About six months after Hun Chu Saelee obtained a concealed carry weapon permit from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department in 2012, he reached into the trunk of his car during an argument outside a San Francisco Halloween party, pulled out a .45-caliber handgun and shot a stranger in the head, leaving him in a coma, according to police.
Saelee is one of roughly 8,000 Sacramento County residents who have been issued concealed carry permits since Sheriff Scott Jones took office in 2011. He is one of at least 78 people with Jones-issued permits who have been arrested in subsequent years and had their permits revoked, according to a Sacramento Bee review of Sheriff’s Department data, revocation letters and court records.
As of February of this year, Jones had revoked more than 150 permits for a variety of reasons, including arrests and other contact with law enforcement that didn’t lead to arrest, such as making threats or misusing a weapon.
That’s more than any other law enforcement agency in California, according to data from the state Department of Justice. In 2015, Jones’ office had a higher rate of permit revocations than any of the other 25 counties with the most active permits that year.
Of the 78 people who had their permits revoked following an arrest since 2011, the vast majority were charged with misdemeanors, largely drunken driving. Eight people were arrested on charges of domestic violence or child endangerment, and two were accused of impersonating a police officer.
Fourteen of those whose permits were revoked were charged with felonies, including some, like Saelee, for crimes involving firearms. Saelee is awaiting trial on charges of attempted homicide. Another permit holder was accused of peddling automatic weapons and poison over the internet. Another was charged with criminal conspiracy to import high-capacity magazines into California.
Each had taken advantage of an unprecedented wave of permits issued after Jones was elected.
About one out of every 135 adults in Sacramento County now has a license to carry, the result of granting new permits at an average rate of more than four per day during the last five years, according to data provided by the Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Justice.
California law gives county sheriffs broad discretion to issue concealed weapons permits, known as CCWs, so long as applicants show “good cause” and demonstrate “good moral character.” Before Jones took office, the Sheriff’s Department tightly controlled the number of permits it issued, typically allowing them only in cases where individuals could show they faced a particular threat, carried large amounts of cash or valuables, or worked in law enforcement.
Jones has been blunt about his approach to CCW applications: The people who go to the trouble of filling out a detailed application and submitting to background checks, he said, tend to be those with legal intentions and nothing to hide.
Jones made a point, when first running for sheriff, of saying he planned to issue permits more liberally if elected. As a result of his policies, Sacramento County had the third-highest number of concealed carry permit holders in California at the end of 2015, behind Fresno and Orange counties.
Jones, a Republican, is now running for Congress, challenging Democratic Rep. Ami Bera to represent a swing district that takes in much of suburban Sacramento County, including the cities of Elk Grove and Folsom. He has touted his efforts to arm law-abiding citizens who are willing to undergo education and training, saying it helps give people a sense of control over their own safety.
Until recently, Jones denied that any of the revocations he had ordered involved gun-related incidents.
“I have revoked many (permits),” Jones told The Bee’s Capitol Bureau early this year. “None of them have been due to gun-related or CCW-related conduct ... I’m unaware, and I would be aware, presumably, of any gun-related incidents for a concealed weapon holder.”
Jones declined an interview request for this story, but in a written statement, he said that he did not know until recently about Saelee’s case, which was first reported by Sacramento journalist and blogger Joe Rubin. He blamed a clerical error by his office and noted that Saelee quickly had his permit revoked.
Asked about other arrests of permit holders involving firearms, Jones said they were not “CCW-related.”
Jones said he recently stopped telling constituents that he has never revoked a permit for misuse of firearms. He defended his policy of giving out permits at a rapid pace, noting that only a fraction of permit holders have had their permits revoked. The Bee’s analysis found that as a group, Sacramento County concealed carry permit holders were arrested at a far lower rate during the last several years than the general population.
“The small number of revocations we have on average demonstrate two things,” he said. “First, that we take appropriate action to revoke the permit when warranted and second, the vast majority of permits issued are to responsible citizens who want nothing more than to protect themselves and their families, and treat the permit responsibly.”
Robert Cartwright, a lawyer for Ben Pessah – the man Saelee is accused of shooting – said the sheer number of permits Jones has issued shows a lack of appropriate scrutiny.
Pessah, he said, still suffers serious, lingering complications from being shot in the head. His alleged attacker, Cartwright said, “had a concealed carry permit from a county that just sort of willy-nilly issues them to whoever applies.”
A life changed forever
The party where Pessah was shot took place near Fort Mason on a crisp San Francisco night in October 2012. It was billed as “A True Blood Halloween 3,” featuring several musical artists, a laser show, LED panels and “3-D mapping” designed to turn the stage into a “Vampire Haunted Mansion,” promoters said at the time. Alcohol was plentiful.
Hundreds of people attended the event, including Pessah, then 21, several of his friends, and his girlfriend. Saelee, then 30, was there, too, with a .45 caliber handgun sitting in the trunk of his car, police said.
A few months earlier, Saelee had obtained a concealed carry permit from Jones’ office. He felt he needed a permit because he had been the victim of a shooting, said his attorney, San Francisco Deputy Public Defender Vilaska Nguyen. Nguyen said he did not have more information about the incident, including where it took place, but that it left his client with post-traumatic stress disorder.
As Pessah and his friends left the Halloween party after midnight, Saelee approached them and “improperly touched” Pessah’s girlfriend, according to police.
“He grabbed the breast of our client’s friend, which prompted a rebuke from our client,” said Jack Bollier, another of Pessah’s attorneys. The rebuke “wasn’t anything more than, ‘Hey, man, keep your hands to yourself.’ The shooter just went overboard at that point: Said, ‘I’ll kill all of you.’ ”
Saelee tells it differently. “He was followed by a group of people,” said Nguyen. “They did make racial slurs – they threatened him and followed him ... He felt threatened and he reacted.”
All sides had been drinking. You throw in a legally possessed gun, and this is what happened.
Stuart Hanlon, former defense attorney for Hun Chu Saelee
Saelee returned to the trunk of his car, an Acura that court records say was owned by Judiana Lau, who was arrested along with Saelee. He pulled a gun out of the trunk and began shooting, hitting Pessah, police said.
Stuart Hanlon, who until recently was Saelee’s lawyer, said Saelee would not have carried the gun in his car if he did not have a concealed carry permit. He said that Saelee had “never been in trouble in his life. All sides had been drinking. You throw in a legally possessed gun, and this is what happened.”
If Saelee did not have a concealed carry permit, “it may have been a fistfight,” Hanlon said.
After shooting Pessah in the head, Saelee fled the scene with Lau, police said. The two were arrested in San Leandro later the same day.
Pessah was in a coma for a month.
“My life changed forever,” Pessah wrote recently on his personal blog. He said he was put into a coma “by the doctors because they didn’t want me to feel the pain I would have gone through.”
Pessah declined an interview request. Cartwright, his attorney, said he has made significant progress in recent years, but still struggles. “They have put plates into his head and reshaped his head,” Cartwright said. “He is not the same person that he was. The exact extent of that or how severe has not yet been fully ascertained.”
Saelee has pleaded not guilty to attempted homicide and remains in a San Francisco jail awaiting trial next month.
‘I wish I could carry’
About a year after Pessah was shot, Jones’ office issued a concealed carry permit to James C. Malcolm of Carmichael, who ran a small business installing home entertainment systems.
Malcolm was fascinated by weapons and often talked about them on his Facebook page, according to his lawyer, Ben Galloway, assistant federal defender in the Eastern District of California. In mid-2012, Malcolm posted a video in which he boasted about modifying a gun so it is “as close to an AA12 as one can get.” An AA12, or Atchisson Assault Shotgun, is an automatic weapon. Private citizens generally cannot legally own automatic weapons in California.
The gun, Malcolm said on the video, was equipped with a 20-round drum magazine. Standing in a field, he raised the gun to his shoulder and fired all 20 rounds in four seconds. That is roughly equivalent to the standard firing rate of a fully automatic AA12 shotgun. He turned to the camera and shouted, “zombie mother------ killer!”
In the comments below the video, he wrote, “Crappy cali just took our open carry away, dumb a** jerry brown. I have a XD45, Glock 23, and sig mosquito. i wish i could carry. I am working on getting my concealed.”
The video is public on his page, available for anyone to see, including law enforcement considering giving him a concealed carry permit.
He got a permit a year after the video was posted.
Around that time, Malcolm’s life deteriorated. His business wasn’t bringing in much money, said Galloway. He sought bankruptcy protection. He discovered his Carmichael home had fire damage that he didn’t know about when he bought it. He needed money to repair the damage or county inspectors would force him to leave.
So, after seeing a “Breaking Bad” episode involving the toxin ricin, Malcolm decided to manufacture and sell poison, illegal weapons and explosives, according to documents filed in his federal court case.
In 2013, using the alias “Dark_Mart,” Malcolm visited a black market website and said he was willing to sell abrin, a potent poison that can cause organ failure within three days, court records show. He was contacted by potential buyers in San Francisco and New York. They said the purpose of obtaining the drug was “to provide a lethal dose to a third party,” according to case documents.
Malcolm, 29 at the time, shipped a “rudimentary form of abrin” to the buyers, the documents show. His lawyers said he sent nonlethal amounts of crushed rosary peas, containing trace amounts of abrin, hoping to make money but not kill anyone.
In 2014, Malcolm tried to sell explosives, several fully automatic AR-15 assault rifles and auto sears that would convert normal guns to fully automatic to a buyer later identified as a law enforcement informant, court records show. The informant put him in touch with undercover federal agents. He sold the agents 10 auto sears, four “AR-15-style” machine guns lacking serial numbers and 1.5 pounds of improvised “C-4-like” explosives.
Malcolm agreed to sell more weapons and explosives to the agents, including 10 pounds of “C-4-like” explosives, according to a law enforcement affidavit. The federal agents told him that the explosives would be used to protect a marijuana growing operation in Northern California and that they were passing on the guns to drug dealers in Mexico.
ATF agents arrested Malcolm in 2014. Under a plea agreement, he was convicted of possession of a biological agent, toxin and delivery system; unlawful dealing in firearms; and unlawful possession and transfer of a machine gun. He is serving five years in federal prison.
An anonymous letter
James C. Ryan of Orangevale received his permit from Jones’ office in late 2011. The following year he was enrolled as a cadet in the California Highway Patrol Academy. He was an excellent student, at the top of his class, according to court documents filed in Sacramento Superior Court.
In November 2012, law enforcement officials received an anonymous letter, saying he was a danger to himself and others, according to court records in the case. The letter said Ryan owned automatic weapons and body armor, and that his goal was to “take as many human lives in one day as possible.” It also said Ryan watched videos of people being killed and enjoyed killing small animals.
CHP officers interviewed Ryan, who was 30 at the time. He “admitted owning an AK-47, owning and building AR-15s, being curious about and improvising with explosives and making ammunition and silencers,” according to court records. Ryan “also admitted killing small animals ... drug and alcohol abuse and said he is always armed with a Glock handgun,” according to a filing by Deputy District Attorney Nora Hall.
Law enforcement authorities searched Ryan’s home in early 2013 and found about 60 high-capacity magazines designed for AK-47 and AR-15 rifles, court records show. CHP officers also found at least 11 pistols, three complete AR-15 rifles, one AR-15 under construction, several bolt action rifles, an AK-47 rifle and thousands of rounds of ammunition, including ammunition designed for assault rifles.
Ryan was arrested and charged with two felony counts related to importing high-capacity magazines into California. His CCW permit was revoked and he left the CHP Academy, records show.
Linda Parisi, an attorney at the firm that defended Ryan, said in an interview that the letter that initiated the law enforcement probe came from a spurned lover who wanted to ruin Ryan’s life. “Her claims were pretty outrageous,” Parisi said.
Parisi said Ryan legally owned the weapons that were confiscated. She also said he denies the contents of the letter and making the statements cited by Hall.
Prosecutors ultimately dropped one felony count and Ryan was convicted on a reduced misdemeanor charge of importing a large capacity magazine, court records show. That conviction was dismissed in 2014 upon request by Ryan due to good behavior, court records show.
A manic episode
Elk Grove resident Stuart J. Herrera also drew law enforcement attention when, in late 2015, an incident at a Sacramento hotel led them to believe he was dangerous.
Herrera, 29 at the time, was staying at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento overlooking the state Capitol on Nov. 30, according to civil records filed in Sacramento Superior Court. Housekeeping staff at the hotel had noticed several hundred rounds of ammunition in Herrera’s room, along with gun holsters and night sights for guns. The hotel notified police.
A Sacramento police officer went to Herrera’s house and spoke with his father, Jaime, who gave the following account, according to the officer’s court affidavit: The father said his son had been badly injured in a car accident two years prior. He grew depressed after the accident, and was prescribed an antidepressant, but had a bad reaction to the medicine. He subsequently “lost all impulse control” and started to have “unreasonable, illogical, and impossible ideas.”
Another officer interviewed Stuart Herrera outside of the Hyatt. According to that officer’s testimony, Herrera said he had purchased several guns in the past year, and that he was dependent on, but not addicted to, prescription painkillers.
Herrera “expressed animosity toward the government and is disappointed on how they conduct and handle their business and inquired about how he should voice his opinion to the government,” the officer said. “Herrera went on to say how accurate his Russian-made 7.62X54R caliber rifle is and that he can shoot it at 200 yards accurately, placing rounds within a 3-inch grouping.”
Police searched Herrera’s car and found, locked inside, “a loaded high-capacity, 15 round, 9mm magazine for a Glock (handgun)” along with two handguns and the Russian-made rifle. The guns were unloaded.
Herrera was never arrested or criminally charged. The officers filed paperwork to have him committed for mental evaluation. Authorities later filed a civil case to have his weapons destroyed.
In an interview with The Bee, Herrera said he had sought a concealed carry permit from Jones’ office in mid-2014 because he was disabled and “couldn’t defend myself.” He went through two law enforcement interviews and extensive training, he said, before obtaining the permit. He did not know he was suffering from bipolar disorder until the incident at the Hyatt, he said, so it did not come up during the interviews.
That day at the hotel, Herrera said, he was having a manic episode and wanted to get out of his house. He brought along his weapons, he said, because he also wanted to go to the shooting range. He said he should not have brought ammunition into the hotel, but that he was not thinking clearly at the time and said that also explained his comments to police about the government and his shooting ability.
Herrera obtained mental health treatment following the incident. He has maintained a clean criminal record, Sacramento County court records show.
“It’s something that haunts me – the incident itself,” he said. “It’s a life-changing moment. That’s when I was diagnosed with bipolar. I went from being independent, seemingly OK to literally being mentally ill.”
Herrera said his actions should not be seen as evidence that fewer people should have concealed carry permits. “The actions of a few don’t necessarily – 99 percent of CCW holders don’t have an incident like this,” he said.
Do outliers matter?
To get a permit for concealed carry in Sacramento County, applicants must fill out a 13-page form that includes questions about criminal and mental health history. They are required to have a brief interview with a deputy sheriff, and to undergo a state criminal background check. They also complete a 16-hour training course on firearms safety and qualify on a gun range.
Jones noted in his written statement to The Bee that the decisions about approval and revocation of concealed permits are made by a committee.
“The decisions we make when issuing a CCW are based on a wide range of information that is available to us at that time, and decisions are made from applicants’ past conduct,” he said.
Jones emphasized that people like Saelee and the others arrested are the exception.
Do such outliers matter?
The answer largely hinges on whether having a large number of concealed carry permits yields more benefit than harm, several experts said. Academic studies are not uniform on the issue.
John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and author of numerous studies looking at the impact of firearm laws, said his research indicates that crime drops when concealed carry rates rise. Criminals, he said, are less likely to brandish a weapon if they believe that someone nearby may be able to shoot them.
“Those places that issue the most permits have the biggest drops in violent crime,” Lott said.
Given that, he said, the costs of an occasional outlier do not outweigh the benefits of allowing more people to carry concealed guns.
“You’ve got to look at the net effect of things,” said Lott, who recently published the book “The War on Guns: Arming Yourself Against Gun Control Lies.” “It’s going to be pretty hard to find any other group in the population that seems to be as law abiding.”
Other studies have come to different conclusions.
Stanford law professor John Donohue published research in 2014 concluding that an increase in concealed carry permits causes an increase in crime. His paper argued that right-to-carry laws boost aggravated assaults, for instance, by an estimated 8 percent.
In an interview, Donahue said that those carrying concealed weapons sometimes escalate situations that otherwise would have been resolved without gunfire. He said if a criminal thinks a person is about to reach for a gun, it can be more likely that the criminal will panic and shoot.
A comprehensive 2004 study by the National Research Council, a private nonprofit institute that is among the most respected scientific bodies in America, said there simply is not enough data to resolve the issue. “There is no credible evidence that ‘right-to-carry’ laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime,” the council wrote.
In Sacramento, the debate continues, as applications for more permits pour into the Sheriff’s Department. In a one-month snapshot earlier this year, the department had almost 600 permit interviews scheduled – about 30 appointments per business day, many spaced just 10 minutes apart, department records show.
“Since human beings are involved, we cannot with certainty know what their actions will be in the future,” Jones said in his statement, “but can only respond appropriately when misconduct is thereafter committed.”