Parents of Hunter Todd question police account of their son's fatal shooting
Hunter Todd survived heart surgery and five other operations by the time he was 5, then clawed his way to a world-class ranking as a trail runner and accomplished athlete in his teens.
Less than two months after he turned 20, his life ended in the predawn darkness of a Citrus Heights cul-de-sac. A city police officer fired at least six rounds into his body while responding to a report of a possible car burglary.
“He’s all I had,” Todd’s father, Terry Todd, 55, said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee last month as he choked back tears. “All I had.”
Despite public records requests, a federal civil rights lawsuit and an attempt by the Todd family lawyer to have the FBI investigate, it’s still not clear what happened at 2 a.m. on Jan. 3, 2013.
Officer Ryan Smith, with 13 months on the police force, said in a deposition during the lawsuit that he shot Todd in the back as the 135-pound young man lunged face-first into his pickup truck to get a gun.
But no gun was ever found – his parents say he never owned one – and an autopsy would later show the bullets entered Todd’s chest, neck and an arm, not his back.
Terry Todd and his ex-wife, Devra Selenis, Hunter Todd’s mother, sued. They agreed 10 months ago to drop their civil case in return for a $2 million payment from Citrus Heights, one of the region’s largest settlements ever in a case stemming from a wrongful death claim against a law enforcement officer.
The agreement refers to the settlement as a “good faith compromise of a disputed claim” and states that it is “not to be construed as an admission of liability on the part of any party.”
The incident received little public notice at the time, and the settlement was quietly reached. The city included a provision saying that “because of the sensitivities of this case,” those involved are not to contact the media or any other entity.
The settlement said the parties could not comment on the shooting beyond a three-paragraph public statement that noted Todd “did not have a criminal history, was not a gang member and was not armed during his brief contact with Officer Smith.”
The agreement also precluded the parties from “posting .. any comments on social media about this case.”
But according to California law, a settlement paid with public money is public. When The Bee requested the settlement, the City of Citrus Heights provided it under the California Public Records Act.
Todd’s parents said they settled their civil lawsuit because they felt they had pushed the case as far as they could. “We wanted them to be uncomfortable with the end result,” Selenis said of Citrus Heights. “We just wanted to find out the truth, and the truth is unless you file suit you don’t get any information. You really don’t.”
The parents said the city pressed for a provision in the settlement agreement that would have prevented them from pursuing a criminal prosecution of the officer. “They didn’t want us to contact any prosecutorial agencies to pursue this, and we had them take that out,” Terry Todd said.
Todd’s parents and their attorney took the matter to the FBI last fall seeking a criminal investigation into the fatal shooting.
“We’d like to follow it as far as we can until they tell us we can’t go any farther,” Selenis said. “If there’s a jury to decide the officer needs to be charged with a crime, if they tell us no, then it’s as far as we can go. We’ve done everything we can as Hunter’s parents to try and get justice for him.”
What, if anything, the FBI intends to do remains secret. Federal prosecutors and the FBI refused to discuss the matter with The Bee.
No DA review
Smith is still a Citrus Heights police officer. He is assigned to the San Juan Unified School District as a safety/school resource officer at two high schools, where he has received commendations for his work in child abuse investigations and his work with students. He serves on the board of the Citrus Heights Police Athletic League and was honored in 2014 and 2015 with awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Smith did not respond to a request for an interview that The Bee made through the Police Department.
Asked by The Bee for a copy of the police report on the shooting, the department released just two of the 11 pages of the original report and no reports on the subsequent inquiry. The department provided a two-page letter to The Bee stating that it “conducted a comprehensive investigation into the facts in 2013” that cleared Smith.
That investigation was conducted during a period when then-District Attorney Jan Scully’s office was not conducting reviews of officer-involved shootings because of budget cuts.
“Due to this protocol, the Citrus Heights Police Department investigation was not submitted to the District Attorney for review,” the police said in the statement to The Bee.
By 2015, newly elected District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert had resumed reviewing officer-involved shootings. The Citrus Heights Police Department conducted another review of the case itself, using officers not involved in the first probe, and then submitted the findings to her office.
The goal, the Police Department said, was to obtain vetting “by an independent third party to maintain transparency and public trust.”
The District Attorney’s Office declined to review the case because so much time had elapsed since the shooting and its investigators were not originally involved.
“We want to maintain a public trust in our review process,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi said. “Reviewing an officer-involved shooting two and a half years after the incident and not having been involved at the outset would not serve that objective.”
Since his death, Todd’s parents have tried to keep their only son’s memory alive with a memorial 5K run and a donation to Sutter General Hospital’s pediatric center. Todd was his father’s only child. Selenis, who is remarried, has a teenage daughter and a stepdaughter.
At first, believing the settlement agreement was confidential, Selenis said she was afraid to talk to The Bee about the case. But she and her ex-husband opened up after receiving assurances from their lawyer that the settlement agreement is a public document.
How this tragedy played out is still difficult for Todd’s parents to comprehend. They both have successful careers – his in real estate, hers in marketing – and felt blessed that their son had overcome a congenital heart defect.
Photos of Todd as a teen show a trim, curly-haired boy running the trails near Beal’s Point in Granite Bay. Some of the pictures were taken for a 2008 Sacramento Bee feature about his accomplishments.
He participated in kayak racing and trail running, placing third at a 13-mile, high-level competition in Hawaii as a high school sophomore. He won numerous medals and banners, which his father spread out on Selenis’ dining room table as he and his ex-wife talked about their son’s brief life and violent death.
Todd became interested in body building and bulked up to 170 pounds at one point. He graduated from Roseville’s Oakmont High School in 2011, but struggled to find his way after that.
He enrolled at Sierra College, his parents said, but showed little interest in pursuing his education.
He dreamed of becoming a firefighter or joining the military.
“He took the test for the Marines and Air Force, and he did quite well,” said Selenis, 50. “But the problem is, he had a pre-existing condition.
“And when he couldn’t go to that next level, I think it destroyed him.”
A year or so before his life ended abruptly on Debbie Ann Court in the middle of the night, Hunter Todd drifted into drug use and had minor scrapes with the law, his father said. A toxicology report says he had methamphetamine in his system when he died.
Terry Todd said his son was stopped by police a couple of times, once for possessing burglary tools, once for loitering when his pickup truck ran out of gas. He had no criminal record, however.
His parents hoped they could get him into rehab. But at some point, he ended up hanging out with an older man with a history of minor property crimes.
That man, Richard Martin Duran Jr., was 36 at the time. Todd at times parked his truck outside Duran’s Citrus Heights residence and slept in it, Todd’s parents said.
On Jan. 3, 2013, the pair made their way in that truck to Debbie Ann Court, a quiet cul de sac of eight homes with one street light at the entrance and another at the rear of the circle.
They were apparently scouting for vehicles to burglarize, and a suspicious resident called the police.
No gun found
Smith gave his version of what happened during a 100-minute sworn deposition on Oct. 2, 2014, under questioning by Federico Sayre, the attorney for Todd’s parents.
The officer, who became a full-time employee of the department in November 2011, began his 12 1/2 -hour shift at 6 p.m. on Jan. 2. He was well into his patrol when a call came at 2 a.m. about two suspected burglars in the cul de sac off Old Auburn Road.
Smith testified he got the call while on patrol near Auburn Boulevard and Antelope Road, drove to the scene in about five minutes, pulled into the court and spotted a dark, full-sized pickup truck.
He put his spotlight on the truck and saw movement inside.
“I saw the subject’s head rise up from behind the steering wheel and look in my direction,” Smith said in the deposition. He added that the man “had a smirk, or somewhat of a smile on his face.”
“I remember raising my voice to try to ensure that the person could hear me from that distance and being inside a vehicle and saying, ‘Police, show me your hands,’ ” Smith said.
Smith said the man raised his hands palms out, but dropped one hand below the dash twice before obeying his commands to exit the truck. Todd left the truck cab and kept his hands in the air, Smith said.
“Did his hands hold any weapons?” Sayre asked.
“Not that I could see, no,” Smith replied.
“Did you ever see him holding a weapon that entire night?” the lawyer asked.
“No,” Smith answered.
The officer described some tense moments, during which Todd took a few steps toward him before stopping on Smith’s command, then reached toward his waistband a couple of times as Smith radioed dispatch.
“Based on the fact that he at multiple times at this point reached towards his waistband, I wanted to see if there was anything in his waistband,” Smith said. “So I asked him to turn in a circle.”
Todd started to turn and then, according to Smith, dropped his hands and sprinted a few steps to the truck and dived head-first into the cab.
“He was moving his arms and upper body in a way that told me that he was trying to get something out of the vehicle,” Smith testified.
“I yelled, ‘Get out of the car! Get out of the car! Get on the ground! Stop, I’m going to shoot!’ ” Smith said. “I can’t remember my exact words, but ...”
Then, Smith said, he fired “two or three” rounds from his .40-caliber Sig Sauer pistol into the center of Todd’s back.
Smith swore that he moved toward the truck and, despite the darkness of the cab, saw Todd’s hands still moving as if he was feeling for something on the truck’s passenger-side floorboard.
“I continued to say, ‘Get out of the car, show me your hands,’ ” Smith said. He said Todd did not respond and he shot him again “two or three” times.
Smith said he was about 4 feet from Todd’s feet sticking out the driver’s-side door, and that he had developed “tunnel vision” as he stared at Todd and shouted for him to get out of the truck.
“I thought, ‘I am shooting this person and it’s not stopping what he’s doing,’ ” Smith said. “And trying to figure out, you know, what else can I do?
“I’m shooting him, I’m telling him to stop, and he’s still doing what he’s doing. I’m thinking, ‘Is he wearing a vest? ...’
“I remember the thought crossing my mind, like, ‘Do I need to shoot him in the head to make him stop trying to do what he’s doing?’ ”
Instead, Smith said, he fired one or two more times into the suspect’s back.
Then, Smith said, “He finally stopped moving as if he was trying to reach what he was reaching.”
If Todd was reaching for something, it was not a firearm. Smith testified that he later learned no gun was found in the truck.
Bullet wounds in front
Todd was pronounced dead at 3:02 a.m. at San Juan Mercy Hospital, with the cause of death listed as “multiple gunshot wounds.”
An autopsy performed by the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office found six gunshot wounds, one to Todd’s neck, one to his chest and four to his left arm.
The wound to his chest was reported as being fired from “left to right, downward, front to back.” The wound to his neck was listed as “left to right, downwards, slightly front to back.”
Smith offered no explanation for how Todd could have sustained the wounds to the front of his body, saying in his deposition that he had not seen the coroner’s report.
“Do you know that there’s not a single bullet wound in his back?” Sayre asked the officer.
“I didn’t know that,” Smith said.
“All the bullet wounds are in his front, one in his chest through his heart,” Sayre said.
The statement Citrus Heights police Commander Daman Christensen provided to The Bee does not address the discrepancy between Smith saying he shot Todd in the back and the autopsy results showing the opposite.
“Any incident which results in a person’s death is tragic and must be thoroughly investigated,” the statement said. “The value of all human life is a top consideration of our policy, protocols and training.”
Todd’s accomplice was arrested at the scene “still sitting in the driver’s seat of the vehicle he was burglarizing,” according to the portion of the police report provided to The Bee.
The Police Department redacted the accomplice’s name from the report, despite the fact that the department had identified him as Duran in a 2013 news release.
Duran, who could not be reached for comment, was charged with second degree burglary of a vehicle, attempted vehicle theft and possession of burglary tools. Six days after Todd was shot to death, Duran pleaded no contest to the attempted vehicle theft, the other two charges were dismissed, and he was sentenced to six months in jail.
Todd’s parents say they did not learn of their son’s death until later in the day.
“One of his buddies called and said, ‘Where’s Hunter?’ ” Terry Todd recalled. “I had followed the news because I saw something occurred in Citrus Heights and there was a truck and two guys.
“This was about lunchtime the next day. I said, ‘I don’t know. Was he involved in that stuff?’ ”
Todd left work and drove home to find a business card from a Citrus Heights police officer on his door with a note that read, “Please call us.”
Devra Selenis found out when her ex-husband called with a blunt message: “I think Hunter’s dead.”
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189
Largest law enforcement settlements
A $2 million May 2015 payout by the city of Citrus Heights in the police shooting death of Hunter Todd is one of the largest single settlements of a law enforcement wrongful death or excessive force claim in the region. Other significant cases that were settled before going to trial include:
2003: City of Sacramento agrees to pay total of $1,050,000 in death of Donald E. Venerable Jr., who was shot by a police officer in February 2001 while holding a cellphone.
2004: Sacramento County agrees to pay $1.5 million to settle claim by Jennifer Graham, whose leg was torn by a sheriff’s K-9 dog and left her unable to lift her leg.
August 2009: Sacramento County agrees to pay $1.45 million to mother of William Francis Sams, who died in the county jail in 2006 after suffering from a perforated ulcer.
August 2010: A federal judge approves a settlement to end a case in which the federal government and county of Sacramento agreed to pay out a total of $926,000 to the family of Matthew McEvers, who hanged himself in the county jail in May 2005 after being arrested on federal charges.
September 2012: UC Davis agrees to pay out $1 million to students pepper-sprayed by campus police during a peaceful November 2011 protest on campus.
November 2012: Placer County agrees to pay $825,000 to Sergey Pautov over a 2011 incident in which he stole seven Scratcher’s lottery tickets from a Rocklin market and was shot three times in the posterior as he fled an off-duty sheriff’s sergeant.
January 2013: Twin Rivers Unified School District agrees to pay $650,000 to five men who claimed they were victims of district police brutality and false arrest in a 2010 incident.
August 2013: University of California and city of Davis agree to pay $774,000 to UC Davis student Timothy C. Nelson, who was shot in the eye with a pepper ball by police at an apartment complex in Davis following festivities at the 2004 Picnic Day at UC Davis.
April 2014: City of Manteca agrees to pay $2.2 million to family of Ernesto Duenez Jr. after he was shot in June 2011 by a Manteca police officer.
March 2015: Sacramento County agrees to pay $515,000 in the January 2012 death of inmate Mark Anthony Scott, who died in the Main Jail after spitting up blood for hours.
October 2015: City of West Sacramento agrees to settlements totaling $4.11 million to victims of police Officer Sergio Alvarez, who was convicted of abducting and raping at least half a dozen women while on patrol.