Jeffrey Towe lived with delusions and profound mental illness, family members say. On Monday, he became the ninth person in the Sacramento region to die of police gunfire this year.
Towe, 53, fatally shot his own mother in 1990 in an incident that he said was a household accident. Two weeks ago, he delivered a collection of knives to his sister, telling her he couldn’t be trusted around them.
A Woodland police officer shot him dead Monday after authorities said Towe allegedly charged with a knife after officers arrived at his apartment building in response to a call about a disturbed, screaming man.
Towe’s death prompted local activists to converge Monday evening in Woodland, already motivated by the national story of the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and law enforcement response to protests there. They congregated downtown, blocking an intersection, chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” – a slogan popularized in Ferguson.
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There were more protests Tuesday night, further fueled by another police shooting in Yolo County late Monday night.
In that incident, a California Highway Patrol officer shot and wounded a man who allegedly pulled a gun on officers in a drunken-driving stop. The suspect, who was hospitalized in critical but stable condition, was identified as Heath Austin Nunes, 38, of Lincoln.
The four-county Sacramento region, which includes Sacramento, Yolo, Placer and El Dorado counties, this year has nearly doubled the five fatal officer-involved shootings in 2013. In 2012, there were 16 fatal police shootings, including a record 10 by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Statewide, California averaged 100 annual deaths from police shootings from 2006 to 2011.
With the issue of police deadly force roiling amid the fallout from Ferguson, President Barack Obama has decried “a gulf of mistrust between local residents and law enforcement” in communities around America. In one of those, Woodland, protesters were turning out to criticize both police shootings and how law enforcement deals with mentally ill people acting out.
Meanwhile, the relatives of Towe were mourning a second, wrenching tragedy involving a man they said suffered from schizoaffective and bipolar disorder with delusions of being God or Old West outlaw Jesse James.
In 1990, Towe pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter after shooting and killing his mother, Anna Louise Towe, 58, at the family home in Elk Grove that January, according to court records. His sister Christine Hazlip said her brother had been cleaning their father’s gun and had stumbled, causing the weapon to go off. Their mother died of a single shot to the neck from a .22-caliber revolver as she was operating a sewing machine in the kitchen.
His odyssey of mental illness apparently began after he returned from serving in the Army for six years at multiple U.S. bases and a brief stint in Germany after he graduated from Rio Linda High School. She said she knew something was wrong after she found him hiding in her closet with his eyes closed.
“He wouldn’t open his eyes so I called the ambulance,” Hazlip said. “They put him on a 72-hour (psychiatric) hold and then released him. That’s what frustrates me. Why don’t they help people with mental problems? I went through so many channels to get help.”
In the days before her mother’s shooting, she said, Towe had been behaving erratically, alternating between a daze and speaking obsessively about a girl he had a crush on in high school but hadn’t seen in a dozen years.
“He was fidgety. It was like he could see right through you. He looked like he was in another realm,” Hazlip said. “He was in love with this girl from school and he never got over her. He said she was coming to him, that he had to wait for her. He said he was God, and she was ‘Eve.’ I said, ‘Jeffrey. You’re not God.’ ”
She said her brother – after his involuntary manslaughter plea – was placed in a boarding facility for the mentally ill. She said he also got outpatient treatment through the Veterans Administration and other agencies.
Two weeks ago, she said, her brother called her, saying, “Chris, I have some knives and stuff. I need to bring them to your house” because he feared them in his possession. She said she took the knives.
But on Monday morning, police were called to the College Manor Apartments, where Towe, a tall, broad shouldered man, lived in an apartment adorned with a decal, “Proud to have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.”
The manager, Lorie Ginader, said a neighbor called police about someone agitated who was shouting about the “four horsemen, cutting hearts out and stuff.” Hazlip said the remark was a reference to a fantasy western world in which she said her brother’s thoughts often resided.
Woodland police Sgt. Brett Hancock said Tuesday that Towe displayed a long, military-style knife and threatened the officers when they arrived.
“I know it was a tough scene,” Hancock said. “I know he threatened the officers. He verbalized his threats and he charged the one officer.”
In a statement late Monday, Woodland police said: “Officers attempted to negotiate with the suspect asking him to drop the knife. The suspect then charged at one of the officers and that officer, fearing for his life, shot the suspect.”
The officer in the shooting was identified Tuesday as Darryl Moore, a 13-year veteran of the department.
The Woodland shooting follows a controversial officer-involved incident, in which police shot and killed another mentally ill veteran in Lodi in January. Gulf War veteran Parminder Singh Shergill, who suffered from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, had left his house in an agitated state. He died in a confrontation with officers called by his family to take him to a mental health facility.
In Woodland, former resident Angela Apodaca turned out with demonstrators Monday night and again Tuesday night, decrying Towe’s death and condemning the way she believes police generally react to mentally ill people.
“This incident raises a lot of concern,” said Apodaca, a Rancho Cordova resident and member of an activist group, National Campaign to End Police Terror, formed after the 2011 fatal police shooting of a Manteca man, Ernest Duenez Jr.
“We have a lot of people suffering from mental illness and a lot of people getting into trouble. These are people and their lives – including the police officers’ – matter. But the job of the police is not to come out when a man is mentally ill and shoot him dead. It just seems like the trend is shoot to kill vs. disarming people. They’re in fear for their life and they just unload.”
At the Tuesday night Woodland protest, demonstrators were yelling the familiar Ferguson chant, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” and calling for reforms in police tactics, including requiring officers to wear cameras. About 20 activists showed up.
But Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad, who stopped to observe the gathering and support the police, said he believes that if Towe “had his hands up, he wouldn’t have been shot.”
“Law enforcement officers have a difficult job, it’s unfair to be judging them now,” he said.
In a Tuesday statement, Woodland police said Moore, who was placed on administrative leave after the shooting, had taken courses “in crisis intervention dealing with people who suffer from mental illness.”
Moore had arrived at the scene along with three other officers and a sergeant. The statement said an ambulance was summoned to the scene because of Towe’s “erratic behavior” as Moore and other officers on scene attempted to negotiate with him and get him to drop the knife.
“I certainly understand the shock for all of us” from the Towe shooting “and I’m sure that shock is shared by the police themselves,” said Woodland Mayor Tom Stallard. “All of this is a part of the fact that we are putting more and more burden on our police to deal with the mentally ill.”
Earlier this year Yolo County announced that mental health workers would begin working side-by-side with officers this fall under a $1.9 million state grant for “community-based crisis response teams.” Rexroad pointed to the program as a sign the county “is already in front of this issue.”
Hazlip said she was notified by the apartment manager that police were responding to a problem with her brother. But she said he was dead within 15 minutes – before there was any chance for her to get there to intervene in the disturbance that Woodland police said left an officer with “no choice but to fire his service weapon.”
“My whole thinking is you had 15 minutes – 15 minutes – to think about what to do with all of your officers there,” Hazlip said. “You could have tased him … But you didn’t have to shoot him … Why did you do that?”
She said she felt sympathy for the officers involved, adding: “I think they could have handled it differently. But I have faith in God. I believe God had a plan and he was going to carry it out, no matter what. Jeff was going to die yesterday. It was in God’s plan. It was his day.”