Not justified, not criminal

Public mystified at 'accidental' ruling on police shooting caught on tape

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and Paradise Police Chief Gabriela Tazzari-Dineen outline the facts of what happened on the night a Paradise officer shot Andrew Thomas, who had been in a vehicle crash with Darien Ehorn.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and Paradise Police Chief Gabriela Tazzari-Dineen outline the facts of what happened on the night a Paradise officer shot Andrew Thomas, who had been in a vehicle crash with Darien Ehorn.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

An SUV, no lights on, speeds down the Skyway out of the Canteena parking lot and hangs a wide left. As we follow, its lights turn on but its speed—50 to 60 mph—does not diminish. Up and down, that RAV4 follows the small hills of Paradise’s Pearson Road. Then, without warning, smash! It hits a median at Black Olive Road and flips onto the driver’s side. A hole in the windshield, covered in blood, indicates that yes, that dark shape in the road next to the SUV is a person, clearly critically injured.

The scene described above, shocking enough as it is, is only the beginning of a Paradise Police dashcam video released last week as part of the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team’s report on Officer Patrick Feaster’s actions while responding to this incident. It’s his dashcam.

When the police car stops, we clearly see a man jump up through the passenger-side window and prop himself on top. The dashcam has no sound, so it’s unknown what, if anything, was said. Feaster comes into view and, as the man—now known to be Andrew Thomas—pulls himself up, Feaster unholsters his gun, raises it and pulls the trigger. Thomas immediately slumps back into the SUV, which is still running.

That weapon discharge is what prompted the protocol team to investigate the Nov. 25 incident. Feaster maintains he didn’t believe his gun went off, though he did tell investigators that, after the shot, he approached the vehicle and ordered Thomas out. Thomas allegedly replied, “I can’t, you shot me!” but the sarcastic tone of his voice led Feaster to believe he was lying, explained Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, who delivered the team’s findings.

“We’re not calling this particular shooting justified,” Ramsey said. “It’s not justified, but it’s not criminal.”

He went on to explain that, had Thomas succumbed to his wound—he was shot in the neck and likely will be paraplegic—it would be a homicide case. Because he is still alive and the investigators found that Feaster, a five-year veteran of the Paradise force, did not “willfully” pull the trigger, there is no charge in the Penal Code applicable to this case. Currently, Feaster is on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. The results of that will be confidential, explained Paradise Police Chief Gabriela Tazzari-Dineen.

“He has clearly been very affected by this incident,” she said of Feaster.

“Accidents are part of life,” Ramsey said. “We have officers that are human. They make mistakes. And they should be treated fairly under the law.”

The lack of criminal charges doesn’t seem fair, however, to many in the public, including a large group of people who gathered to protest last weekend and plan to do so again on Saturday (Dec. 19) at Paradise Community Park (search “Justice for Andrew Thomas” on Facebook for more info). Efforts to contact those leading the charge were unfruitful.

The video has gone viral and online comments have pointed to Feaster’s actions following the discharge as being peculiar at best. The footage shows that after his gun goes off, he immediately holsters it and approaches the vehicle, not appearing to even take notice of Ehorn, who is lying face-down but still alive on the pavement next to him. He has still not activated his body camera, which Ramsey said protocol requires to be turned on “as soon as practical.” Soon after, two other officers arrive on the scene. Feaster appears to give a rundown of events, but does not mention discharging his weapon or fearing that he has done so. One officer looks in on Thomas; the other tends to Ehorn, Thomas’ estranged wife who died at the scene. All the while, Feaster paces the scene with his flashlight trained on the ground.

“He was looking for a shell casing,” Ramsey said. “In his statement, he said he was trying to confirm in his mind that he had shot his weapon.”

According to Ramsey, it wasn’t until medics arrived and were able to extract Thomas from the vehicle that they noticed the vast amount of blood—much more than at a typical accident scene. That’s when they realized Thomas had been shot. One of the other officers “was ready to go to the Canteena to see if he’d been shot there,” Ramsey said. “That’s when Feaster said, ‘ ‘I may have shot him.’”

In a “lay person’s” description of the investigation, Ramsey writes, “The lack of immediate notification greatly troubled all the team investigators, as it did me. The officer explained it as a result of his shock and confusion of the entire event—and the unreasonable hope and belief that maybe his gun really did not go off and injure the driver.”

Thomas is still at Enloe Medical Center. He is facing vehicular manslaughter charges as well as DUI charges (he blew a 0.15).