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Suspects killed by Sonoma County law enforcement in 2007

Feb. 23: Haki Thurston, an Oakland homicide suspect, shot Feb. 23 by Santa Rosa police as he fled a Cleveland Avenue motel where officers were helping Oakland police apprehend him.

March 12: Jeremiah Chass, 16, shot by sheriff's deputies as they struggled to disarm him during a confrontation in the family's van outside their Sebastopol home. Chass was having a mental episode.

April 9: Richard DeSantis, a 30-year-old unarmed, bipolar man, shot at his Roseland house by Santa Rosa police after his wife called 911 to report he was firing a gun in their home.

May 4: Luis Felipe Sanchez, suspected of selling drugs and violating parole, shot after firing on a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy during a May 4 stakeout in Rohnert Park.

Police officers were justified in shooting an unarmed Oakland homicide suspect earlier this year, the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office said Friday.

The four SWAT officers who shot Haki Thurston 13 times as he fled from the Comfort Inn on Feb. 23 believed he was armed and dangerous and an imminent threat to their safety, District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said in a statement.

"After reviewing all the evidence and the totality of the circumstances," Passalacqua concluced that "the involved police officers acted lawfully."

The Thurston case is the first review of an officer-involved shooting to be completed this year. Four people were killed in confrontations with law enforcement officers in Sonoma County in 2007.

One advocate of stronger civilian oversight of the county's law enforcement agencies said she was not surprised by the findings.

"My goodness, let me sit down and fan myself. I'm so surprised," said Mary Moore, a Camp Meeker resident who helped organize a coalition of groups called Advocates for Police Accountability. "The whole thing is a joke. They always find it justified."

Santa Rosa police officers, including members of its SWAT team, went to the Comfort Inn on Cleveland Avenue in February to help Oakland police apprehend Haki Kuasi Gaidi Thurston.

The 22-year-old Oakland resident was a suspect in the murder of his cousin, 26-year-old Hodari Benson.

Oakland detectives had Thurston under surveillance at the hotel, where he was staying with a woman. They asked for help from Santa Rosa's SWAT team because they believed he was armed and unlikely to cooperate.

After leaving his hotel room, Thurston entered the parking lot, where officers spotted him and ordered him to the ground. Instead, Thurston ran east toward a chain-link fence separating the parking lot from a wooded area and Highway 101.

He ignored their repeated demands to stop. He also reached toward his waistband, which officers interpreted as reaching for a weapon, according to the District Attorney's Office.

"Each officer believed Thurston was armed, based on information previously provided to them," the statement said. "They believed that he was heading for the cover of the trees to engage them in a shootout. They believed that Thur-ston posed an imminent risk of great bodily harm or death."

Police had a significant amount of information about Thurston and the danger he posed, including the fact that no pistol had been recovered from the scene of his cousin's murder, and that Thurston was a suspect in a theft of guns, said Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook.

The officers also had been told that Thurston would be unlikely to surrender because he knew that the father of the man he killed was a leader of a prison gang who would likely seek to avenge his son's death, Cook said.

After reaching the fence, Thurston continued to ignore orders to stop. He began climbing the fence, and that's when the four officers fired a total of 24 bullets from their assault rifles.

Thurston managed to make it over the fence, falling on the opposite side, Cook said.

He was transported to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

No gun was found on his body, nor was one found in the area.

In hindsight, critics could point out that police shot an unarmed black man as he fled, but that ignores the totality and volatility of the situation, said Capt. Tom Schwedhelm of the Santa Rosa Police Department.

"This wasn't a shoplifting suspect. This was someone who killed his cousin, left that community and had been tracked here by Oakland police detectives," Schwedhelm said.

In addition to believing they were in immediate danger, the officers had a duty to prevent a dangerous felony suspect from escaping into the community, Cook said.

Officers don't have the luxury of waiting for dangerous suspects to begin firing on them to confirm they are armed, Schwedhelm said.

The fact that the suspect was scaling a fence at the time he was shot doesn't make the threat less imminent, Schwedhelm said.

If he had been armed and able to reach the cover of the trees, the officers would have been even more exposed to fire than they already were, Schwedhelm said.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department investigated the shooting and concluded it was justified. Now that the district attorney has completed his review, the police department will conduct its own review to learn what it can from the incident.

"This conclusion was what we were expecting all along -- that our officers acted lawfully," Schwedhelm said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@

pressdemocrat.com.