Three is the tragic number

Deven Lepierro was the most recent fatality in a rash of officer-involved shootings. His mother says the sheriff’s story doesn’t add up.

Photo Illustration by Don Button

The way it went down—at least, the version of events she read in the newspaper—just doesn’t seem to add up.

First, they say her son was trying to steal a camcorder. Next thing, he’s shot dead while in the driver’s seat of a sheriff’s squad car, his wrists still cuffed together.

“None of it sits very well with me,” said Pauline Lepierro, sitting in the entryway to an Oak Park funeral home last week, while her 24-year-old son’s body rested in a casket just a few paces away. “How does it go from simple shoplifting to my son being murdered?”

Deven J. Lepierro was killed on the afternoon of January 6 by a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy. It was the third time in the span of a week that a law-enforcement officer with the sheriff’s department shot a suspect.

Isaac Granville, 33, was fatally shot by two Rancho Cordova police officers in the early morning hours of January 5 as he allegedly was stabbing his mother’s boyfriend. James Williams, 59, was shot several times on December 31 after allegedly lunging toward Rancho Cordova police with a broken bottle. Rancho Cordova’s police services are provided by the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department.

In 2004, there were just 118 fatal officer-involved shootings throughout the entire state. That makes the local rash of shootings in the first week of the year all the more alarming. Even Steven Fisk, president of the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, called the rate of violence “unprecedented” in an interview with The Sacramento Bee.

Pauline Lepierro has not been able to get any information about her son out of the sheriff’s department, she said. She has called but received no answers. She was told only that the fatal shooting is under investigation. The coroner’s office told her that she would have to wait four to six months before receiving a copy of her son’s death certificate, she said.

Most of the information Pauline has comes from Chelle Ostlind, a friend of Lepierro’s who witnessed part of the Friday-afternoon melee.

The sheriff’s department’s version of the events of January 6 goes like this:

Lepierro was detained at a Wal-Mart store at Watt Avenue and Elverta Road for allegedly trying to steal something. Store security officers called sheriff’s deputies for help. Lepierro was arrested for two outstanding felony warrants and was placed in the back of a patrol car with “maximum restraints.” Lepierro was able to remove the restraints from his ankles, slip his handcuffed wrists from behind his body to his front and kick out the back window in the patrol car. He then ran from the car, jumping fences in a residential neighborhood, attempting to “car-jack several passing cars,” and then he tried to commandeer a Rio Linda Unified School District bus with high-school students aboard.

One deputy hit Lepierro with a Taser, but he continued to flee. Lepierro ran to an unattended patrol car and got into the driver’s seat. A deputy, fearing Lepierro might gain access to the rifle locked into place in the front of the patrol car, fired several rounds into Lepierro’s upper body.

Ostlind, who said she was following the patrol cars when Lepierro escaped, said deputies made the situation out to be more serious than it was.

“He did try and escape,” she said. “But he wasn’t trying to take anyone hostage, and he wasn’t a threat.”

She said the scene around the school bus was almost comical, with the students aboard cheering Lepierro on as he circled the bus, deputy in chase.

Ostlind tried to imagine what was going through Lepierro’s head on that Friday afternoon, when he ran from the squad car.

“Freedom,” she said. “He wasn’t ready to go back to prison yet.”

Lepierro had his share of run-ins with the law. He’d done a prison term for felony assault and also had been convicted of theft, resisting arrest and drug possession.

But Lepierro also had twin boys on the way—due in March—and was looking forward to starting a family, said those who knew him.

“My son wasn’t perfect,” Pauline said. “But he was trying to do the best he could.”

Lacresha Wicker, pregnant with Lepierro’s children and wearing an oversized T-shirt with his image on it, broke down at the funeral home when she viewed Lepierro’s body.

“I still don’t believe it,” she said. She last saw Lepierro two days before the shooting. “He said he loved me.”

Ostlind saw Lepierro less than an hour before he was detained at Wal-Mart.

“He was fine,” she remembered. “He told me to get dressed because we were going to go to Rancho Cordova to his friend’s house.”

Ostlind said Lepierro was always happy and smiling.

“He had a laugh that was unforgettable,” she said. “You could just hear him laugh from a mile away.”

Lepierro, who called himself “the Dude,” graduated from Hiram Johnson High School and played football at American River College, said his mom. He had plans to go into real estate or maybe become a barber, she said.

“He was a young man getting his roots, getting his family established,” said his cousin, Josette Pierro-Lippins.

Pauline said she’ll remember an industrious young man, who as a boy raised money to help his family.

“There were these dogs that had been born. And he sold the puppies and used the money to buy his brother some asthma medication that he needed,” she said.

Following each of the three shooting incidents, officers who fired their weapons were placed on paid administrative leave, which is the normal procedure.

Police agencies are tight-lipped about shootings and their investigations into them. Sheriff’s department spokespersons did not return calls from SN&R seeking comment for this story.

The district attorney’s office in this county has also, in the past, kept mum about investigations into shootings. In 2003, SN&R published a story outlining how Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully three times denied requests to view records related to police-misconduct prosecutions, while district attorneys in virtually every other California county cooperated with similar requests (see “Don’t ask, won’t tell”; SN&R News; May 22, 2003).

District-attorney investigators—who are, themselves, sworn peace officers—respond any time a bullet from a law-enforcement officer’s gun strikes another person. They conduct their own investigation and then review reports written by the law-enforcement agency and also, in the case of fatal shootings, autopsy reports. All of the documents then are forwarded to the district attorney’s special-investigations unit. Prosecutors there “determine whether or not there’s cause to believe there was criminal conduct by the officer,” said Lana Wyant, spokesperson for District Attorney Scully.

“Prosecution [of an officer involved in a shooting] is very rare—very rare statewide as well, not just Sacramento,” Wyant said.

She said that she could not yet comment on any investigations into the recent shootings.

Perhaps what bothers Pauline Lepierro most about the publicity around her son’s death is that it depicts him as a violent person with no redeeming qualities.

“The last 15 minutes of your life should not depict the very, very worst of your being,” she said.