BLOOMFIELD, Calif. — Believing they had stopped a stolen car after a miles-long pursuit, two California sheriff’s deputies tried to arrest a carjacking victim, who died after the encounter in which one deputy appeared to slam the man’s skull into a car door and put him in a neck hold as the other deputy twice deployed his Taser.
Body camera video from the November incident begins mid-chase, during which authorities said David Ward, 52, twice stopped for deputies only to flee again. Speeds at one point reached 73 mph before a deputy, trailed by two officers from the Sebastopol Police Department, stopped Ward at a dead-end in Bloomfield, about a 30-minute drive southwest of Santa Rosa.
Deputies Charlie Blount and Jason Little, veterans with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, tried to extract Ward from the car, but they struggled because Ward’s legs were apparently pinned beneath the steering wheel.
Both deputies exclaimed that Ward bit them during the arrest attempt, and the body camera footage showed Blount pulled Ward’s head out of the car window by his hair. Just as Little deployed his Taser for the first time, Blount appeared to smash Ward’s head into the top of the car door.
After deputies and officers removed Ward from the car, Deputy Nick Jax informed his counterparts that Ward had no reason to run because he was a carjacking victim, not a car thief — to which Blount responded, “Oh well.”
Seconds later, the body camera video showed police saying, “He’s not breathing anymore,” and Blount ordered another law enforcement officer to begin CPR.
Officer on leave
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick handed Blount a notice of termination and said the deputy would remain on administrative leave until the investigation was complete and all appeals exhausted.
“What our deputies did not know at the time was that Mr. Ward was not only the owner of the car but the victim of the earlier carjacking,” Essick said. “The suspect had pistol-whipped him and stole his car. Mr. Ward had recovered the car but failed to report it. It remains a mystery as to why he fled from our deputies.”
Harry Stern, who is representing Blount, said Ward was responsible for his own death because he took “bizarre actions” that left deputies thinking he was an armed carjacker rather than a carjacking victim.
Stern said that it was his understanding that medical evidence would show Ward had a pre-existing medical condition and methamphetamine in his system. There were no indications of trauma to Ward’s neck, the lawyer said. (Police didn’t immediately say whether Ward was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and the Marin County Coroner’s Office was investigating the cause of death.)
“I am extremely disappointed in Sheriff Essick’s reaction to this unfortunate incident. I view his hasty decision as a product of panic, political expediency, and hindsight,” Stern said in a statement that called Blount’s actions “entirely reasonable.”
Reached for comment, Izaak Schwaiger, an attorney for Ward’s mother, said, “David was well-loved in his community. When the time for mourning has passed, justice will be done upon those responsible.”
Ward flees multiple times
Early Nov. 27, an off-duty Santa Rosa police officer reported seeing a vehicle, which belonged to Ward and had been reported stolen, in unincorporated Sonoma County, police said. A carjacker had pistol-whipped Ward and stolen the vehicle three days earlier, Essick said.
Ward, a Petaluma resident, was driving the car just before 6 a.m. (9 a.m. ET) when Little gave chase, police said.
With the two Sebastopol officers in their cars behind him, Little attempted to stop Ward between Sebastopol and Bloomfield.
“Deputy Little could not see inside of the vehicle and did not know how many or the identity of the occupants inside,” a police statement said. “The suspect in the initial theft had been in possession of a firearm, and the vehicle was still reported as stolen.”
Ward stopped but then fled, police said, and the pursuit continued. Little tried to perform a special maneuver to stop Ward’s car, but Ward stopped only momentarily, and the chase resumed, according to police.
The body camera video begins before the second stop. In it, Little — who used his driver’s door as cover and pointed his gun at Ward’s car — ordered Ward to show his hands four times before Ward took off again.
After a seven-minute chase, the deputy and officers boxed in Ward on a dead-end road in Bloomfield, police said.
Officers say they were bitten
Again, Little used his car door as cover and aimed his weapon at Ward’s car, ordering the driver, “Show me your(expletive) hands. Show me your hands. Turn off the (expletive) car.”
The body camera’s view is obscured at times, and it’s not possible to see exactly how Ward responded at all times, but on multiple occasions, he lifted his hands in the air and lowered them, leaving them obscured by the car door.
The officers positioned off-camera could also be heard demanding to see Ward’s hands.
Blount arrived and told Little, “Let me get up there if you want.”
Little responded, “Wait, wait, wait,” as Blount approached the car, told Ward not to move, and attempted to open the driver’s door, which appeared to be locked. He told Ward to unlock it. It looked as if Ward moved to unlock the door, but Blount indicated that it remained locked.
“I can’t believe this. I’m the injured party,” Ward said after rolling down his window.
“Don’t move your (expletive) hands,” Little tells him.
“Why you (expletive) harass me all the time?” Ward asks.
Blount ordered Ward to give him his hands and told his fellow officers, “Get him the (expletive) out of the car,” as he tried to pull Ward out of the window, but officers were heard saying Ward’s legs were pinned under the steering wheel.
Ward cried in pain, saying, “Hey, hey, hey” and “My legs.” Little told Blount that Ward was stuck, but the tussle carried on.
As the deputies continued to try to get Ward out of the car, Blount exclaimed that Ward bit him. Moments later, Little said Ward bit him, too.
A head slam, Taser and ‘carotid restraint’
Another policeman told Blount and Little that Ward was stuck, and Blount grabbed Ward by his hair in an attempt to pull Ward out of the car through the driver’s window.
Blount pulled Ward’s head away from the car before appearing to slam it into the top of the driver’s door, just as Little deployed the Taser. Ward yelped in pain, groaned, and said something inaudible on the body camera footage.
Blount then placed “one of his arms around the neck of Ward and attempted to administer a carotid restraint,” police said in a statement. A carotid restraint targets the arteries that carry blood to the brain and neck.
“The deputies and officers used personal body weapons and struck Ward several times in an attempt to gain compliance and remove him from his vehicle,” the police statement said.
One of the Sebastopol officers broke the passenger window with a baton, and Ward was removed from the car, placed on the ground, and handcuffed.
After removing the Taser prongs, Little uttered an expletive and said, “He broke my skin,” referencing the alleged bite. Later, Blount said, “He didn’t quite break the skin on my arm, but he bit me (expletive) hard.”
“You’ve got some blood on your pocket,” another deputy told Blount.
“That’s his,” Blount said, motioning to Ward.
‘He had no reason to run’
After Deputy Nick Jax told his colleagues that the man in cuffs “is the owner of this car. That’s David Ward,” Little asked why Ward ran from police.
“I don’t know why he ran,” Jax said. “He had no reason to run, but I was out with him earlier, like two hours ago, at his house. Obviously, he somehow made contact with the guy (who allegedly stole the car) and got it, but he was here two hours ago, and this is him.”
“Oh well,” Blount said.
“There’s no reason for him to have done this,” Jax said.
A policeman off-camera reported Ward was no longer breathing. Blount told an officer to start CPR.
An ambulance arrived about 6:20 a.m. and transported Ward to Petaluma Valley Hospital, where he was pronounced dead less than an hour later, police said.
The Santa Rosa Police Department is leading the investigation. The carjacking is the subject of a separate investigation.
“If you watched the body-worn camera video closely, you may be concerned by what you saw. So was I,” Sheriff Essick said in last week’s video statement. “The way Deputy Blount handles the entire situation is extremely troubling. As a result, I’ve served Deputy Blount a notice of termination.”
A notice of termination is the first step in a termination process governed by civil service rules, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Misti Wood told CNN.
Essick did not say whether Little — who has been with the department for 17 years, 12 as a deputy and five as a correctional deputy — or any other officers would face discipline. Blount has been with the sheriff’s office for more than 19 years and previously served less than two years as a Santa Rosa police officer.
“Charlie Blount has served the people of Sonoma County for over 20 years and honorably served in the military for 20 years before that,” his lawyer said. “His actions during this arrest were entirely reasonable under the circumstances known, keeping in mind that videos of uses of force, even when justified, are often upsetting and graphic.”