Family grieves, waits for answers in police shooting of Lodi war vet

03/23/2014 12:00 AM

08/07/2014 6:13 AM

On an unusually warm Saturday morning in late January, on a street of tended yards and rippling American flags, Jenny Weise was sipping her first cup of coffee in her upstairs bedroom and perusing her Facebook page.

Across the street, Lina Sanchez was in the kitchen, baking cookies for a baby shower.

Residents of Elderica Way in Lodi, about 40 miles south of Sacramento, opened curtains and blinds to the winter sunlight. Dogs trotted on leashes alongside their owners. A group practiced yoga and Pilates in a nearby park.

And the family of a mentally ill Gulf War veteran in the midst of a PTSD episode waited anxiously for police to bring him safely home.

Then, just after 9 a.m., the crack of gunshots echoed through the neighborhood. On Elderica Way, just seven houses from his mother’s home, U.S. Army veteran Parminder Singh Shergill fell to the curb, limp and bleeding, and two uniformed officers hovered over him.

During the next few minutes, Shergill’s neighbors were swept into a drama so startling they could hardly believe it was real. They remember seeing Shergill’s brother Sarabjit, running to the scene, his face blank with shock and confusion. Police yelled to him to stay away, neighbors said, so he walked back home to their mother. “They shot Parm!” Sukhwinder Kaur remembers her son telling her before she collapsed onto a chair in heaving sobs.

It would be hours until the family could confirm that Shergill, a softspoken Sikh who had earned commendations for his military duty more than 20 years before, was dead.

Nearly two months later, Shergill’s family has not been provided the autopsy results or other investigative information that might help explain the circumstances surrounding the shooting. Lodi police officials maintain the two officers had no choice but to kill Shergill because he charged them with a knife. Family members challenge that account, based in part on what neighbors have said they saw that morning.

As Shergill’s relatives try to piece together what happened, they are left with more questions than answers. Why did police use deadly force, rather than subdue him with a Taser or pepper spray? How many shots did officers fire, and from how far away? Did the weapon that police say Shergill carried that day, which a police spokesman has described as a “folding knife,” represent a lethal threat to armed officers?

Police have declined to provide detailed answers pending completion of an investigation involving multiple agencies. That could take as long as a year, said Lodi Police Department spokesman Lt. Sierra Brucia.

Shergill, 43, was known to the department, relatives said, and officers had, at least four times in the past, helped him through his anxious struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder without using physical force.

“This time, we asked for the police’s help and they killed him,” Shergill’s sister Kulbinder Sohota said during a recent interview, tears spilling over.

“It just doesn’t make sense.”

A familiar routine

For years, Parminder Singh Shergill had the same morning routine. He typically rose before the sun, sipped a cup of tea or a bottle of root beer, and began walking.

The walks helped quell the mental anguish that family members said began to torment him after his honorable discharge from the Army in 1996.

For more than a decade, Shergill had been disabled by insomnia, depression and searing recollections of war, according to his relatives. When his demons got the best of him, they said, he would walk, sometimes logging 4 or 5 miles at a time.

On the tidy street where he lived with his mother and brother, Shergill, tall and burly, was a familiar sight in the early morning, strolling and smoking cigarettes as neighbors emerged from their homes to go to work or take children to school.

Gina Mendes has lived across the street from Shergill’s family for seven years, and would exchange smiles and pleasantries with Parminder as he passed by. They never got into deep discussions, she said, “but he would always wave, ask how we were.”

“He was very kind and very friendly,” she said. “I never saw or heard him do anything threatening.”

Other neighbors recalled his polite inquiries about their back problems, their cars, their grandchildren. Shergill never talked about his time in the Army, they said, and they saw no obvious symptoms of mental illness.

A member of a Sikh family with established roots in Northern California, Shergill joined the Army after graduating from Lodi High School. His service took him to Germany, and then Iraq, where he was part of a unit that delivered provisions to soldiers on the front lines of the Gulf War. After he returned, family members said, his mental health seemed to slowly break down.

After his discharge in 1996, Shergill returned to San Joaquin County. He took college courses in biochemistry and electrical engineering and held various jobs, including as a security guard and supervisor for a food production firm. But he struggled emotionally, becoming alternately depressed and extremely anxious, family members said.

“His demeanor changed over a period of time,” his sister said. “He would talk to himself. He would mention things that had happened in the Army. It was like he was out there again, in the moment.”

In the late 1990s, Shergill was diagnosed with bipolar and schizophrenic disorders, according to his medical records. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2002, when the condition was becoming more understood, relatives said.

Shergill sought treatment through the Veterans Administration, his family said, but disliked taking the medications prescribed, complaining they made him sleep and clouded his mind. In recent years, he had grown more reflective. He used his walks to pray and meditate, they said, and by the time he returned, he usually felt better.

But not always. Last October family members recounted a particularly rough stretch. For three days and nights, Shergill “was up, pacing back and forth and talking,” his brother said.

“He was talking like he was in Iraq,” recalled his sister, Sohota, “saying things like ‘I’m on this side. Sergeant, you’re on that side.’ ”

The siblings said they could not persuade him to go to the VA hospital for treatment. So they phoned Lodi police, as they had several times in the past, they said, and asked officers to deliver “Parm” to a mental health clinic or hospital.

Over the three days, officers dropped by the house “three or four times” to help defuse the situation, said Sohota. Finally, she said, with the encouragement of officers and county mental health workers, Shergill agreed to go to the hospital.

Three months later, on Jan. 25, the family requested the department’s help again.

“They knew about his background,” Sohota said. “They knew about the PTSD. They knew he was not violent, and was very respectful. So we were very comfortable calling the police.”

Messing with bombs

The men who served with Pfc. Parminder Singh Shergill during the Persian Gulf War recall the rough desert terrain they navigated in armored vehicles, never far from threat of death. They were on high alert for land mines that could reduce a vehicle to rubble, cluster bombs capable of blowing a man to fragments, the potential for ambush.

“It was a lot of stress, a very dangerous situation,” said Sammy L. Granderson, who served with Shergill in 1991 in the Army’s 3rd Armored Division, delivering food, ammunition and other provisions to the front lines.

During that brief, intense conflict, fellow soldiers got to know the young man they called Singh as quiet, determined and proud, betraying no fear when piloting trucks into the heart of the fight.

Granderson and others from his unit interviewed cannot recall whether Singh saw the soldier whose body was obliterated by a bomb one ugly day, or witnessed other bloody casualties. But he certainly had to live with their aftermath, said William Sills, Shergill’s first sergeant during the conflict.

“We had a memorial service out in the desert, and we went into graphic detail about what happened to the man we lost,” Sills said. “The whole company was there, and we were very clear about what happens when you mess with a cluster bomb.”

Sills also served two tours in Vietnam. Like Shergill, he had trouble readjusting to civilian life. He suffered from insomnia, and while he was awake, lived in a state of heightened alert. He would explode in irrational rages, he said, and his relationships suffered.

“Nobody can get close to you, because they can’t really understand what you’re going through,” said Sills. “It took me more than 20 years to deal with it.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder can linger for years, said John Benesek, a psychologist who directs the PTSD program at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Virginia: “They tell themselves, ‘I’m OK. I’m doing fine.’ Then, years and years later, all of the stuff they repressed really begins to surface.”

For Vietnam and Gulf War veterans in particular, he said, images of ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan can trigger flashbacks, nightmares, depression and outbursts of anger and fear. Other triggers, he said, can include sudden movement, loud noises and unruly crowds.

As part of his work with the VA, Benesek helps train police departments in techniques for handling people with PTSD. The sessions stress “slowing down” the situation and slow, measured voices and movements.

Officers “should avoid drawing weapons if at all possible” when responding to an incident involving a veteran they believe may suffer from PTSD, said Benesek. “Don’t get up behind him. Be calm and straightforward. Introduce yourself, and tell him you can get him help at the VA hospital.”

But police also are trained to protect themselves and the public above all else, he said.

“If they truly believe they are in danger,” Benesek said, “then they have to do what they have to do.”

The slow pursuit

On the last morning of his life, Parminder Singh Shergill woke at around 4, anxious and restless, according to his mother. He dressed in a blue and white shirt, sweat pants and a beanie, and refused a cup of tea. Obviously upset, he disappeared into the darkness.

“He was having one of his episodes. Walking back and forth. Having some kind of trauma in his mind. I didn’t pay much attention to what he was saying,” said his brother Sarabjit.

Their mother, who speaks little English, asked her daughter-in-law Kuldeep Shergill to call police. “I told them he was having an episode and we needed to calm him down,” Kuldeep said. “I asked the police to pick him up and take him to the VA.”

The dispatcher, she said, noted that police had visited the home in October for similar reasons. “She told me she would send an officer,” Kuldeep said. She said the dispatcher asked whether Shergill was violent or carrying a weapon, and that she answered “No.”

Two veteran officers, Scott Bratton and Adam Lockie, appeared at the door a short time later, family members said. Shergill’s sister said the officers told the family that, because he was not threatening to harm himself or anyone else, they could not detain him. But they said they would try to find and talk to him.

It was about 10 minutes before 9 a.m. when they left, the sister said.

At about that time, Katia Gaytan was doing pushups, planks and Pilates with about a dozen others at Peterson Park on Evergreen Way near Elderica. The morning was clear, she recalled in a recent interview, and so warm that she shed her light jacket.

Across the street from her exercise class, she said, she saw a Lodi Police Department SUV pull up behind a man walking slowly down the sidewalk. She said an officer got out and began talking to the man, who did not appear to respond.

Gaytan said she stopped exercising and watched the encounter. She said she saw no weapons displayed, either by the man or the officer who followed close behind. A second police SUV arrived, she said, and another officer joined in the slow pursuit toward Elderica Way, with no more than 10 feet separating the cops from the man they followed.

As the man turned the corner, where Elderica curves and then straightens, Gaytan said, she saw one of the officers reach toward his weapons belt. Then the group disappeared from view.

As they rounded the curve, Jenny Weise was surfing her Facebook feed. She remembers hearing loud voices in the street and thinking they belonged to neighborhood teens returning from a Friday night on the town. Then came the firecracker pops of gunfire. She said she ran to the window and saw a man lying in the street across from her house, and two officers standing over him.

Lina Sanchez’s husband, Santiago, was walking their dog a couple of blocks away when he heard the sharp cracks. He said he quickly headed home to his wife.

By then, Lina said, she had stopped cooking and stepped outside. Two doors down, she saw Shergill on his side, his body straddling the sidewalk and gutter. Sanchez said she grabbed binoculars and cowered behind her car in the driveway. She said she watched as officers jostled Shergill, patting his clothing and searching his pockets. She saw a wallet and other items she could not identify scattered on the sidewalk.

Moments later, she said, Sarabjit was running down the street. “That’s my brother!” he screamed. “Oh my God,” Lina Sanchez recalled telling Sarabjit. “I think they shot him.”

Soon, the street was clogged with emergency vehicles, officers and paramedics. Yellow tape circled the area. The residents of Elderica Way watched as the first responders ripped Shergill’s clothes from his body and pounded his chest. After a time, they loaded his bloodied body into an ambulance, and sirens off, pulled away.

‘Shots through my heart’

As of last week, the Lodi Police Department had released scant information about the events that led to Parminder Singh Shergill’s death. The department and other agencies, including the city attorney’s office and the coroner, have so far declined to provide autopsy information, witness interviews or a record of 911 calls made from Shergill’s home to police.

Brucia, the police spokesman, cited the ongoing investigation involving various public agencies, and said releasing additional information before its completion would compromise the probe.

In a recent letter to state Assemblyman Richard Pan, Police Chief Mark Helms said he shares community concerns about Shergill’s death, but “I’m also mindful of its effect on the involved officers,” who have served “with honor and dedication.” Both officers returned to work within a week of the shooting.

Once the probe is complete, the letter said, the results will be forwarded to District Attorney James Willett to determine “which, if any, criminal acts occurred.”

Eleven members of Shergill’s family, from his mother to his young nephews, gathered on a recent day at Kaur’s home and begged for answers. They said they no longer trust the police, and worry Parminder’s death will be forgotten and in vain.

“We just want the truth,” said Sohota.

The family is pursuing a lawsuit against the police and the city of Lodi, and hired Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin. The lack of information, Merin said, “suggests an attempt to conceal the truth.”

“We want to know if the officers who contacted Parminder on the day of his death were aware of his mental health status and if not, why not?” Merin said. “If they were aware of his condition, why did they not demonstrate skills in dealing with a mentally ill person? Were they not properly trained?”

Last month, Shergill was put to rest with full military honors. Before his memorial service, his brother bathed his body according to Sikh tradition. He said he counted 14 bullet holes.

“I cannot sleep at night,” Shergill’s sister said. “Why would they shoot him 14 times?

“It is like 14 shots going through my own heart.”

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