A Sacramento cop guns down a schizophrenic man. Police say it's justified. Witnesses tell a different story.
Whatever the truth it’s a tragic reminder of the region's ongoing mental-health crisis
Blood spills from Paul Cantarutti's chest and soaks through his charcoal gray T-shirt. The 28-year-old rolls onto his side, arms tucked behind his back, and Sacramento police officers lock handcuffs around his wrists. He buries his nose into the warm downtown sidewalk and lets out a moan: the sound of a man with a freshly discharged bullet searing into his lung.
A cop runs to the scene and places a boot atop a pocketknife resting on the ground nearby. Paul's grunts and gasps are barely audible over the commotion in Cesar Chavez Plaza: the din of rush-hour traffic, distant sirens, screams, a man shouting “Why'd you shoot him? You idiot!” And the inconsolable wailing of Paul's mom.
Linda Cantarutti stands a few feet from her son. “No. No. No,” she sobs, uttering the words quietly, her throat convulsing as she watches medics apply bandages to Paul's wounds.
Minutes earlier, she'd approached a woman police sergeant: “My son is hallucinating really bad and I need help with him,” she told her.
Witnesses disagree on what happened next on May 21, at 6:13 p.m. But what is known—based on police-body-camera videos—is that Sacramento cop Henry “Hank” McClusky unloaded rounds from his .40-caliber standard-issue pistol into Paul Zachary Cantarutti's body, including one directly through his sternum.
Even weeks later, Linda can't believe it. “I came over and asked for help,” she said. “And they shot him.”
According to witness interviews conducted by SN&R and case documents obtained by this paper, McClusky and Paul were somewhere between 5 to 10 feet apart. Paul held the folding knife, with a 2-to-3-inch blade, in his right hand. Firemen and medics just so happened to be on the scene and immediately rendered aid. Paul was in an ambulance and on his way to to UC Davis Medical Center in less than eight minutes. He survived.
“It’s a miracle that he’s alive,” his mom said.
Now, the hard reality. Paul faces two felony charges, most notably assault with a deadly weapon. The police claim that Paul—5-foot-8 and 170 pounds with a scruffy beard and medium build—“lunged” at the officers with his knife. This alleged move could land him up to five years in state prison.
But there are many witnesses in the park that evening who say Paul didn’t make a threatening move before the bullets tore into his flesh. That he never tried to attack the officers. That the cops had no reason to shoot him.
That Paul is the victim.
“I don’t know why the cop shot him. He wasn’t doing anything,” said witness Thomas Dean Martin, who was approximately 15 feet away when Paul was shot.
Police use of force is, of course, under a microscope. Think Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott. But the shooting of Paul, a mentally ill Asian-American man, has flown under the radar in Sacramento.
His parents are frustrated. “It does not matter whether my son was black or white, or was or was not suffering from a schizophrenic episode. The police shooting was wrong. The shooting was a clear-cut case of police abuse and excessive use of force,” said Paul’s father, Michael Cantarutti, an attorney in Santa Rosa.
The shooting comes after years of cuts to mental-health resources in Sacramento, which county behavioral-health deputy director Uma Zykofsky referred to as “catastrophic.” In June, the Sacramento grand jury blasted the county for its mental-health mismanagement, calling its policy a “shameful legacy of neglect.” All the while, jails and emergency rooms became the new psych wards. Cops working the streets became psychologists on the front lines.
“The whole mental-health issue has greatly impacted law enforcement, and we’re trying to handle it the best that we can,” says Deputy Kim Mojica, who coordinates mental-health crisis training for cops throughout the region.
Paul is just one of thousands of local men and women who never connected with help. His illness accelerated inside jail cells and ERs. A routine that, Paul says, has become a way of life: “I’m kind of used to the shit end of the stick.”The hours before the shooting
The sun set on Linda Cantarutti’s home, a quaint two-bedroom on a rural-feeling plot of land in Carmichael. It was around 9:30 p.m. on May 20, and Paul was in the kitchen. He grabbed a knife and started wandering around the house. He told Linda that people were hiding in the attic. That they were hidden in the dishwasher. Paul put the kitchen knife away and grabbed his pocketknife. “I don’t know why you’re not afraid. It’s going to happen. They’re here,” he told his mom.
Linda called the police at 9:44 p.m. According to the police report, Paul fled from the house and into the backyard as the deputies arrived at 10:18 p.m. They called for Paul. He came out from the backyard holding the knife in his hand. This was not an issue for the deputies, and Paul was detained by 10:21 p.m.
Linda asked them to take Paul away, to place him on a psychiatric hold at a hospital. But law enforcement can only do this if an individual is a danger to themselves or to others, if they’re gravely disabled or if they deny themselves food, clothing or shelter. Cops also know there’s not a lot of space at the hospitals. The deputies decided that Paul did not meet the threshold.
Still, they took Paul away. He was dropped off at an In-N-Out Burger at around 11 p.m.
Paul doesn’t remember what happened that night on the streets. “They said they just wanted me to go somewhere else,” he said.
“He didn’t get any help,” Linda said, frustrated.
The next day, Paul returned home. “He had gotten worse,” Linda said.
They both got in her car and just drove. At first she thought maybe they’d go to San Francisco. Paul likes it there. She also considered putting him on a bus at the Greyhound station. But while sitting in rush-hour traffic on the freeway, Paul became increasingly agitated. When she stopped the car, he threatened to knock her out and take over the wheel.
“I was getting nervous, worried that his mind was melting on us,” she said. “But I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t afraid of my son hurting me.”
She finally exited on 10th Street and, as she approached Cesar Chavez Plaza, saw police cars and fire engines. “If I’m going to stop and he needs help, maybe this is a good place,” Linda thought, according to her interview with police after the shooting.
Police Sgt. Sherry Bell was in the driver’s seat of her squad car, parked on I Street near the Cesar Chavez statue on the northwest end of the park. Linda approached. She told her that she thought her son was “on some kind of narcotics,” according to a police report transcript of an interview with Bell.
Bell said that Linda also told her that Paul said “something to the effect that, um, they’d both be dead before the end of the night and he was going to blow up her car.” The sergeant told Linda to hang on, and then called for Officer McClusky.
Linda began explaining what was up to McClusky, but she says he interrupted her: “Just tell me what his name is. I don’t need to hear all that.”
McClusky waved at Paul: “Hey, come over.” Paul jaywalked, inching toward the officers and his mom. Linda says he’s always been a slow walker.
In an interview with a detective after the shooting, McClusky explained that he saw a knife in Paul’s hand just as he approached the sidewalk. He described it as “a folding knife with about a 3-inch blade,” which Paul held at his side, pointing outward. Upon seeing it, McClusky quickly backed up, drew his firearm and gave Paul a warning:
“Put down the knife.”The shooting
McClusky stands tall at 6-foot-4. He’s been an officer with the Sacramento Police Department for 11 years. For nearly the past two, he’s been a bike cop. He knows firsthand downtown’s unique struggles with homelessness and unwell people. He’s had a total of eight hours of mental-health-crisis-related training during his career, he said in an interview with an investigator after the shooting.
At 6:13 p.m. on May 21, McClusky was face-to-face with Paul on the northwest sidewalk of Cesar Chavez. His gun drawn, the pocket knife in Paul’s right hand. There were some 30 to 40 people in the park. Firefighters and medics were on the scene already, too, dealing with the aftermath of a transient fight. The traffic on I Street was heavy.
Bell had seen McClusky back up with his handgun drawn. She’d heard him say something about a knife. So, she threw her door open, jumped out of the car and drew her own gun.
She described the knife in Paul’s hand as pointing backward, and his demeanor as “hesitant” with a “blankness.”
Officer Bryon Stone, McClusky’s partner, ran up to his right and drew his firearm as well. He said Paul held the knife at “midtorso level” and “in the direction of McClusky.”
At this point, McClusky activated his body camera—the bike unit just began wearing these weeks earlier—but the lens was pointing toward the sky, and you can’t see Paul. The audio works, however. McClusky said, “Stone, get your Taser.” Stone complied. Immediately after, Bell gave an order: “Tase him! Tase him! Tase him!” But there was no Taser.
Just gun shots.
“You don’t really feel it until afterward. And then you realize that you’re shot,” Paul explained of the moment. “I could just feel my whole stomach and my chest burning.”
What prompted McClusky to fire? Stone says that, in the seconds before his partner shot, he observed Paul “lurch” toward them. “When the subject lurched I was in fear for my life,” he explained to a detective after the shooting. “I was scared because I did not have a functional weapon at my disposal.” (His Taser was not yet activated.)
“If my pistol had still been drawn I would have fired at the same time” as McClusky, he said.
Mojica, the deputy who trains cops on how to deal with mental-health episodes, says that she reminds trainees that “you never sacrifice your officer safety.”
“If someone with a mental illness is running at you with a knife or a gun, you need to respond,” she said.
But was Paul a threat? Bell said that she had actually taken her eyes off of Paul. She was looking at Stone’s holstered gun the exact moment when McClusky pulled the trigger. She didn’t see what caused him to shoot.
McClusky himself said that, right before he shot Paul, he saw something click in the young man. At first, the officer described Paul as having “a weird grin” on his face. But then, “the look on his face kind of changed, like he wanted something to happen.
“And he just lurched forward like that, real quick, and started to raise his arm up. … Like he’s going for it.
“I just start firing.”<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/0naxENgC--M" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Warning: This video is of footage from Officer McClusky’s body camera and is for mature audiences. It does not include video of the actually shooting, but there is audio. It also includes video of the aftermath.‘Why’d you shoot him?’
Estuardo “David” Mazariegos was heading west on I Street when he looked to his left and saw a person surrounded by police. He stopped the car. Then, gun shots. He says he was stunned that the cops shot Paul, because “he wasn’t making any sudden moves.”
“He really wasn’t any threat to the cops, especially with the weapons they had pointed at him. He was just standing there,” Mazariegos explained less than a month after the shooting, during an interview with SN&R at Cesar Chavez Plaza. “He didn’t lunge at them. The guy was just standing there. And they shot him.”
Mazariegos’ reaction to the shooting was instant, visceral. He’s the loudest person on the police body-camera footage: “Fuck!” Then a pause, then louder: “Fuck! Fuck! Why’d you shoot him? You idiot! You fucking assholes!”
He was eventually detained for being “vulgar” and noncooperative, according to police documents. Mazariegos has a different version of how it went down: “An officer grabbed me by the neck, twisted my arm, kicked me in my bad knee and shoved me into the police car.” He also claims that they left him in the patrol car with the heater turned on for three hours.
He was eventually interviewed at police headquarters and released just after midnight. Mazariegos filed a complaint over his treatment with city police’s internal-affairs division in June. A police spokesman says the department does not comment on complaints.
He is just one of many witnesses in the park that day who say the shooting doesn’t add up.
Billy Lee Mueller had been hanging out in Cesar Chavez for a while, sitting on the north side, facing old City Hall. He saw the transient fight earlier in the evening—the attack with a cane, the thrown glass bottle that landed in the street. And he was a few feet away from McClusky and Paul, the closest nonprincipal witness of the entire shooting.
He told a police officer less than an hour after the incident: “I am not sure why the officers fired their guns. I did not hear any yelling from the officers or the subject. I just think that the subject was walking toward them.”
Thomas Dean Martin was sitting on the steps near the Cesar Chavez statue and facing west. He had a clear view of the shooting and was about 15 feet away.
“All of the sudden one of the cops pulled out his gun and shot the guy four times. The guy didn’t have anything in his hands or anything. I don’t know why the cop shot him. He wasn’t doing anything. Only one of the cops shot. I saw the whole thing,” he told an officer less than a half-hour after the shooting.
Martin was taken to police headquarters, where he spoke with a detective at 9:35 p.m. that night. During that interview, he said that, “[Paul] was walking toward the officer at a normal pace. There was nothing in the man’s hands at the time. I was wondering why they had shot him. The man had his hands at his sides, and he did not say anything as he was walking toward the officers.”
Witness Wardell Guiton told police that, “It looked like there was more than enough cops to wrestle the guy to the ground or to Taser him. I don’t know why they shot him.”
He also added that, “There was quite a commotion from the people in the park. People were asking why she shot him instead of Tasering him.”
Linda herself stood just a few feet from her son, behind McClusky and Bell. “I’m not going to lie. I am a truthful person. I did see the knife,” Linda explained later. “But I didn’t see him lunging at them.
“He did nothing violent.”
Later at police headquarters, Linda shared an observation with an investigator: “When the deputies called for Paul to come talk to them [on the night before the shooting], Paul came out holding that same knife. … Paul was walking toward the deputies last night and he had that same knife opened up, so I don’t know why they shot him today.”
Linda’s nightmare continued for 10 days after the shooting. Police would not inform her as to Paul’s status. She was not allowed to see him. And she didn’t even know what hospital he was at.
“We were total basket cases. We didn’t know whether he was dead or alive,” Michael remembered. The police would not comment on the family’s claim that they were denied information about Paul.
Paul says he spent those days in the hospital “shackled” to a bed, under 24-hour guard. He remembers attorney Linda Parisi visiting him, but police turning her away. He also claimed to ask for an attorney, but being denied, when detectives would come to interview him.
Paul ended up with gunshot wounds in the center of the chest, the left part of his belly, the upper left arm and the right thigh.
Police records state that Paul’s urinalysis was positive for methamphetamine when he arrived at the hospital, but his official medical records are sealed under court order.
In early June, Paul was discharged and booked at the jail. “I just barely met the requirements,” he says a woman at UC Davis informed him. His chest was freshly sewed up and still bloody. “I was still in a lot of pain.”
At the downtown jail, Paul says he was denied a wheelchair and that they reduced his pain medication. He had to crawl across the floor in his cell to use the toilet. “I’m sitting there with a bullet sticking out of my back, and I can’t lay on my stomach, either.” There’s still a bullet protruding from his lower back, touching his spine.
Paul says one day a jail mate pointed at the scar on his chest and told him: “They call that your kill shot. You know, you almost died.”A missed connection
The first thing visitors see at Linda’s home in Carmichael is Scarlett, possibly the least ferocious dog in Sacramento. The miniature Chihuahua bounces all over the porch. The yapping’s incessant. The crest of her head is dyed with yellow highlighter, which has her looking like a four-legged Miley Cyrus. Paul sits next to her on the front porch with his shirt off, dragging cigarettes, unfazed by her infinite charms.
Life wasn’t always a struggle for Paul. Linda described him as a “really smart, supersweet” kid while growing up. A boy who was fascinated by electronics and video games, and enamored with his older sister, Lacrecia. Linda and Michael divorced when Paul was very young, around 2 years old, but it didn’t seem to have an impact.
“Never when he was growing up did someone say ’Hey, your boy has mental problems,’” Michael said.
Both parents agree, however, that things started changing when Paul turned 14. He began sneaking out at night, getting in trouble, taking the car for joy rides. He also began struggling at school, which lead him to enroll at Rite of Passage, a continuation program for “at-risk” kids. That’s when Paul got a large tattoo on his back, of a skull and playing cards. The ace of spades.
After a run-in with the law in his early 20s, he was diagnosed at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville as schizophrenic. Michael doesn’t remember the year. “’Your son has schizophrenia and he will never be able to function properly in society. … He’s not going to make it on his own,’” Michael said the physician told him. Paul’s police record, when it appears on dispatches, sometimes lists him as mentally ill or schizophrenic.
His illness has led to countless run-ins with police. Michael says Paul has been incarcerated at least 25 percent of the time since age 18.
These incidents often are fueled by alcohol. Linda says he often refuses to take his medication, too. Multiple DUIs. Grand theft. Resisting arrest. An episode where he broke a window at his mom’s home.
During an August 2012 DUI offense in North Highlands, Paul allegedly assaulted a cop in the back seat of a squad car. According to a police report, Paul yelled, “I know you are going to beat the shit out of me!” when an officer tried to sit next to him in the rear seat. He tried to head-butt the cop, failed and then knocked the cop’s head into a pole. He was only charged with resisting arrest.
Paul welcomed a son into this world in 2012. Weeks after his son was born, his sister, whom he adored, passed away. “After that, he pretty much started going downhill,” said Linda.
This year, Michael says his schizophrenia has hit “warp speed.”
“It’s like a meteor coming through the sky—and it feels like it’s speeding up.”
Meanwhile, during the years of Paul’s health meltdown, Sacramento was also experiencing its own mental-health catastrophe.
It began in 2008, with the recession, which prompted all sorts of severe budget cuts, on every front, from hospitals to police. Uma Zykofsky, the county’s deputy director of behavioral health, refers to this as “a painful moment for our community.”
The next year, it got worse: Sacramento’s only mental-health crisis-care center for adults shut down, and the county cut its overall behavioral budget by $14 million.
“It could not have been a more perfect storm,” is how Jodi Nerell, director of behavioral health with the local Wellspace clinic, described it. “It was awful. It was like the Armageddon for the poor law enforcement,” who had to deal with all these unwell people on the streets with scant resources. “The ER became the de facto psych treatment centers.”
Paul didn’t “make a connection,” as mental-health practitioners call it, during his revolving-door visits to the ER and jail.
Statistics show that approximately 20 percent of the calls during a law officer’s single shift are mental-illness related.
Mojica with the sheriff’s department thinks that number is low. “I’ve worked the streets for 10 years, and the number is probably 45 to 50 [percent]. I’ve had some days where that has been my whole shift,” she said.
Although it’s been a frustrating seven years of cuts, stakeholders aren’t just waving the white flag.
Nerell with Wellspace says Sacramento’s turned the corner in the past couple of years. “They are shifting the pendulum back to the other direction” when it comes to reinstating care, she said.
Zykofsky with the county agreed, and she called the $60 million that county supervisors voted to invest in mental-health resources earlier this summer “pretty unprecedented.”
Mojica’s seeing changes on the front lines. Her job is to coordinate crisis-intervention training for cops in the region, from Elk Grove and Galt to Folsom and the city of Sacramento. Her job came about, she says, after “a rash of officer-involved shootings” in 2012. In the past 18 months, she’s trained more than 2,300 cops on how to better respond during behavioral-crisis calls.
“We have six hours of mental-health training, which is absolutely not enough. Because our calls for service with the mentally ill have increased exponentially,” she told SN&R.
Bike-unit officers are now required to take 24 hours of crisis-intervention training this year, according to police spokesman Sgt. Doug Morse. “This is due to the likelihood of the bike unit having a higher rate of contact with those suffering from mental health illness,” he wrote in an email.
There’s also new state money to pay for mental-health experts to ride along with law enforcement. In downtown Sacramento, a program launched in June put an expert in a patrol car with a designated mental-health officer. The county launched a similar program this month. Mojica says it’s been “really effective.”
In the coming years, the county will be granting awards to open 60 residential wellness centers. Each “respite” center will have 16 beds, and while they won’t be hospital facilities, they are places where people can stay for up to 30 days and address crisis issues.
“And there’s growing talk of opening up some type of psychiatric urgent care,” Nerell says. This would be huge, something to fill the gap of the drop-in adult center that closed in 2009.
It’ll take years, however, for this new model of care to grease the gears. Will Paul make it?
On Friday, August 14, the day of Paul’s preliminary hearing, Judge Allen Sumner’s courtroom was buzzing. At least 20 attorneys stood around shooting the breeze, balancing binders full of briefs with coffees and energy drinks. Paul’s lawyer, public defender Tiffanie Synnott, waded through the fray to speak with the prosecutor on the case, Deputy District Attorney Mark Ott. They both sneaked into a side room for a private chat.
After about 10 minutes, Synnott emerged. Soon, she was in front of the judge:
“We have a situation with Cantarutti.”Starting at the bottom
Paul never showed up for his preliminary hearing.
If you’re unfamiliar with the world of justice, this is really bad. And Paul should know this, because it’s not his first failure to appear. The judge could have issued a bench warrant for his arrest, which would send him back to jail, which means all that bail money Linda paid—that maxed-out credit card for $3,000 and all those $300-a-month payments to a bondsman—would be for naught.
But this didn’t happen. The attorneys on both sides of Paul’s case agreed to ask the judge for a stay. The judge accepted.
Paul got a break.
Afterward, in the hallway outside the courtroom, Linda was flustered—and then she noticed that she was facing McClusky: bald head, sleek suit, shiny dress shoes. They didn’t speak. She later says that just seeing him “shook her to the core.”
The day before his hearing, Paul was arrested by deputies out in front of a Raley’s. Three charges—violating probation, resisting arrest, trespassing—landed him in county jail around 6 p.m. He spent six hours in a holding cell before getting dumped out onto the streets just after midnight. He told his mom that he was somewhere near Watt Avenue when he was supposed to be inside Department 9 at the courthouse.
Linda was incredulous. “He needs to be in a mental hospital,” she says.
Outside, the courthouse cast a shadow on Paul, who finally arrived more than an hour late. He looked like a man who spent the past 24 hours in a rough patch: greasy hair, ragged T-shirt with a marijuana logo on it, blank face. For a half hour, he sat on the steps next to his mom, smoking, speaking very little. Michael paced and chatted on the phone. Linda remained angrier than ever, asking questions: Does he even realize that he needs help? Does he realize that he needs to be responsible?
After a long rest, Paul pushed himself up, then limped with his parents to a nearby cafeteria. Sometimes a warm meal is the only silver lining.
It’d be nice to say that Paul’s arrest at Raley’s was the last straw. It wasn’t.
A week after, Paul found himself in custody again. Deputies snatched him up in Carmichael, took him to jail—but the jail refused to admit him, so the deputies then drove him to UCD Med Center. It was a busy Saturday night, and Paul fell asleep in the emergency room, missed his name being called and didn’t receive treatment for his infected feet and legs until Sunday. He spent a week in the hospital.
Paul’s next hearing is this Friday, August 28. In a perfect world, the DA and a judge might agree to place Paul’s case in the county’s mental-health court. It’s not unprecedented for a felony assault to be heard there. But it’s also not common.
And unlikely. The DA’s office is not talking, only to say that they are “going forward with the case,” according to spokeswoman Shelly Orio. And even the public defender’s office, after weeks of emails, is now declining to discuss Paul’s situation with SN&R: “Given the state of the case at this time we will refrain from making any statement,” his lawyer, Synnott, wrote in an email.
Linda’s afraid. “His father and I are so consumed with fear that something will happen to him before he gets help,” she confided recently via text message. “Michael hugged him for so long and told him many time[s] he loved him before he left last night. Told me he could feel Paul shaking with fear inside.”
Michael had hoped that the worse was over. That the week after McClusky shot his son was the rock-bottom moment. “When I found out Paul was alive, and it looked like he was going to make it, I thought the bottom was [behind us]. But now things are real bad. Being realistic, I can’t tell where the bottom is.”
It’s not clear what Paul believes. The thing with schizophrenia is that you can’t tell what is real, what’s actually happening. When asked how he wants this story—his story—to end, Paul revealed for the first time a sense of understanding and compassion, which Linda says he wore on his sleeve as a kid. He spoke softly:
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”