Grand jury transcripts allege tactical errors by former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy in 2019 death of Bloomfield man

Transcripts from secret criminal grand jury proceedings reveal fresh details about the night a hard-charging deputy with 19 years on the force crossed paths with a severely frail Bloomfield man who a coroner said died as a result of the encounter.|

Gun drawn, former Sonoma County sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount walked up behind a fellow deputy who was shouting orders to a man held at gunpoint behind the wheel of a stopped car.

“How many inside?” Blount asked.

“One,” Deputy Jason Little said.

Blount stepped around Little and strode up to the 2003 Honda Civic, tapping on the driver’s side window with his gun, his finger on the trigger.

Behind the wheel was David Ward, who inexplicably led law enforcement on a meandering chase across a network of rural west county roads after a deputy had tried to pull him over.

Squinting in the bright beam of Blount’s flashlight through a black eye from an earlier beating, Ward initially put his hands up, then seemed to hesitate.

Within about four minutes of Blount’s arrival at this scene Nov. 27, 2019, on a rural Bloomfield road in west county, Ward was on the ground in handcuffs. Deputies had struggled mightily to pull a seemingly reluctant Ward — who at points bit their fingers — out of the car through the driver’s side window. He fell unconscious while handcuffed, stopped breathing and died.

Newly public transcripts from secret criminal grand jury proceedings, which led to a criminal indictment against Blount in October, reveal fresh details about the night a hard-charging deputy with 19 years on the force crossed paths with a severely frail Bloomfield man who had just recovered a car he reported stolen three days earlier.

At roughly 1,120 pages, the transcripts show how the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office gave a neutral presentation of the evidence against Blount and hired an expert who found the deputy’s actions reasonable.

The sharpest critique of Blount’s actions came from Assistant Sheriff James Naugle, who said the deputy made several tactical mistakes that escalated the level of danger to himself and others.

Videos from deputies’ body-worn cameras depict the violent, hard-to-watch final moments of Ward’s life. Blount first tried to pull Ward out of the open car window, bashing Ward’s head into the window frame, then punching him and wrapping his arm around Ward’s neck in a botched stranglehold called a carotid restraint. Little shocked Ward with a taser.

But not once did prosecutor Bob Waner or testifying experts describe Blount’s actions as crimes before the grand jury.

Instead, jurors were asked to consider “the totality of the circumstances,” District Attorney Jill Ravitch said in an emailed response to questions from The Press Democrat.

The grand jurors were also given evidence in Blount’s favor, Ravitch said, because “we felt that in this case the grand jury needed to receive a full view of the matter to decide whether to issue an indictment.”

Testimony presented to the 19-member grand jury over seven days featured accounts from medical experts including Ward’s doctor, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy of Ward, a use-of-force expert hired by the District Attorney’s Office and nine local law enforcement officers, including Naugle.

Most criminal cases go through a public court process with prosecutors taking an adversarial stance, a role that requires them to convince a judge there is adequate evidence of a crime to place the defendant on trial. Grand jury proceedings, however, are held behind closed doors out of view from the public. The prosecution serves a role as a neutral presenter of information and grand jurors have greater authority to decide whether charges are warranted. Blount was informed about the proceedings, which is not required, and he provided a medical expert who testified that Ward’s methamphetamine use and poor health appeared to be significant contributors to his death.

Though the prosecution appeared to provide little evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Blount, at least 12 of the 19 grand jurors saw enough to indict Blount on felony charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault by a public officer.

The jurors deliberated for one day and returned a verdict to indict Blount on Oct. 30.

Grand jurors were not told that one month after Ward’s death, Sheriff Mark Essick announced he was initiating proceedings to fire Blount. He said Blount violated general rules for Sheriff’s Office employees, but declined to elaborate.

They also didn’t hear about further analysis from Karlene Navarro, director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, that an internal investigation found Blount failed to de-escalate the situation, despite training and department rules for such situations.

Ward’s mother asserts in a federal civil rights lawsuit that Blount used excessive force against her son and it killed him. That case is pending.

The transcripts make clear Ward’s frail and vulnerable condition, exacerbated by methamphetamine use. He suffered from mental illness, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia diagnoses, an earlier surgery to remove the right temporal lobe of his brain, emphysema, and serious mobility issues, according to medical expert testimony.

Three days before the 2019 encounter, one of Ward’s neighbors called sheriff’s dispatch to request they check on him after an altercation.

A deputy found Ward at his Bloomfield home with “blood all over his face and head” and “frantic.” Ward said he was disabled and his caretaker, who had a .38 revolver, had beaten him up and taken his car.

The deputy reported Ward’s 2003 Honda Civic as stolen in a database. A Santa Rosa police detective found the car days later and secretly placed a GPS tracker on it.

That’s how the pursuit began Nov. 27, 2019. The detective was working out at the gym when he received a ping on his phone. The stolen Honda was moving. He alerted dispatch.

What they didn’t know is Ward had gotten a ride to Santa Rosa to retrieve his own car. He was driving home before dawn that morning when Little was the first to reach the Honda near Ragle Ranch Regional Park.

It’s unclear why Ward didn’t stop when Little came up behind him with his patrol lights flashing and siren blaring.

Instead, Ward led Little and two Sebastopol police officers on an erratic pursuit toward his home in rural Bloomfield between Sebastopol and Petaluma.

Little testified the pursuit “wasn’t a fast pursuit by any means,” though it was a frustrating one. Ward pulled over twice, then drove away again before Little was able to ram the back of Ward’s car for a second time, bringing the vehicle to a halt near Sutton and Bloomfield roads.

Once stopped, Ward appeared confused and didn’t follow orders to open his door and exit the car, the video shows.

Blount arrived after the pursuit when Little and two Sebastopol police officers were holding Ward at gunpoint, at the dead-end road in Bloomfield, according to the testimony and video.

He immediately took action.

Blount walked up to Ward’s car window, closing the distance between law enforcement and Ward. Little followed Blount to act as backup.

Naugle said Blount escalated the situation from what’s described as a barricaded subject situation — in this case, a man who won’t exit a car — to a hands-on effort to extract an intoxicated Ward out of a car window that he either couldn’t or wouldn’t open.

Naugle told jurors that Blount immediately made unnecessarily risky tactical errors that put himself and others in a more vulnerable position.

Blount did little to assess the situation when he arrived. Instead, he chose to walk right up to Ward, despite the fact the detained driver could have been the armed carjacker who had taken Ward’s car days prior.

That step required the other law enforcement officers to also get closer.

Then, Blount knocked on the window with his gun while his finger was on the trigger, which goes against how officers are trained to handle weapons because of the risk of sympathetic reflexes that could have caused him to accidentally fire the gun, according to Naugle.

“We teach, you know, you keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot,” Naugle said.

Naugle said he thought it was a mistake for Blount to advance swiftly toward Ward’s car window.

After some confusion or reluctance, Ward rolled down the window. Blount holstered his gun and flashlight, grabbing Ward’s arm and pulling it out the window.

Naugle called Blount’s efforts to pull Ward out of the car window a “tactical error” and said it was too difficult a maneuver.

He told the jurors that Blount had narrowed the options available to him and had little choice besides using punches and other blows to get Ward to stop resisting.

A force expert hired by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, former San Jose Police Officer Jeffrey Martin, told jurors that a lack of communication among the law enforcement officers seemed to make the situation worse.

At one point, while Blount and Little were trying to pull Ward out of the driver’s side window, Sebastopol Police Officer Andrew Bauer had opened the passenger door, seemingly trying to pull Ward out the opposite direction, Martin said.

It may have seemed like Ward was “pulling himself back into the car. That’s when Blount hits his head on the A-pillar (window frame),” a strike Martin noted was difficult to watch but “acceptable” and a “non-lethal, intermediate force option” under the circumstances.

At another point, Little fired a Taser at Ward in an attempt to subdue him, a shock that appeared to make Ward fall back into his seat, undermining Blount’s efforts to pull him out of the window, according to the testimony.

Blount may not have realized these counterproductive forces from his colleagues were at play and not just resistance by Ward, Martin said.

To prove involuntary manslaughter, jurors were instructed they must find probable cause to believe Blount’s actions were unlawful, or lawful but done with criminal negligence.

The documents show prosecutor Waner struck a neutral stance in his presentation of evidence, instructing jurors that “the fact that the District Attorney is convening an indictment hearing is not evidence that the proposed indictee of this hearing (Blount) committed any crime.”

Waner did not present evidence showing at what point Blount’s actions may have crossed the line into unlawful behavior or criminal negligence.

Dr. Joseph Cohen, a forensic pathologist who conducted a Dec. 3 autopsy of Ward for the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, talked jurors through how he concluded Ward’s death was a homicide.

Cohen said that Ward suffered from cardiorespiratory collapse because of the physical confrontation with law enforcement that included blunt impact injuries, neck restraint and application of a Taser.

Ward had ingested methamphetamine in a significant amount, though Cohen and other experts testified it is difficult to definitively describe the drug’s effect on Ward because of widely varying degrees of tolerance among people.

“Without any of that confrontation, if you take the police out of the entire equation, and you put Mr. Ward in his car driving home or in his house or wherever, he probably would not have died when he did,” Cohen said. “I can say that with a very high degree of certainty.”

Steven Karch, a retired doctor and expert on the effect of stimulants like methamphetamine, was provided by Blount’s attorney. Karch told jurors about how methamphetamine abuse causes the heart to enlarge.

He said that medical records seem to indicate Ward’s heart was in such bad condition due to years of drug abuse “that my inclination would be to say it was a methamphetamine-related death.“

Blount is scheduled to return to court Feb. 8.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or On Twitter @jjpressdem.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the individual scheduled to return to court. Blount returns to court Feb. 8.

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