Crime - Sacto 911

Two police killings two decades apart leave same questions for Sacramento families

A.J. Thiel was 15 when his father, Albert Glenn Thiel, was killed in 1997 in an incident involving John Tennis, the Sacramento police officer who fatally shot a mentally ill man in North Sacramento in July of this year.

Thiel, now 34, doesn’t remember much of that time except his rage and confusion and this: Tennis and the other six officers involved in the incident were laughing and “carrying on like nothing was wrong” in the lobby as Thiel and his family walked into a lawsuit settlement conference.

In that conference, according to Albert Thiel’s father, Edward Bigham, Tennis stood, removed his jacket and re-enacted how he put Albert Thiel, 35, in a carotid choke hold that may have crushed his windpipe and killed him.

“We kind of got written off as if his life meant nothing. ... His life did mean something to a lot of people,” said A.J. Thiel. “They didn’t tell us anything, just go about your life and forget about it.”

Thiel and his five siblings have not forgotten. They have questions they say police have never answered.

“I’ve been stuck wondering what happened,” he said. “I still don’t know the truth.”

When A.J. Thiel heard Tennis’ name associated with the July police shooting of Joseph Mann, his first thought was, “I don’t want to go back to that mentality I had at that time after they killed my daddy.”

His second thought was that maybe now he could get the information he wants about how his father was killed and why police resorted to a carotid hold – a tricky and controversial means of subduing a suspect that some departments at the time classified as akin to lethal force.

Like Thiel, Mann was African American. John Tennis and his partner, Randy Lozoya, shot Mann 14 times on Del Paso Boulevard in July after trying to run him over with their car. Mann, who was mentally ill, was holding a knife as he moved erratically down the street in North Sacramento. Other officers had been following him for several minutes, ordering him to drop the knife and get on the ground. He ignored the commands and threw an object at another officer’s car. Surveillance and dashcam video shows he was shot seconds after Tennis and Lozoya arrived on the scene.

Like Mann’s family, Thiel’s family filed a civil lawsuit against the Police Department in what they describe as a quest to get answers and hold someone accountable. They settled for $50,000, and say they got few answers about why and how Thiel died.

Albert Thiel first drew officers’ notice about 10 p.m. Sept. 28, 1997, when they ran a random license plate check on a car he was driving in Del Paso Heights. It came up stolen, according to media reports from the time and a report released Friday by the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office.

Thiel, whom friends called Glenn, sped off when officers tried to pull him over, taking them on a high-speed chase that ended on Marconi Avenue between Watt and Fulton avenues. Thiel veered onto the front lawn of an apartment complex and ran from the car. He had a criminal record that included another high-speed chase in the Bay Area the year before that left an officer injured, according to media reports at the time.

Officers released a police dog to chase him. The dog knocked Thiel down and began biting him, according to the district attorney’s report on the incident. Thiel fought back, and the canine’s handler jumped into the fray, getting bitten by the dog in the process.

Five other officers “joined in the attempt to take the struggling suspect into custody,” according to the report. Thiel’s hands were under his body, and officers said they did not know if he had a weapon. No weapon was reported found.

One officer was holding Thiel’s legs to prevent him from kicking. One was “on the suspect’s back trying unsuccessfully to get one of his arms,” according to the report. Another officer was trying to “control the left arm.”

Tennis said in the report that he laid down facing Thiel and tried to put him in a carotid hold. He “did not know what the suspect was fleeing and fighting, nor did he know if he was armed,” the report said.

Tennis said he tried to place a carotid control hold by putting his forearm underneath Thiel’s chin from the front, but couldn’t get “the proper set.” He then “pulled upward and twisted the suspect’s head a bit, yelling in his ear to give up and stop fighting.”

Another officer hit Thiel’s head with two “medium pressure” blows, Tennis told investigators. He stated that he then “twisted the suspect’s head into a position to allow him to inflict some medium pressure blows with an open palm to his nose,” and police were able to handcuff Thiel.

Police dragged him to a cruiser. He was described by some witnesses as “staggering.” Tennis kept his forearm under Thiel’s chin for at least part of the walk, according to the report.

Because of Thiel’s “lack of cooperation,” officers pushed and pulled Thiel into the cruiser, leaving him stretched across the backseat on his stomach.

An ambulance was called to treat the officer who had been bitten by the dog, and “(s)ince they were there, officers asked the paramedics to check on the suspect,” according to the district attorney’s report.

Paramedics couldn’t find a pulse on Thiel and began CPR. He was transported to UC Davis Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 11:10 p.m.

The coroner later ruled his death a homicide, saying he was killed by pressure or a blow to his throat that cut off his airway, but said it could not be confirmed that Tennis’ hold was the cause. Police at the time did not identify the officer who performed the fatal hold, but Bigham said Tennis identified himself as the officer who placed the choke hold on his son during a settlement conference for the lawsuit against the city.

The coroner said he found alcohol and cocaine in Thiel’s system, but said in media interviews that it was not instrumental in his death. Police said the drugs may have increased Thiel’s ability to fight.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department investigated and concluded that the officer acted with lawful intent, but the county’s Human Rights/Fair Housing Commission asked the FBI to conduct a separate investigation.

Police did not wait for the district attorney or the FBI to issue findings before making their own.

Sheriff’s homicide Sgt. John McGinness said at a news conference on Nov. 19, 1997, “Was there criminal intent when the officer applied the carotid constriction? The answer is a resounding no.”

Police did not provide further details about what had happened, despite the family feeling that they didn’t have a full picture of why Thiel was dead, according to Bigham. Though the district attorney’s report referred to audio and video recordings of Thiel’s violent encounter with police, those have never been released, and the family was never provided with findings by the district attorney, according to A.J. Thiel and Bigham.

“In the aftermath, they gave the family no closure,” said A.J. Thiel. “To this day, I don’t have anything.”

While the officers in the Thiel case were found to have acted within the law, a series of car chases similar to the Thiel incident sparked the Sacramento City Council to look at police reforms, especially regarding car chases. In 1997, Sacramento saw a number of police crashes in which four people, including one officer, died.

In 1998, then-City Council members, including current Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg, created a “blue-ribbon commission” to examine independent oversight of local law enforcement, according to Bee archives.

At that time, The Bee reported that Sacramento was the largest city in the state and the sixth largest in the country without any kind of external police oversight.

That commission recommended that high-speed chases be prohibited in cases involving minor crimes, and “perhaps” even in pursuits of stolen cars. It also recommended creating a civilian position within City Hall, reporting to the city manager, that could take part in the internal affairs investigation process for misconduct claims and provide an independent annual report on their resolution.

Those reforms led to the creation of the Office of Police Accountability in 1999, which later became the Office of Public Safety Accountability. Community activists have criticized it as weak and ineffectual. The City Council is now debating a package of police reforms that could include a civilian commission with greater power, and greater powers for the office.

Despite those reforms, no officer has been charged by the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office in an on-duty shooting death in more than 20 years, according to a search of Bee archives.

On Tuesday, the Police Department will hold what Chief Sam Somers Jr. described as a “shoot review” to determine if an internal affairs investigation is warranted in the Mann case, according to Francine Tournour, director of the Office of Public Safety Accountability.

During that 10 a.m. meeting, city officials, including the city manager, city attorney and senior command staff of the Police Department, will review the homicide investigation to determine if there is reason to believe Tennis and Lozoya violated any department policies or procedures when they attempted to run Mann down in their vehicle seconds before firing 18 shots at him.

The officers’ years of service will be considered, but past actions such as the Thiel case will not.

“This is just a stand-alone,” Tournour said.

Tournour said the city manager has the power to authorize her office to investigate policy and procedure issues even if an internal affairs investigation is not ordered, but “ultimately the decision to send it to internal affairs is on the chief.”

A recent court ruling against the Sacramento Police Department may limit Somers’ ability to bypass an internal affairs investigation. On Aug. 31, the city lost an appeals case regarding the department’s failure to follow its own rules on internal affairs investigations.

Plumas County sheriff’s deputy and use-of-force expert Ed Obayashi, who is also a lawyer, said the case sets a precedent that will make it mandatory for departments with policies such as Sacramento’s to conduct an investigation of citizen complaints.

“This is the first case that says, ‘OK departments, no more of this not investigating,’ ” Obayashi said. “This applies throughout the state of California now.”

Robert Mann, brother of Joseph Mann, said recently that any resolution in his brother’s death needs to include department reforms. The Sacramento City Council is moving quickly to craft use-of-force and other changes that could require police to exhaust non-lethal options before resorting to guns. But with the odds against criminal charges, the Mann family has also filed a civil lawsuit and has called for a federal civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice.

Further resolution for the Thiel family is unlikely after so many years. But they still want more information so that Thiel’s children, many who have no memory of him, can have as many details as possible.

“If I don’t get closure, that’s all right,” said Ahmad Thiel, who was 7 when his father was killed. “But if I can just feel a little better about the situation, that would be good. ... Every time I hear something about my dad, I just want to meet him.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa