Mendocino County woman killed by deputies exhibited troubling behavior before death, witnesses say
Nine days before armed robbery suspect Dawn Elika Center was shot dead by three Mendocino County sheriff’s deputies alongside Highway 101, she delivered a dead skunk to the manager of the Ukiah Walmart.
Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster, whose office is leading an investigation into Tuesday’s shooting, declined to provide any information from that inquiry or new details on the circumstances leading up to Center’s death.
But people who encountered Center in her final days have come forward to recount incidents of bizarre and erratic behavior on the part of the 48-year-old Redwood Valley resident. Some have raised questions about whether local law enforcement let that reported behavior escalate until it became dangerous and ultimately, deadly.
In the latest story to emerge, Lynette Guenther, Walmart manager in Ukiah, said Center delivered a dead skunk wrapped in five plastic bags to the store on Feb. 4 along with a hand-written note addressed to Guenther.
The note said “Lynette, with love. Anonymous.”
“I didn’t know who she was or why she targeted me,” Guenther said. “But a sane person doesn’t deliver a dead skunk.”
Guenther said she called the Ukiah police and an officer responded but said delivering a skunk was not a crime so it wasn’t an issue for law enforcement.
“Clearly she was off her rocker but (the police) turned a blind eye and didn’t deal with it,” she said. “This could have been all avoided. How many lives were put in danger?”
Ukiah police Capt. Justin Wyatt said his department did respond to the incident and were still investigating possible crimes. Wyatt was unsure if his department had followed up with Center before she was shot and killed Tuesday.
Delivering a dead skunk “seems like it would be a crime or some kind of violation,” he said, but would not provide further comment because the case has yet to be closed.
On the day she died, Center took a black 2015 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 for a test drive at Thurston Auto Plaza in Ukiah Tuesday morning. Other than driving too fast she acted normal, said general sales manager Trevor Thurston.
But when Center was denied financing she put a handgun to the chest of a salesman about 9:25 a.m. and demanded the keys to the $45,000 sports car, Thurston said.
Center then fled at speeds topping 100 mph on Highway 101 north but crashed into a ditch after law enforcement dropped spike strips in front of her north of Willits, according to Thurston, who was given information not released to the public.
When Center exited the car she confronted deputies and Willits police while holding a handgun and was shot dead, the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement the day of the shooting.
The following day the Sheriff’s Office announced that three deputies had fired upon Center. The deputies involved had 30 years, 11 years and four years of service with the agency and have been placed on paid leave.
Since that time the Sheriff’s Office has refused to release any additional information, including the names of the deputies, the number of shots fired or say if Center fired on deputies before she was gunned down on Highway 101 in view of motorists.
Sheriff Tom Allman said his office would not provide comment or additional information until the investigation is complete. Repeated inquiries from the press were “wasting people’s time,” he said.
In an earlier public statement on Facebook this week Allman, who is running for re-election this year, said the law enforcement officers involved “protected innocent motorists who were witnessing a very dangerous, and ultimately deadly, situation.”
He added that he hoped the county’s recently approved sales tax to support mental health services would decrease such “situations.” No details were provided this week by authorities on the woman’s previous contacts with law enforcement or mental health.
In an email on Friday, Eyster, who was first elected in 2010 and is running for his third term in office this year, said he would not comment on the case or provide any additional details, including public information withheld by the Sheriff’s Office.
Eyster touted a “proven track record of publicly issuing a comprehensive final report on officer-involved shootings” and said “all unanswered questions will likely be answered when that report is eventually released.”
Outside of Tuesday’s shooting, the office has investigated a total of two officer-involved shootings in Eyster’s tenure, according to Mike Geniella, a spokesman for the office. The lone report available from those cases covers the 2011 shooting death of double murder suspect Aaron Bassler after a weekslong manhunt. The other case involves the death of a 23-year-old woman fatally shot in her Ukiah motel room Dec. 21 after an armed standoff between law enforcement and her husband. A report from Eyster’s office remains under wraps as the husband’s criminal case progresses.
Before Center took the Camaro ZL1 at gunpoint she had shopped around for similar cars.
Center went to Platinum Chevrolet in Santa Rosa on Sunday and attempted to purchase a 2018 Chevrolet Camaro SS but didn’t qualify for a loan, said sales manager Gerry Meoto.
She showed up to the dealership in a aged Ford pickup towing a trailer loaded with cows said Joe Herrera, a salesman at Platinum Chevrolet. She cursed frequently during the visit and was the most conspicuous customer of the day, he said.
“She was a real rootin’-tootin’ Calamity Jane,” he said.
The animals she brought to the dealership were alive and appeared to be in good condition, he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @nrahaim.