A fatal call

Inter-agency shooting investigation declares Oroville officers justified in shooting suicidal man

Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey holds the “Batshield” hit by friendly fire as officers stormed Victor Coleman’s motel room.

Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey holds the “Batshield” hit by friendly fire as officers stormed Victor Coleman’s motel room.

photo by Ken SMith

When Oroville police officers responded to a call about a suicidal man who’d locked himself inside a motel room last April, they were justified in shooting and killing him, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey announced at an Oct. 1 press conference.

“It is our determination that no malicious intent, nor gross negligence, was apparent in the officers’ actions that day that would support a criminal filing against any of the officers,” Ramsey said regarding the April 28 incident in which Victor Coleman, a 53-year-old construction worker from Bakersfield, was shot 16 times in room 115 of Oroville’s Sunset Inn.

The officers were cleared based on Ramsey’s review of a five-month investigation by the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Team, a task force composed of personnel from 13 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. An internal investigation by the Oroville Police Department to determine if the officers violated OPD policy is still underway.

Ramsey spoke in detail about the shooting death during the two-hour press conference at Oroville City Hall, revealing that Coleman had ingested a potentially lethal dose of methamphetamine that likely spurred hallucinations. Coleman’s blood registered 1.7 milligrams-per-liter of the drug; the effective level is .01 to .05, and potentially toxic level is .15 to .2 milligrams-per-liter.

According to Ramsey’s narrative based on the investigation, these events led to Coleman’s death:

Coleman, an experienced millwright and welder, arrived in Oroville April 6 as part of a construction crew, and the workers took up residence at the Feather River Boulevard motel. Ramsey said Coleman had been estranged from his wife, Lori Coryell, four months prior.

After working Saturday, April 26, Coleman and other members of his crew went to “a local Oroville biker bar,” where—Ramsey surmised—he may have scored the meth discovered in his system during an autopsy. Coleman was not seen by co-workers on Sunday and on Monday morning, Jeff Ross—Coleman’s foreman and friend of 10 years—couldn’t contact him for work, although Coleman’s vehicle was parked outside the motel.

Coryell, Coleman’s wife, called the OPD dispatch center at 1:35 p.m. from her home in Bakersfield to report Coleman had left a distraught voicemail, claiming he’d been fired from his job and saying, “They’re gonna have to kill me.” During a second call, Coryell reported her husband had “gone off the deep end” and wanted to commit “suicide by cop.” She also said she was afraid he might kill Ross for getting him fired, but that she didn’t believe Coleman had a gun.

Police then contacted Ross and found where Coleman was staying. Ross also informed them Coleman hadn’t been fired or outed for doing drugs, as he’d claimed to Coryell. Based on information found in the post-mortem investigation, Ramsey reported Coleman had a heroin problem he’d overcome 30 years earlier, with one recent relapse with prescription drugs.

OPD officer John Nickelson arrived at Coleman’s room for a welfare check at 2:48 p.m. accompanied by Sgt. Vanessa Purdy and officers Marcus Tennigkeit and Jared Cooley. Another officer, Lt. Al Byers, arrived shortly after and a sixth officer, Breck Wright, showed up later during the stand-off.

Coleman never allowed officers in, dead-bolting the door and shutting the windows. Officers communicated with him intermittently over the next few hours, first by shouting through the door and eventually by calling his motel room from a nearby room. Coleman reportedly grew increasingly agitated and shortly before 5 p.m. the officers decided to reason with him one last time before breaching the door with a battering ram, intending to incapacitate Coleman with a Taser.

“When he answered the phone, Lt. Byers said the shortness of Mr. Coleman’s answers and his attitude convinced him Mr. Coleman’s plan to kill himself was imminent,” Ramsey said.

At 5 p.m., Wright struck the door with a battering ram, failing at first to fully open it, but succeeding with a second swing. Tennigkeit led the charge armed with a pistol and a “Batshield” ballistic shield, followed by Nickelson and Cooley with guns drawn and Sgt. Purdy fourth in line with the tazer. Ramsey explained the armed officers preceded Purdy “Just in case Coleman attacked the officers, or possibly had a gun of his own.”

The officers said Coleman was standing at the far end of the room wielding a knife and a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon in a threatening manner, both of which he allegedly swung toward Tennigkeit, apparently connecting with the bottle. That’s when Tennigkeit, Nickelson and Cooley opened fire.

The three officers fired 18 rounds, 16 of which hit Coleman. One of the stray bullets, fired by Cooley, struck the inside of Tennigkeit’s shield, with a fragment blackening the officer’s eye. Tennigkeit’s clothing was also covered in glass fragments and alcohol from the liquor bottle, which was also shot.

Coleman was handcuffed and dragged into the apartment’s main room before Officer Wright, who is also an EMT, began unsuccessful life-saving efforts.

Handcuffing a subject—even when he or she has been shot—is standard police procedure to ensure officer safety, Ramsey explained. The investigation found Coleman died instantly upon being shot.

Ramsey said he’d spoken to the victim’s family about his findings prior to the press conference, and that they are unsatisfied with the results of the investigation.

OPD Chief Bill LaGrone spoke after Ramsey, and stood behind his officers’ actions. He reported the OPD has responded to 1,175 Welfare and Institution Code 5150 calls since 2011, many with barricaded and suicidal subjects, and most are resolved without incident.

However, LaGrone also said his department had only one officer on the force at the time who had undergone Crisis Intervention Training (CIT)—specialized training to help de-escalate situations and calm people in mental or drug-induced crisis. That officer was off duty the day of Coleman’s death and has since left the OPD, LaGrone said.

Dozens of officers from other county law enforcement organizations have undergone the training, a 40-hour course that’s been offered annually since it began in Butte County in April 2010. LaGrone cited staffing issues in the OPD as the reason none of his officers have attended.