Cop killer Luis Bracamontes wasn’t in the courtroom Tuesday, but his malevolent presence loomed as family members of the deputies he killed three years ago described their loss in searing, tearful testimony.
Jurors held back tears as Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver’s sisters, daughter, wife and mother testified through the morning about the wrenching impact his murder has had on the family.
“He was my baby,” Joyce Oliver, the deputy’s mother, said under questioning from prosecutor Rod Norgaard in Sacramento Superior Court. “He was my youngest son. He was the glue that held my family together.”
Oliver's husband, Bill, a former Marine and onetime Sacramento firefighter, died last November of prostate cancer while waiting for the trial to begin and had told her how badly he wanted to see Bracamontes face justice.
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"I want to see this guy get what's coming to him," Joyce Oliver recalled him saying. "Those were his exact words."
She said she "vividly" recalls how she learned her son had been killed during Bracamontes’ rampage on Oct. 24, 2014. She and her husband had a habit of watching the noon news on television, she said, and saw a report about an officer-involved shooting.
“I could see what’s going on, and I said, ‘That’s Danny’s car,’” she said. “You watch, someone’s going to be at our house in the next 10 minutes.”
Bill Oliver was in denial, but slipped away to call his son’s cellphone several times, asking into the voicemail, “Danny, are you OK?”
He never answered, and within minutes a law enforcement chaplain appeared at the door; the family was soon on the way to the coroner’s office to view the body. ‘It broke my heart to see my son laying there with no life in him,” Joyce Oliver said. “It wasn’t Danny. Danny was gone.”
Bracamontes wasn’t present because Judge Steve White ordered him removed from court Monday following yet another profane outburst.
He has erupted in trial and at pretrial hearings for the past three and a half years, including Feb. 9, which was Oliver's birthday and the day Bracamontes was convicted of murder.
White has walked a fine line of providing Bracamontes access to the proceedings when he behaves and removing him when necessary. The tirades can begin at any time, and are punctuated by vile language; one count had him shouting "F---" 108 times in a matter of minutes at an earlier hearing.
Bracamontes was allowed to watch the proceedings on video Tuesday from a holding cell as one after another of his victims recounted the damage he wrought and prosecutors displayed photos of Oliver and his family on large screens in the courtroom.
They showed Oliver as a boy, as a young man getting married, a proud dad being fed ice cream by his youngest daughter, and a suburban dad making brunch while three dogs played at his feet.
Spectators and family members clutched tissues throughout the courtroom, which on Tuesday included a contingent of visitors from Italy that included a prosecutor observing the process.
Public defenders Norm Dawson and Jeff Barbour, who have acknowledged their client killed the deputies, politely declined to offer any questions for the family members.
Their focus now is on convincing jurors that Bracamontes deserves a sentence of life without parole. Dawson spent an hour Monday afternoon trying to humanize his client with photos of him as a boy and a young man, and descriptions of his hard life growing up in Mexico.
Those efforts likely were smashed minutes later, when Bracamontes began shouting profanities in front of the jury and cackling at the family members as he was led away.
The defense is scheduled to begin calling Bracamontes' siblings and mental health experts next week in their bid to save him from the death penalty.
But Tuesday belonged to the families of Oliver and Placer sheriff's Detective Michael Davis Jr., who was also killed in the crime spree.
Phyllis Sylvia, Oliver's oldest sister, described the feelings family members had during one of Bracamontes' outbursts, when he began shouting epithets directly at the Oliver and Davis families.
"It was like yanking a Band-Aid off an open wound, stabbing my heart," she said.
Oliver's oldest daughter, Melissa, 27, described getting married without her father there to walk her up the aisle, and noted that he won't be there in May when she graduates from Sacramento State as the first member of her family with a college degree.
She recalled the phone call she got from a restricted telephone number the day of the slaying, with a chaplain telling her that her father had been shot, and her refusal to believe the worst.
"As a daughter, you know, your dad's invincible," she said. "So, I thought he got shot in the arm and we were going to go to the hospital and he's going to be OK" she said.
And his wife, Susan, described her husband's love of his dogs, of Christmas gatherings with the family and his fiercely protective nature when it came to his two daughters.
At one time, when the couple decided that Melissa's boyfriend (and now husband) Ryan was living in too dangerous a neighborhood, they had him move into their Rocklin home, but with the understanding that he slept upstairs, and Melissa slept in her bedroom downstairs.
"The rule was, Ryan slept in the upstairs bedroom next to our master bedroom, and Dan kept little bells on the door," she said.
The impact on Davis’ friends and family was just as severe, with his former partner and best friend, Mike Simmons, telling jurors under questioning by Placer County prosecutor Dave Tellman that Davis’ slaying destroyed him and Davis’ family.
Simmons, who was in the Auburn cul de sac gunbattle that killed Davis, said the incident “lit a fuse” that burned for two years as he tried to continue working as a detective. “At the end, I imploded,” said Simmons, who retired. “I couldn’t do it anymore. I broke. “
"As old school as I am...I broke. There was a sense of loss and a tremendous sense of survivor guilt that destroyed me. I had to call it quits.”
Simmons said Davis’ family suffered much the same way, with his wife, Jessica, and two children deeply hurt. Jessica Davis, an evidence technician for the Sheriff’s Department, has been too distraught to attend trial sessions. Davis’ death reopened another family wound –the death of his father, a Riverside sheriff’s deputy, 26 years to the day earlier in a helicopter crash.
“It demolished her and the kids and the extended family,” Simmons said. “It wasn’t their first rodeo. It just devastated everybody.”
Davis’ younger brother, Jason, broke down testifying about the slain deputy, recalling him essentially teaching him “everything about life."
"He’s the reason I am where I am today,” said Jason Davis, now a Placer County sheriff’s sergeant. He said he remembers his brother walking him to the bus stop for the first day of kindergarten when he was 4 and Michael Davis was 9.
“Michael was more than a big brother,” he said. “He was a father figure.”
Jason Davis described another family tragedy, the suicide of his younger brother Christopher in April 1997, and how he was the one who had to tell his mother what happened. The day of Bracamontes’ crime spree, Jason Davis was on the Placer sheriff’s SWAT team and went to the scene of the shootout. He was getting on his gear when someone told him he needed to get to the command post.
Jason Davis said he immediately knew his brother was the deputy who had been shot and went to the Roseville hospital, where he waited for his mother to arrive. “I remember thinking, I have to tell my mom for the second time that one of her sons is dead,” he said. “I told her that Michael’s dead, and she collapsed. Again.”