Cops Cleared

Butte County District Attorney, interagency investigation say police were justified in shooting death of 19-year-old woman

District Attorney Mike Ramsey holds up a mugshot from one of Breanne Sharpe’s earlier arrests at an Oct. 3 press conference.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey holds up a mugshot from one of Breanne Sharpe’s earlier arrests at an Oct. 3 press conference.

Photo by Ken Smith

Chico Police officers fired at least 19 shots—one bullet for each year of Breanne Sharpe’s short and troubled life—at the stolen car in which she’d led them on a short chase that ended with her death early in the morning of Sept. 22. It was likely one of the first two bullets fired that struck Sharpe in the back of the head, incapacitating and eventually killing her, according to evidence gathered by an interagency Critical Incident Protocol Team (CIPT).

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey announced this and other details about the investigation, as well as his official conclusion that the shooting was warranted, at a press conference held in Chico’s Old Municipal Building last Thursday (Oct. 3).

“The shootings, individually and jointly, were justified under the circumstances,” Ramsey said near the end of an hour-long press conference, which included a harrowing narrative of Sharpe’s last moments illustrated with computer-animated depictions of the incident. “The officers were in fear for their own lives and [those of] other officers in the area.”

Ramsey also verbally sketched a portrait of Sharpe as a troubled young woman who stole her first car at age 14 and was wanted by police at the time of her death for violating parole related to a Feb. 17 car theft, during which she also ran from police. Ramsey said her juvenile record included petty thefts, assaults, and drug and alcohol issues. She had also run away from two group homes during her teenage years.

“She had become desperate, she was surviving on the streets by stealing,” Ramsey said, claiming a friend of Sharpe’s had told investigators she’d tried to pawn possibly stolen jewelry and had a master key she claimed could unlock some vehicle makes the day before the shooting.

“It was apparent that she was concerned and desperate and had become dangerous in her desperateness to avoid going into custody, because she knew she would go to state prison this time,” Ramsey said. “That [desperation] was visited upon the officers that arrived at the scene.”

Of the eight police officers on the scene, five—Officers Damon Selland, Jared Cumber, David Quigley, Nick Vega and Sgt. Scott Zuschin—fired at Sharpe. Officers Ed Marshall, Greg Rogers and Tony Ferreira did not discharge their weapons, which Ramsey said also was proper protocol based on their locations at the time.

“They were not personally in a position to be struck by this 2,000-pound car,” he said. “They stuck to their training just like the other officers stuck to their training.”

Police initially responded to reports of a white male with a shaved head attempting to enter parked vehicles on Coit Tower Way, and spotted a dark-colored Honda Civic del Sol leaving the area. Ramsey explained this raised suspicion because Hondas are a favored model among local car thieves, with 27 stolen in Chico within the last 100 days.

Sharpe didn’t stop when prompted by officers and instead continued along East Eighth Street to Alpine Street and then to Vista Verde Way, which connects the parking lots of several apartment complexes. She then turned back onto East Eighth Street, careening over curbs and barely missing Zuschin—who had stepped out of his police SUV—before she collided with a power pole.

Breanne Sharpe’s friends and family held a candlelight vigil at the scene of the incident hours after the press conference.

Photo by Ken Smith

The car reversed and Zuschin fired twice at the driver’s-side headrest out of fear of being run over. The car then made a sweeping U-turn and, under a hail of gunfire, hit a tree and two other police vehicles before coming to rest in the middle of the street. An unresponsive Sharpe, her breath shallow and pulse weak, was pulled from the car and handcuffed while an officer attempted life-saving procedures, which continued during transport to Enloe Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead.

Two bullets hit Sharpe; one of Zuschin’s initial shots entered the back of the skull and is listed as the official cause of death. Another shot, one of eight fired by Vega, hit her in the shoulder.

“That [head shot], according to the pathologists, was a totally incapacitating shot,” Ramsey said, “which would mean that her foot would reflexively go down, floor the throttle and crank the wheel into a left-hand turn.”

Ramsey said police are still searching for a male suspect who may have been with Sharpe earlier. He noted another vehicle stolen from the same Vallombrosa Avenue apartment complex as the one Sharpe was driving was found in Oroville after the shooting, leading investigators to believe she had what he termed a “confederate.”

Though the officers were cleared of wrongdoing by Ramsey and the CIPT, protocol requires an administrative investigation still being conducted internally by the Chico Police Department, Lt. Mike O’Brien explained.

Some local civil-rights advocates, such as Charlie Preusser, chairman of the Chico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, are watching the case closely.

“It seems to me that officers shooting at someone trying to get away is a little excessive,” Preusser said. “I’m also concerned that we know so much about the history of this young lady, because that’s public record, but nothing about the past conduct of these officers.

“They may well be justified in the shooting, but unless everything is made more transparent, the only people who can really know are the people who were there.”

Several of Sharpe’s friends and family members, including Sharpe’s mother, Mindy Losee, attended the press conference. Losee stood near the doorway, carrying Sharpe’s infant sister as she endured the excruciating details of her daughter’s last moments. She rushed from the room near the end, when Ramsey announced the officers’ innocence.

Outside the building, Losee declined to be interviewed, though several family friends openly expressed dismay at the DA’s decision and how Sharpe was portrayed.

Later that evening, Sharpe’s supporters held a candlelight vigil at the spot where she died. Though family has refused public comment, a box with her picture—presumably placed by them—was spotted at a Park Avenue liquor store earlier this week.

“This young woman of 19 years was wrongfully killed by Butte County police officers,” reads the accompanying text, which also solicits donations to help cover cremation costs. “She had come down a rough road her whole life and made a few mistakes with the law, but most definitely did not deserve to be remembered through this event. This young lady right here was one of God’s most amazing creations. I only wish you could have experienced her unconditional love and friendship. She was one of a kind.”