‘We’re wrestling for the gun…’ Man recounts fatal fight with off-duty CHP officer
On Sept. 3, a 58-year-old woman was walking her dog behind a strip mall in Sutter Creek when she noticed a scrap of paper that had been folded several times and left in a planter box near a Starbucks drive-through.
She unfolded the paper to find the same message written five times with what appeared to be a black Sharpie pen: “I will try not to kill u.”
The woman tossed the paper back down, leaving behind what may have been the last in a series of warnings about the horrific violence that was coming.
That night, at about 10:45, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer named Brad Wheat went to the spot and began banging on the back door of the Get Ripped Nutrition store owned by Trae deBeaubien.
Inside, Wheat’s estranged wife, Mary, and deBeaubien, her boyfriend of four months, immediately feared the worst. Within moments, Wheat pulled his car to the front parking lot, got out and blasted out the front window of the business with his CHP-issued .40-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic handgun.
DeBeaubien called 911, but Wheat forced his way in past the broken glass and shot deBeaubien in the upper left chest before his handgun jammed. The two men struggled, with deBeaubien managing to knock Wheat to the ground and jar the gun out of his hands.
Mary Wheat, 43, grabbed the gun, knocked the remaining broken glass from the window frame and ran outside as deBeaubien lost his grip on Wheat because his hands were so slick from his own blood.
Wheat ran outside after her, where he executed her with two shots to the head and a third that hit her arm and pierced her chest after retrieving the gun. Then Wheat, an 11-year CHP veteran who had four children, killed himself with two shots to the neck and a third to the head.
But why did Wheat have a gun?
Four weeks before the bloody confrontation, CHP officials in the department’s Amador area office ordered him to be analyzed by a department psychologist, who “found that he was unfit for patrol duty on the basis of his assaultive behavior and uncontrolled anger toward his estranged wife and deBeaubien,” a new lawsuit against the CHP claims.
“As a result of the assessment, Wheat was initially suspended and then put on desk duty and his service weapon was taken away,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Sacramento Superior Court by attorney Stewart Katz.
Katz filed the suit on behalf of deBeaubien, the only survivor of the shooting, and notes in the filing that the handgun was the only firearm Wheat owned.
Then, days before the shooting, the CHP gave Wheat back his handgun and ammunition, despite indications that Wheat had been stalking his wife since July and was using law enforcement databases to do so, the lawsuit claims.
The CHP declined to discuss the allegations, saying it does not comment on pending litigation.
But the lawsuit, a 78-page Amador County sheriff’s report on the shooting and an interview deBeaubien gave to The Sacramento Bee in Sutter Creek not far from where the attack took place shed new light on the events leading up to the shooting last Labor Day.
DeBeaubien, who had known Mary Wheat as a friend for several years and shared a building that housed his gym and her CrossFit business, said neither of them were ever warned that Brad Wheat had been given back his weapon.
He also said no one from the CHP ever contacted them in the weeks before the shooting, despite concerns that brought Brad Wheat to the attention of local law enforcement agencies twice.
The first incident was Aug. 2, after Mary Wheat had moved into a home her father owned in Garden Valley in El Dorado County.
That day, Brad Wheat emerged from his Sutter Creek home and his next-door neighbor, Mary Wheat’s brother, became concerned about his behavior, the lawsuit says.
“Mary’s brother spoke with Wheat and learned that Wheat was armed, apparently intoxicated and heading to the Garden Valley home for a potentially violent confrontation,” the lawsuit says.
The brother called 911 and El Dorado sheriff’s deputies went to the home late that night. By then, deBeaubien had already left the house and gone home. After he left, Brad Wheat confronted his estranged wife, called her a “whore” and left before deputies arrived, the lawsuit says.
That incident led to the CHP taking Wheat’s weapon, the lawsuit says.
“The CHP never notified us, they never told us that he had his gun taken away, they never told us that we were in danger,” deBeaubien said. “I never got a call after the fact that, ‘Hey, we’re sorry this happened.’ Nothing.”
Privilege and ‘bad publicity’
The lawsuit speculates that CHP officials gave Wheat his weapon back to avoid more negative publicity for the Amador office, which had seen another one of its officers, Michael Joslin, arrested in mid-August on charges of raping a 12-year-old girl.
“Defendants were motivated in part by their desire to avoid further bad publicity because weeks earlier a CHP officer assigned to the same small CHP office was arrested for child sexual abuse,” the lawsuit says. “That arrest received extensive news coverage.
“They also were improperly motivated to protect Brad Wheat because his father had been a patrol officer assigned to the same office.”
Brad Wheat continued to stalk the couple for the next month, deBeaubien said, and the lawsuit alleges that Wheat uses “his status as a CHP officer to access confidential law enforcement databases and to obtain other information about deBeaubien so that Wheat could hunt him down.”
On Aug. 31, while deBeaubien and Mary Wheat were away at Lake Tahoe for the Labor Day weekend, they got a call that two windows at a Sutter Creek home where they had moved in together had been broken.
The next day, two days before the shootings, all the windows in the home were broken.
“The owner of that house then reported these incidents to the Sutter Creek Police Department,” the lawsuit says. “That report identified Wheat as the likely perpetrator and as a CHP officer.”
Despite that, the suit says, Wheat was allowed to keep his weapon, and apparently gave no indication to colleagues how troubled he was.
The night of the shooting
At 8:26 p.m. on the Monday holiday, Sept. 3, Wheat had a text exchange with Amador sheriff’s Sgt. Patrick Weart, the sheriff’s report says.
“Hope all is well with you and the fam,” Wheat texted during the exchange.
“Hope all is well with you and your kids also,” Weart texted back.
“It is, actually me and the kids are doing really good,” Wheat replied. “Wish I could say the same for Mary and I. Things are moving so fast with her and Trae. It’s crazy brother.”
Two hours later, Wheat was at deBeaubien’s nutrition store carrying his handgun. The scene was captured on video clips shot by a witness who was sleeping in his truck in the parking lot and who later provided them to authorities, according to portions of the felony report from the Amador County Sheriff’s Office.
The report redacts Brad Wheat’s name throughout, but includes the names of victims, investigators and witnesses, including the dog walker who found the odd note the morning before the shootings.
The sheriff’s report draws no conclusions about whether Brad Wheat wrote the note, and the dog walker who found it initially thought nothing of it at the time, the report says. But after the shootings, she went back the next day and retrieved the note, holding onto it until “she was eventually given an indication ‘from above’ that she should notify law enforcement.”
The report also includes a description of the witness video of the shootings, which provides graphic detail of Brad and Mary Wheat’s last moments.
“Mary is heard screaming, ‘No, stop it right now; (redacted), stop this,’” the report says. “A door on the vehicle is opened and Mary can be heard screaming, ‘(Redacted), stop it right now.”
Mary Wheat is heard shouting for deBeaubien to run, and then the sound of a gun cocking can be heard, the report says.
“A gun shot is heard and then Mary yells out something, which cannot be understood. A second gunshot rings out and Mary falls silent. A third shot is then fired.
“A fourth shot is fired, but has a different tone or pitch. This is followed by a fifth shot and a male voice can be heard groaning. A sixth shot rings out less than a second later and then there is silence.”