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Boys in Healdsburg porch encounter say homeowner pointed gun, choked one of them, according to attorney

Two teenagers involved last month in a confrontation with an armed Healdsburg homeowner allege racism fueled an encounter on the man’s porch in which the boys say he pointed a gun at both of them and choked one of them, according to their civil attorney.

Pat Buelna, a Healdsburg native and civil rights attorney in Oakland, said he is representing the boys, who are Latino, and their families in any potential civil or criminal proceedings that arise from the encounter in Jeff Civian’s front entryway. Civian, a retired civil engineer who is white, was arrested a month later on assault and child endangerment charges.

“The family sees this as a racially motivated attack and quite despicable,” Buelna said.

Civian’s lawyer, Steve Gallenson of Santa Rosa, said there was no indication Civian knew the kids were Latino until he encountered them, nor were there any allegations raised that night involving race. He was not aware of any subsequent allegations of racism conveyed to authorities.

Gallenson argued that Civian is legally allowed to protect himself and his home, including using reasonable force to do so or to detain a suspect for police.

Buelna, in an interview Thursday, presented no evidence beyond the family’s assertion that racism factored in the confrontation. He came forward in the wake of public comments this week by Gallenson about the incident. Buelna characterized the encounter as two innocent kids being threatened without cause by a larger, angry man.

The boys, both 15 and Healdsburg High School students and athletes, assert through their attorney that Civian not only pointed the gun at both of them, but choked one boy as he was pointing the gun at him.

What’s more, Buelna said, when the boy told Civian he couldn’t breathe, Civian told him, “You’re no f***ing George Floyd,” Buelna asserted. Floyd was killed in May by Minneapolis police officers who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The incident has sparked an intense reckoning throughout the United States and beyond about police brutality and racial inequality.

Civian’s attorney said his client simply held the boy until police arrived.

Civian, 64, a former member of several Sonoma County planning boards, faces four felony charges ― two each of assault with a deadly weapon and child endangerment, for allegedly threatening the boys with a handgun when he confronted them inside a semi-enclosed portico outside his front door just after sunset on Aug. 11.

Healdsburg police and Sonoma County prosecutors have declined to discuss the specifics of the case.

Civian has pleaded not guilty and remains out on bail, having surrendered his weapons to law enforcement. He was not charged with physically assaulting either boy.

Healdsburg police this week refused to release the 911 recording or transcripts requested by The Press Democrat, and have withheld reports its officers completed over three weeks ago, arguing that the case is still under investigation.

A brief hearing in Sonoma County Superior Court on Friday resulted in an Oct. 8 conference to schedule a preliminary hearing, when prosecutors will seek to convince a judge they have enough evidence to go to trial.

Buelna said the boys were innocently taking pictures of the Civians’ $2.9 million Second Street home east of the Healdsburg Plaza. The home had been on the market and has since been sold.

“One of them had gotten a haircut and he asked his friend to take a picture in front of a nice house for Instagram,” Buelna said. “It was completely innocent.”

It was about 8:15 p.m., shortly after sunset, when Civian and his wife, Stacey, spotted strangers in the semi-private walkway next to their front door, police said. He asked her to call 911 while he retrieved a gun and went outside to face the uninvited visitors.

One boy ran and the other stayed, both attorneys said.

Gallenson said Civian held the gun at his side and grabbed the boy to hold him for police.

The boys may have thought the home, which had a for-sale sign posted out front, was unoccupied. The porch where the confrontation occurred is well off the city sidewalk and enclosed on both sides in an area concealed by trees and bushes in the front yard.

While Buelna characterized the for-sale sign as an “invitation to at least come to the front of your house and look around,” Gallenson said it could instead give someone with bad intentions the idea that the house was unoccupied and an easy target.

“It was a mansion. They wanted to look super cool in front of their friends,” Buelna said. “They didn’t intend to do anything mean or bad. There is no claim they broke into anything or were looking into the windows on the side of house.”

Civian had heard of a recent burglary in the area, Gallenson said, and had seen reports of teenagers posting photos of vacant houses on social media to host illegal house parties, which have in recent cases caused Sonoma County homeowners thousands of dollars in damage.

Buelna called any assertion by Civian that the boys’ presence on the front porch constituted a threat “ludicrous.” He expects neighbors who may have seen part of the incident to back up the boys’ story.

He provided one photo the boys took, with the boy’s identity concealed, to show they posed no harm. He declined to name them, citing their age as juveniles.

“I don’t know if (Civian) is unstable, or has something else going on. But his actions were obviously criminal,” Buelna said. “My clients hope the district attorney will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”

He said his clients are considering a civil lawsuit against the Civians, who no longer live at the house.

The boys are “traumatized from the incident,” he said. “They don’t really want to go outside anymore. It’s something they never expected. No one’s ever threatened them with a gun, no one ever held a gun to his head before.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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