We know how Bartyn Pitts died, not why
Why would an otherwise intelligent man do something so crazy foolish that it gets him shot to death by a state game warden? That’s the question that lingers following the Oct. 8 shootout that left 39-year-old Bartyn Pitts lying face down in the dirt at a remote foothills site northeast of Oroville, dead at the hands of Warden Joshua Brennan.
The shootout lasted only a moment, but it was the quick-flash culmination of a series of contacts between the two men over a couple of days. At a press conference Monday (Oct. 15) called to announce that an investigative team had determined the shooting was “justified homicide,” Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey described the sequence of events.
The first contact occurred on Saturday, Oct. 6, when Brennan, a 10-year Department of Fish & Game veteran, was on nighttime patrol in the Bardees Bar Road area, a remote foothills locale near Jarbo Gap, off Highway 70. He was looking for “spotlighters,” poachers who illegally use bright lights to freeze deer in place to make them easy prey.
Looking down into the Feather River Canyon, Brennan noticed a large illegal bonfire near the Poe Powerhouse, on the river. Using his spotting scope, he saw two men in the firelight. He recognized Pitts from earlier encounters.
He knew where the man lived, so rather than clamber down into the canyon and ticket him he continued pursuing the spotlighters, and before the night was out he’d caught and cited them.
Two days later, on Monday afternoon (Oct. 8), Brennan drove his patrol truck to a locked gate on a road leading to Pitts’ camp area and walked in. He found Pitts and another man, 24-year-old Matthew McQuaid, cleaning a large extended-cab Ford pickup parked in front of a small recreational motorhome that served as their living quarters.
Pitts had lived there with his dog since April, caretaking a nearby cabin and tending a collective medical-marijuana grow in return for free rent. McQuaid, who had known him in Hawaii, had joined him just a week earlier.
When Brennan informed Pitts he intended to cite him for the illegal burning, Pitts seemed unfazed and calmly accepted the ticket—in fact telling Brennan he how much he liked game wardens and that he had considered becoming one himself.
Just a few minutes later, he and Brennan would be in a shootout.
As Brennan drove away, he radioed in Pitts’ name and descriptors for a check of any outstanding “wants and warrants.” Sure enough, there was a $50,000 arrest warrant from Hawaii issued in May. The charge: attempted distribution of methamphetamine.
Brennan went back to the campsite. He found both Pitts and McQuaid sitting in the bed of the pickup. He told Pitts about the warrant and that he was under arrest.
This time Pitts became extremely agitated, jumping down from the truck and announcing that he needed a drink and a cigarette before he was arrested. Ignoring the warden’s orders, he went to the cab of the truck, got a juice drink and “sucked it down,” Ramsey said. Pitts walked frenetically in circles, ignoring Brennan’s commands to submit to arrest and be handcuffed.
Suddenly he “jogged,” as Ramsey put it, to the motorhome and went inside. Brennan, sensing trouble, pulled out his .40-caliber Glock handgun. Pitts emerged about five seconds later, holding a shotgun. Half hidden behind the door, he swung the gun around and aimed it at Brennan.
McQuaid dived out of the pickup bed and hid behind the truck. He didn’t see the shooting—his head was in the dirt—but he said he distinctly heard the shotgun fire once, then several shots from the warden’s handgun, some of them hitting the motorhome with a “metallic tink.”
“I was in the middle of a gun battle,” he later said.
McQuaid looked up just in time to see Pitts fall to the ground near the door. Brennan then ordered McQuaid to come out from behind the truck and lie on the ground where the warden could see him. As McQuaid did so, he saw Pitts, who was bleeding profusely from a neck wound, hoist himself onto all fours and try to pick up the shotgun. The warden yelled, “Don’t! Stop! Don’t touch that gun!” When Pitts refused to stop, Brennan shot him two more times.
Pitts slumped to the ground, his body covering the shotgun. He didn’t move again.
Brennan, worried that Pitts might have pot-growing allies in the area, radioed for help. He was “going to the brush” really quickly if it didn’t arrive soon, he said. Luckily, two sheriff’s deputies were on Big Bend Road at the time and arrived within eight minutes.
McQuaid was handcuffed and arrested, but ultimately no charges were filed. “He’d done nothing wrong,” Ramsey explained.
Interestingly, Brennan later couldn’t recall whether Pitts had fired the shotgun. He said he had “tunnel vision,” his only focus being to defend himself. Investigators determined the shotgun could hold four shells but had only three in it. The ground around the motorhome was littered with empty shells, however—Pitts liked to fire the gun for fun—so they couldn’t determine whether it had been fired at Brennan.
Brennan hit Pitts with three shots: one in the neck, one in the wrist and, finally, one in the upper body as he was crawling toward the gun.
Pitts was only the third person killed by a game warden in California history; the first two date back to the 1920s.
Bartyn Pitts was originally from Dana Point, in Orange County. Ramsey said that family members and acquaintances told investigators he had bipolar disorder. He also apparently self-medicated using illicit substances and had twice been arrested for possession, in Nevada in 1994 and in California in 1997.
But at the age of 31 he tried to redirect his life, enrolling at UC Santa Barbara, where he majored in law and society and did quite well. He made the dean’s list in his senior year and graduated in the spring of 2003. Afterwards, though, he got in trouble when he was accused of threatening a teaching assistant who’d given him an “F” in a summer school class.
When Pitts was barred from the campus pending a hearing on the matter, he sloughed it off, saying, according to the campus newspaper, “That’s all right with me. I’m on my way to Hawaii to build some houses, surf and get healthy.”
He lived in Hawaii for four years. In June 2005 he was arrested on felony drug charges after officers intercepted a parcel containing 108.6 grams of methamphetamine that was to be delivered to him.
On March 28, nearly two years after his arrest, a grand jury indicted him. When he failed to appear for his May 3 arraignment—he was in Butte County by then—the arrest warrant was issued.
Among the personal items found in Pitts’ motorhome was a journal. Early entries in the journal are written in a neat hand and are “very articulate,” Ramsey said. But in recent months the writing “degenerates a great deal, and the handwriting becomes much less legible.” Pitts was “morose” and wrote about his unwillingness to go to jail.
Was it “suicide by cop,” then? Maybe, responded the district attorney, noting that three of the 11 people shot by local police officers in the past three years were trying to get themselves killed. That, or Pitts just “flipped out” at the prospect of going to prison, Ramsey said. “It was like something switched in him.”