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The Sonoma County district attorney said Santa Rosa police were justified in fatally shooting an unarmed bipolar man named Richard Timothy DeSantis a year ago.

"The evidence and the statements of the witnesses indicate that the officers reasonably feared for their lives and acted in legal self-defense," District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said Friday.

The DeSantis case was one of four fatal shootings involving law enforcement officers and people dealing with mental difficulties since March of last year. It brought criticism and continuing legal action from family members and sparked community discussion on what can be done to help mentally ill people in distress.

The decision Friday to clear the officers involved in the shooting, Sgt. Richard Celli and Officers Travis Menke and Patricia Mann, brought a sharp rebuke from the attorney representing the DeSantis family.

"It's shocking to learn that shooting an unarmed man isn't a crime," said Eric Safire, attorney for Patricia DeSantis, widow of Richard DeSantis. "To me, an unarmed man having a mental episode being shot with a high-caliber rifle is a crime," he said Friday.

He said he advised the family Friday not to comment on the district attorney's decision.

DeSantis, 30, was shot and killed April 9, 2007, outside his South Avenue home after his wife called authorities to report he was having a manic episode and had been shooting into the ceiling of their home, apparently believing there were enemies in the attic, authorities said.

Police said the lighting was poor and not all of them could see Richard DeSantis' hands when he came outside. They said they did not know he was unarmed, according to a statement from the District Attorney's Office released Friday.

Menke ordered DeSantis to get on the ground, stretch out his arms and turn his face to one side.

He complied initially, but then pulled his hands back to his body and continued to move his head back and forth before jumping suddenly to his feet and sprinting toward the officer, the district attorney's statement said.

It was clear by then he was not holding a weapon, but police said they believed he might have one concealed in his pants as he charged Menke and Mann, according to the statement.

A less-than-lethal projectile weapon was used, but it was not successful in stopping DeSantis, who continued to run toward the officers, the District Attorney's Office said.

Celli, Menke and Mann then fired at him, according to the district attorney's timeline of events.

Celli's round struck DeSantis in the torso, as did one of the bullets fired either by Mann or Menke, the district attorney said.

But the investigation did not reveal if Mann or Menke's bullet hit DeSantis because ballistics tests were inconclusive and investigators said the result was not pertinent to determining if the shooting was justified.

Knowing who fired the shots "is not important to the case. The case is about was the shooting justified," said sheriff's Lt. Rob Giordano. The Sheriff's Department conducted the investigation of the Santa Rosa Police Department as part of the protocol for officer-involved shootings. Investigators then delivered that report to the District Attorney's Office.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Ed Flint, who said he did not know which of his officers hit DeSantis, expressed sympathy for the DeSantis family, but said he believes the right decision was reached.

"We are pleased to see that the officers were not held criminally liable and that they acted appropriately," he said. "Of course, my heart also goes out to the DeSantis family in this tragic situation."

DeSantis' wife and mother have each filed federal civil rights suits against Santa Rosa police, Flint and the officers involved, claiming authorities used excessive force against DeSantis in violation of his constitutional rights.

Those cases are pending.

The Sheriff's Department said previously that DeSantis used psychiatric medication to battle a bipolar disorder and had "been using methamphetamine, as well."

Passalacqua said, "I think it's also important to note that the 911 call confirms the danger that they (the officers) faced that night, given that the wife, who called police, indicated that Mr. DeSantis was shooting a handgun in the ceiling in front of her and the two small children."

Investigators would not release the 911 tapes during the investigation. The district attorney's statement Friday recounted the 911 call: "My husband is bipolar. He is having a manic episode. My husband just shot into the ceiling with a firearm," Patricia DeSantis reportedly said.

Karen Adams, a member of CopWatch Petaluma, said she was baffled by the district attorney's decision.

Adams said her organization, which serves as a police watchdog group, will continue to advocate for "appropriate" responses to mental health crises.

"We need to be proactive instead of reactive. We need emergency psychological response teams of people who are trained to deal with situations like this," she said.

In addition to DeSantis, three other Sonoma County residents in severe mental distress, including a teenager and a mother, have been shot and killed by members of three local law enforcement agencies since March 2007.

On March 16, 2008, 31-year-old Heather Billings was shot and killed by a Rohnert Park police officer after he responded to a distress call from Billings' mother. The 911 call alerted police that a person had become violent and "might have some psych issues." The case remains under investigation.

On Jan. 2, 2008, Jesse Hamilton, 24, a mental health client, was shot by a Santa Rosa officer after failing to drop a knife while approaching officers. Police had responded after a social worker reported a mental health client was "off his meds," violent and had a knife. The case remains under investigation.

On March 12, 2007, Jeremiah Chass, 16, an Analy High School student, was shot seven times by sheriff's deputies after efforts to subdue him in his parents' minivan failed. His parents had called for help, describing him as "psychotic" and "violent."

The district attorney cleared the deputies of any wrongdoing.

You can reach Staff Writer Laura Norton at 521-5220 or laura.norton@pressdemocrat.

com. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249.

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