Former Modesto Bee reporter and retired attorney Steve Ringhoff combines his passions for journalism and law in series of investigative reports about Modesto and surrounding areas. Read more of his work HERE.
For those who live in the subdivision just east of Highway 99 in southeast Ripon, that sound at night—sirens—was not unusual. But, then, for those awake or awakened in the early hours of February 26, 2017, it changed. It was closer. It was HERE!
The sirens went quiet. Red and blue light flashed through the chinks in the window coverings of the homes on Tornell Circle and South Manley Drive. There were voices. Amplified. Adrenalized. The words, in essence: “get out of the car.”
Then loud, cracking sounds…gunshots…four of them followed shortly by a “thump” and the tinkling of broken glass as a car buried itself in the front room of a house on Tornell Circle.
Minutes later, Evin Olsen Yadegar, 46, an owner of the Barkin’ Dog Grill in downtown Modesto was dead from a gunshot wound to the chest, leaving her husband, Hanibal, and a then nine-year-old son, Antanous to wonder why she died.
It’s been14 months and we still know almost nothing about why Evin was shot to death by a young Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy.
And, we may never really know what happened as the lid on information is screwed on tighter and tighter. There is the prospect that what happened may never be publicly known as a “protective order” is in force in the litigation filed behalf of the widower and son.
A coverup is often worse than…
We begin with the premise that no law PROHIBITS law enforcement from releasing reports, statements or body and dash camera videos, all of which exist in this case. There are laws which allow law enforcement to avoid disclosure, which they have used, to keep the official information secret.
About seven months after the shooting in Ripon, we made a request, on our own behalf, under the California Public Records Act for copies of witness statements, the videos and other documents. The Ripon Police refused to provide any information, saying it was not available to the public. So, we contacted Mr. Yadegar and got him to appoint us as his “authorized representative,” with the permission of his attorney Stewart Tabak of Stockton.
Being an “authorized representative” gave us a special status and allowed us to receive the records, we thought. But, the Ripon PD said release of any document would, “endanger the successful completion of the investigation,” an exception even with the special status.
No one from any of the agencies involved would say how or why release of basic information would in any way compromise an investigation in which the eyewitnesses were all law enforcement officers, either Ripon PD or Stanislaus Deputies.
So, we filed an action in San Joaquin County Superior Court asking the court to order disclosure. The matter was extensively briefed, and we were days away from arguing the case before a judge when Mr. Tabak withdrew our authorization without explanation.
Mr. Tabak had filed an action naming only the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s office and Deputy Justin Wall and the time was nearing for “discovery,” the exchange of evidence and information between the parties.
We have learned that a “protective order” will forbid the parties from disclosing, outside of its use in the legal action, any information obtained through discovery. These orders generally result from an agreement between the parties. One party refuses to produce discovery unless such an order is agreed to. This leads to the likelihood that the protective order may remain in place after the case is settled. Settlement seems to be the most likely outcome.
More than a year later…
The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office has yet to reveal any “findings.” The investigation is factually simple. But, consideration by the DA of whether to charge Deputy Justin Wall with any crime is more complex; it involves measuring his actions against procedure, policy and practice with the underlying issue of whether a deputy in his position would be justified in using deadly force.
The facts we have gathered are mostly from secondary sources, including the press releases, press accounts of statements given by witnesses to the aftermath, a pursuit report given by the sheriff to the CHP, the death certificate, information about the policies of the Sheriff’s office, state and national statistics about law enforcement practices in initiating and terminating pursuits, and publications about dealing with the mentally ill.
It is about dealing with the latter …mental illness…that permeates this case. Evin Yadegar was a college graduate (MFA in fine arts). She had worked as a costumer and designer and, at the time of her death was part- owner of a casual restaurant which helped bring a music and poetry scene to downtown Modesto most nights.
Evin Yadegar was also bi-polar. Like many who suffer from that disorder, she was dependent on medication for treatment. And, like many bipolar people, she sometimes felt that she didn’t need medication so would stop taking it.
This event happened during one of those episodes. She had conflicts with her family, primarily with her husband, who had, not long before, sought help from the police. She had kicked him out of the family home because he was pushing her to resume taking her medicine.
In those early morning of February 26, 2017, about 3:00 am, the sheriff’s office received a 911 from the Hampton Inn, a motel in a cluster of restaurants and motels at Sisk and Pirrone Roads, just east of Highway 99 at the Salida exit.
The contents of that call have been variously categorized as reporting a disturbance, or a verbal and/or physical altercation caused by Ms. Yadegar, who was not staying at the motel and whose presence there has not been explained. A security guard made the call. Sheriff Adam Christenson says the guard wanted the sheriff’s office, “to know about the situation.”
Whatever characterization applies, nothing was going on at the motel as a deputy drove up. He saw the car linked to the incident leaving the area, so he attempted to pull it over by turning on his flashing lights, then sounding his siren.
The pursuit report to the CHP, filed by the sheriff’s office, detailed a slow speed chase, first through the streets of Salida then onto Highway 99 towards Ripon…six miles…18 minutes.
During the chase in Salida a “spike strip” was deployed to flatten Ms. Yadegar’s tires, so speeds on the highway did not exceed 50 mph, according to that report. The deputy who started the pursuit was joined in the chase by several other deputies, as many as six, plus an Explorer on a ride-along, in five patrol cars.
Radio contact with the Ripon PD brought them into the fray. They set up a roadblock at the Ripon offramp but Evin drove around it, turned right onto Main Street, then right onto S. Manley, finally stopping at the western intersection of Tornell Circle and Manley. (Tornell Circle is horseshoe shaped, intersecting S. Manley at the two ends of the horseshoe. It is across the street from the San Joaquin County Swiss Club)
At this juncture, there was an effort to block Evin’s car with the patrol cars. She stopped for a short time, during which the officers and deputies yelled at her to get out of the car.
Then, apparently, there was some movement of her car. The press releases don’t really clarify this movement. There was an indication that the car was moving backwards, allegedly towards two deputies and a Ripon officer
Deputy Wall, then 24, fired four shots into the car. According to Sheriff Christenson, Deputy Wall had received nothing but accolades for the three years he had been with his office since graduation from the police academy in Alameda. He came into the sheriff’s office hoping to become a K-9 handler. He volunteered to be the guy in the padded suit who is attacked by the dogs during their training.
None of the information given out tells us exactly where Deputy Wall was standing. The death certificate details gunshot wounds to the forearm and chest. That could be from two bullets, or from one fired from near the front of the car, passing through her forearm, as she had her hands on the steering wheel, and then striking her in the chest.
Deputy Wall was the only law enforcement officer who fired a service weapon out of six deputies and three Ripon PD officers.
After the shots were fired, the car moved north on Tornell Circle, veering to its left across a lawn, and then wedged itself into the front of the home in the 700 block of Tornell Circle.
Efforts to resuscitate Ms. Ydegar were unsuccessful. The death certificate notes she died within minutes of the gunshot wound to the chest.
Hanibal Yadegar questioned the actions of the deputies in the days immediately following, asking WHY, if his wife presented such a danger that deadly force was required, only one of the nine, armed law enforcement officers opened fire.
The DA’s involvement:
The San Joaquin County District Attorney will only be making a decision regarding any criminal charges which might result from the shooting. The sheriff’s office has conducted an administrative review of the actions of its deputies, including whether a pursuit should have started, whether it should have been terminated and whether Deputy Wall followed departmental guidelines in discharging his weapon. Typically, the sheriff refuses to discuss what, if any discipline was imposed, citing privacy rights of the deputies involved.
We asked, simply, whether Deputy Wall was still employed by the county, and, if so, was he still on paid administrative leave or back on regular duty. Deputy County Counsel Robert J. Taro said the County could not respond because it was a “personnel issue.”
Evin Yadegar’s death was one of 987 fatal police shootings in 2017, according to the Washington Post’s data base of police shootings. In 2015, 2016, and 2017, one quarter of these shooting involved people suffering from mental illness.
So, questions might rightfully be asked about what could or should have been done in this case. The deputy who initially tried to pull her over does not list any crime as the “initiating offense” for the chase on the report to the CHP except for the vehicle code violation for failing to pull over.
Some law enforcement agencies are conscious of the idea of de-escalating situations, especially where no major crime or violence is involved. This is accomplished by not starting or not continuing a chase under certain circumstances.
What was known to sheriff’s deputies about Ms. Yadegar’s mental state at the time has not been revealed. Her conduct at the motel and while driving her car might tell something. Sheriff’s dispatchers were in contact with the security guard at the motel and he likely would have had insight as to her mental state, which could have been relayed to her pursuers. What, if anything, was relayed to the pursuers about Evin’s mental state is not yet known.
- Why keep chasing when there was no underlying crime? The Stanislaus Sheriff’s written pursuit policy requires involvement of a supervisor, presumably an older, more experienced deputy. One, perhaps, with enough experience to make the judgement call just to end the pursuit, or just follow the car with flattened tires without lights flashing or sirens blaring, calming the situation.
- With all the resources there, five sheriff’s cars and three Ripon PD cars, why couldn’t Ms. Yadegar’s car have been contained or blocked? A car in front and one in back, bumper to bumper, would have done the trick. After the shots were fired, Evin managed to drive out of the blockade.
- Why did any of the law enforcement officers put themselves in a position around the car, so that movement of the car, backwards or forward, endangered them, causing Deputy Wall to fire? Some law enforcement agencies have written guidelines which include where to position yourself in this situation. Evin’s car could not go sideways, so the only risk to the officers was if they stood, or moved, in front of or in back of the vehicle.
These questions may go unanswered. As we have stated, the California Public Records Act does not require disclosure of certain law enforcement materials. On the other hand, those code sections do not prohibit disclosure.
There are witness statements from Ripon Police Officers who did not fire their weapons. Most importantly, there are body and dash videos from devices worn by the Ripon officers which might provide an unfiltered account of what led to Evin’s death.
Is the public going to be satisfied with the district attorney’s version of events? Or, will there be the smell of a coverup if Deputy Wall is exonerated and the official reports are kept secret.
A criminal charge is possible, but unlikely. It would be unusual for any kind of charge to arise from an on-duty shooting death.
COMING SOON: A glitch in the civil suit may preclude Hanibal Yadegar from receiving any damages from Ripon or its officers who were involved in the incident.