be addressed. It shouldn’t be like a game of liars poker for a citizen doing nothing wrong. (e.g. “I smelled marjiuanna so I searched the car without consent” B.S. OR “I thought I saw a weapon so I shot him.” B.S. Or add to the list, bullying at DUI checkpoint stops. Or the unethical ‘field tests’ which are known to be impossible to pass sober – so completely subjective. Ethics training/procedure. Stress/Danger training/procedure. Needs to change.

    Every situation is different but… that is glaring in every one of these examples. And key during the encounters.

    But for now http://www.flexyourrights.org 😉

  3. J Walter, so should I call you names while reading your opinion? I am not stupid, I have lived in hostile environment for over 20 years (Army, recently retired). I know how it feels when you go to the direction where danger is coming at you. I know how it feels when you are behind a door and don’t know who is going to pop with a gun in your face. You are trained to deescalate the force, but also, you are trained to minimize danger to yourself as well.

    Next time when you call someone stupid, remember, when you point one finger at someone, three of them points back at you!!!

  4. Dark Angel, are you stupid? These officers are trained to use the least force to accomplish the task. Is that “Shoot to Kill?” The neighbors showed them pictures. Then they play stupid claiming they don’t remember? What they hey is dark angel.? Nice handle…

  5. @ DRT

    Its a nationwide problem: Shoot first then offer a single narrative later.

    Cops are supposed to be TRAINED to de-escalate situations. They should always control use of force appropriately: ANYONE given a gun can use it to defend their life. COPS are supposed to have better self control in stressful and dangerous situations. Caution and running for cover to assess. They should be trained to identify a situation better.

    But the current M.O. happens because there have been no ramifications to incite change. It is easier for them to shoot. The witness is dead so there is no ‘story’ except the official police narrative. Why not.

    All these incidents have this in common and are common place: Dorner, Sandy Hook, the D.C. woman (with no weapon), etc etc etc ALL end with shooting and no other narrative available. The DC woman accidentally drove at the white house. Got scared. Then surrendered. Baby in the car. When she exited the vehicle with no weapon – it was a firing squad. Judge & Jury. (DORNER needed to stand trial and have due process. He was trapped in a house. Attrition would have captured him.)

    Today’s COPS are trained to keep shooting till the clip is out. They are also trained to start firing when firing starts. In this way, no 1 person is responsible for the death. They start firing when they “feel” endangered – even with no weapon present or confirmed. (ie “I thought they were holding a gun.”)

    Its a gang mentality. If you touch a cop during an encounter they call it ‘assaulting’ an officer. In this way, they are trained to lie. They are also trained to use ANYTHING against you during an encounter. Unethical and unreasonable. It makes good cops look bad.

    It is a top down problem. Training. Ethics. And workload expectations. Until the top gives a S* – nothing will change. The officers do what is expected of them. The expectations need to change.

  6. @Dark Angel, this line of reasoning is ridiculous. The whole point of having a trained police force is that they do not act just like you and me. They are trained and conditioned to know how to react in these situations. If I had to evaluate the police every time by the litmus test of what I do…. who needs the police then? Let’s save alot of money and just all carry guns.

    Also, it wasn’t just John Winkler that they shot. They also shot the person who at the time they believed was the victim. That wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. That was a case, as they both are, of shoot first, ask questions later.

  7. I’d like to 2nd..Tom Smart’s comment. Brushed under the rug and no new policies about how the police enter residential buildings with force.

  8. @Woody, you think you can do better job, put the uniform on and see how would you react to the situation.
    It was a tragic and I feel really bad for him and his family. Are all officers good guys, no way, but should we put all the blame on them, probably not!!!! They make split second decision everyday!!! It’s sad that some of the decisions go sideways, but I would hate to put myself in their situation and put my life on the line everyday

  9. The Sheriff Dept’s defiant lack of transparency only adds to the anger that I feel about the tragic needless death of John Winkler. Just reading about it breaks my heart all over again. $5 million needlessly expended to try to make up for the bad judgment of a trigger happy cowboy under cover of the law. If these shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later deaths are ever going to stop, there must be complete public accountability by law enforcement & our elected officials & the codes of silence & cover ups within the department need addressing. When officers of the law lie or refuse to report those in their ranks who operate outside the law, they are complicit in the crimes. Apparently that kind of egregious behavior is the rule rather than the exception. There can be no justice until all public employees in law enforcement are held equally accountable under the law. May the innocent soul of the forever young man John Winkler now rest in peace.

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