2.21.2008

TS Cheri Lyn Moore case: What the grand jury heard

Cheri Lyn Moore case: What the grand jury heard
John Driscoll/The Times-Standard
Article Launched: 02/21/2008 01:27:27 AM PST

The volatile chain of events leading to Cheri Lyn Moore's death in 2006 at the hands of Eureka police is laid out in transcripts of the grand jury proceedings held in November and December, which led to involuntary manslaughter charges against the commanding officers.

One of the leading officers on the SWAT team that stormed into the 48-year-old woman's apartment on April 14, 2006, told grand jurors that plans to handle the tense situation were still being developed when orders were given to move in.

Eureka Detective Todd Wilcox said four initial plans had been generated to deal with the circumstances most likely to arise during the early part of the standoff in which Moore brandished a flare gun. Wilcox was pulled back to the command post in the building just before the SWAT team entered, a little more than two hours into the standoff.

While the team began to formulate plans to better communicate with Moore, a spotter across from her apartment at 516 G St. said Moore had put down the gun, Wilcox said.

That signal was agreed upon as the order to go, he said. The officers used a battering ram to smash in the door, Moore pointed the flare gun at them and was shot to death, according to testimony.

An expert witness testifying on behalf of accused commander Lt. Anthony Zanotti called it a “clear case of suicide by cop.” George Williams testified that Moore's threats and actions leading up to her death are typical of someone intentionally drawing police to a scene and acting in a criminal manner that makes police use deadly force.

Moore was despondent on the anniversary of her son's suicide, had called mental health workers and police, told them she had a flare gun and threatened to blow up the building, Williams said.

”Because when a reasonable person presented with overwhelming force gives up,” Williams answered Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos, “and she intentionally arms herself and causes this shooting, that's suicidal, sir.”

Wilcox had been to the apartment four days before for a welfare check on Moore, who made unspecified threats that she might burn down the building or a church. He and another officer had pounded on Moore's door, but ended up leaving without incident.

When Gallegos asked Wilcox what was different about how police responded on those two days, Wilcox said Moore had threatened to burn down the building and had pointed a weapon -- the flare gun -- at officers on April 14.

He described those as “exigent circumstances,” that warranted entry into Moore's apartment. Police weren't trained to deal with a fire that might have broken out if the flare gun had been fired, Wilcox said, and he also testified he wasn't entirely confident that firefighters could have responded and doused a fire, either.

Wilcox explained how SWAT officers generally “stack” before entering a residence or room. The first breaches the door, then moves out of the way for officers carrying guns, followed by officers with less-lethal weapons. The reason for this is to ensure that the first officers can respond with deadly force if they are faced with deadly force, he said.

Officer Rocky Harpham was the first man to enter the apartment, carrying a 12-gauge shotgun. Harpham testified that he moved in and saw Moore in the room with her back to him, and the weapon -- the flare gun -- sitting on a table or shelf. He yelled for her to put her hands up, he said. Moore turned around with a look of shock on her face, he testified.

”She picked up the weapon and she started to bring it up to where she could point it at the direction of myself and the rest of the team and when she started to bring the weapon across towards me that is -- or towards where I was at, that is when I began firing,” Harpham testified.

Harpham said that he believed Moore would shoot him and that he had no other option but to shoot.

Harpham and officers Mike Johnson, Rodrigo Sanchez, Tim Jones and Terry Liles were the officers who initially entered Moore's apartment. None of them were indicted by the grand jury, and testified under protection of immunity in the proceedings.

Wilcox also answered Gallegos about the threat of fire to the building. If the threat of fire was so grave, Gallegos asked, why was the SWAT command center set up in the same building? Wilcox answered that it was probably lack of foresight.

Gallegos repeatedly questioned officers and police negotiators about their attempts to contact Moore. Moore had music blaring in the apartment much of the time, and law enforcement repeatedly tried to get her to answer the phone and hold a conversation.

Officers testified that they held a discussion about whether to cut power to the apartment, but decided against it, since it was believed her phone was cordless and required electricity. Gallegos also asked whether commanders considered using a “throw phone” -- a special phone provided to a suspect during negotiations -- or the PA systems on police vehicles to communicate.

County Health and Human Services Director Phil Crandall testified that police never asked for assistance with the situation, but also said there was no mechanism in place to get mental health workers to the scene.

While the building was largely evacuated that day, one neighbor of Moore's was believed to be too sick to be taken out, and remained inside with two female caretakers during the incident. Another witness, neighbor Jeffrey John Hemsted, testified that he was never asked to leave by police, or told there was a threat of fire.

Eureka Fire Capt. Patrick Joseph Lynch told the grand jury that a fire crew had staged a block and a half away, and had been told there was a possibility that a gas line had been broken in the apartment, which could have had dire consequences if Moore had discharged the flare gun.

John Driscoll can be reached at 441-0504 or jdriscoll@times-standard.com.