Locksmith widow's lawsuit faults sheriff's office in deadly Modesto shooting

gstapley@modbee.comJanuary 25, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government
    E-mail: gstapley@modbee.com

— Deputies put an unsuspecting locksmith "in the line of fire" despite detailed warnings about a distraught Modesto homeowner's military-grade weapons and paranoia, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed Thursday by the locksmith's widow.

Failing to heed specific and urgent warnings led to the April slayings of a deputy sheriff and the locksmith, the lawsuit says, followed by a tense standoff, the gunman's suicide and a Chrysler Drive fourplex burning to the ground.

A written Sheriff's Department advisory that Jim Richard Ferrario had "multiple guns," specifically an M16 assault rifle, and had military training and might be "delusional" was recovered from the scene, the lawsuit says. But deputies ignored the notice, the suit says, and deputy Bob Paris, 53, and locksmith Glendon Engert, 35, were gunned down.

The claim contradicts Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson's statements after the tragedy that the men were ambushed with no idea that danger lurked inside.

A separate investigation commissioned by the sheriff is complete and will be unveiled next week, Christianson said in an email to public-safety workers. He did not return calls Friday regarding the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Fresno because it alleges "interference with constitutional rights."

It seeks exemplary and punitive damages, as well as an order that the Sheriff's Department produce new policies, such as consulting with mental health professionals, to protect civilians "when there is a known and significant risk of harm."

Irina Engert is suing the county, Christianson, a sergeant overseeing evictions, an on-scene deputy who was not shot and a department clerk who processed the alleged warnings.

Additionally named as a defendant is the property owner, who hired Glendon Engert and also knew of potential danger but did not alert him, the lawsuit says.

"(Deputies) knew — and I mean they knew — the house was occupied by someone reported to have a cache of assault rifles, to be militaristic and to be unstable, with surveillance cameras, and nobody let (Engert) in on the secret," San Francisco attorney Richard Schoenberger said Friday.

Paul Tunison, who owns a Modesto eviction company, told a sheriff's clerk that Ferrario "has been seen with M16s and other guns and there was a possibility he had bombs at the house," the lawsuit says.

"Tunison has stated that he wanted to make sure the information was passed along to the deputies to avoid any type of confrontation, and that he was 'crystal clear' with (the clerk) about the danger," the document reads. He was aware that information shared on past cases "had not been passed on to the deputies, and he wanted to make sure there was no such mistake on this occasion," the lawsuit says. Tunison also sent a text message with the words "Be safe" to the property owner on the morning of the botched eviction, it says.

The phrases "Be very cautious" and "Is going to have problems" were noted next to the address on an eviction form given to the officers, the document says, and surviving deputy Mike Glinskas later confirmed in a Modesto police interview that the warnings were highlighted in red.

Also, the clerk "verbally reminded Deputy Paris about the concerns," the lawsuit says.

No special precautions

But deputies took no special precautions and essentially "placed (Engert) in a 'vertical coffin,' " the document reads, citing police jargon for doorways, where officers are most vulnerable when clearing a home.

Engert began disabling the lock to a heavy metal security door and paused at sounds inside, telling deputies, "I think someone's in there," the lawsuit says. Instead of having him retreat, they directed him to continue drilling the lock, and assault rifle bullets fired from inside pierced the door about 15 seconds after, the lawsuit says.

Paris was shot in the head, while Engert tried to run but collapsed after two or three steps, the document says. Glinskas heard him moan, and medics later intubated him and gave him an intravenous injection, but he died soon after, the lawsuit says.

An advisory issued to officers during the ensuing standoff, with detailed descriptions of the weapons and other equipment authorities believed Ferrario to have, as well as his suspected mental distress, is further proof of authorities' "absolute knowledge of the extreme danger presented," the lawsuit says.

County Counsel John Doering said, "Our primary contention is that the shooter is primarily responsible for this." His body was recovered in ashes near 22 firearms, including two assault rifles; 500 rounds of ammunition, including armor-piercing bullets; and police scanners.

"The wealth of information provided to the deputies prior to their approach should have generated a safer plan of action," the lawsuit says.

Irina Engert filed a claim against the county in September; it was rejected last week. Her attorney, Schoenberger, said: "We didn't take the decision (to sue) lightly. This has been a horrific experience for her, and she knows that bringing a lawsuit shines light on her wounds even more. We have done so soberly, with an eye toward doing justice for her."

Review was long-awaited

Public-safety personnel — law enforcement, firefighting and ambulance workers — can attend briefings next week, according to an email blast from Christianson, obtained by The Bee.

"The purpose of any Critical Incident Review is not to assign blame or point fingers," his note reads. "Any tragedy in public safety is difficult and painful. The purpose of our review is to better ourselves and hopefully prevent tragedy in the future. We're human and we learn from our experiences, good and bad."

The long-awaited review also probes the Dec. 31, 2011, death of sheriff's crime scene technician Mary Donahou, who was struck by a vehicle while investigating a Hughson shooting.

The private briefings — Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — are not mandatory for Sheriff's Department employees, the note says.

The report will become public Friday, the sheriff has said.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at (209) 578-2390.


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