One that got away

The story I most regret not completing

I was clearing out my email folders the other day when I came to one labeled “Miscellaneous.” In it I found a series of emails to and from Steve Martarano, the spokesman for what was then called the state Department of Fish and Game.

Suddenly I remembered: Of all the stories I’d set out to do, this was the one I most regretted not completing.

I had contacted Martarano because I was doing a follow-up to an Oct. 18, 2007, story I’d written about the Oct. 8 death of 39-year-old Bartyn Pitts at the hands of DFG Warden Joshua Brennan.

As Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey described it, Pitts was then living in the foothills above Lake Oroville, tending a collective medical-marijuana grow. The night before, Brennan, using his spotting scope, had witnessed him at an illegal campfire on the Feather River. The next day Brennan drove up to Pitts’ camp and gave him a ticket. Also present was Matthew McQuaid, a friend of Pitts’.

As Brennan drove away, he radioed in Pitts’ name for a check of any outstanding warrants. Sure enough, there was a $50,000 arrest warrant from Hawaii on a charge of distributing methamphetamine.

Brennan went back to arrest Pitts. And that’s when everything went south.

Pitts, now facing a serious felony charge, became extremely agitated, refusing to submit and be handcuffed and walking frenetically in circles. Suddenly he “jogged,” as Ramsey put it, to his motor home and went inside.

Brennan, sensing trouble, pulled out his handgun. Pitts emerged, holding a shotgun, and aimed it at Brennan. He fired once, Brennan fired several times, and when the shootout was over Pitts was dead. An investigative team later determined his death was “justified,” Ramsey said.

But was it? Why didn’t Brennan call for backup? I asked Ramsey. Reminding me that his own father had been a warden, Ramsey said wardens historically have worked alone.

I didn’t buy it. Brennan was outnumbered two to one. Red shotgun shells littered the ground, so he knew Pitts had a weapon. Besides, Pitts wasn’t going anywhere, and Brennan was only 20 miles from Oroville. A couple of deputies could have been there within minutes. Bartyn Pitts didn’t need to die.

I wrote the story, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Pitts. So later I called Martarano, who agreed to forward some questions to DFG Chief Nancy Foley. “Wouldn’t three, or even just two, officers have been in a better position to handle Pitts than one?” I asked her. “Was it appropriate for the warden to put himself in a situation where he could not maintain control?”

I never heard back from Foley. I left Martarano some phone messages, but got no response there, either. Gradually the story faded and I forgot about it. Until this week.

To my readers: This is my last column for the CN&R. Friday I’m retiring as its editor. Thank you for reading and for your support. It’s been an honor and a joy to produce these newsweeklies for you. And please welcome Melissa Daugherty as the CN&R’s new editor.