Family sues Sonoma County over standoff that ended in suicide

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The family of a Santa Rosa man who killed himself last year during an armed standoff with Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies sued the county Friday in federal court, alleging an unwarranted, militarized assault on his home forced him to take his own life.

Glenn Swindell, a 39-year-old grocery store employee, shot himself at the end of a nearly 12-hour siege that began when his wife called 911 May 16 to report he had locked himself in the Manka Circle house with their two young children after the couple had an argument.

Dozens of deputies, including a SWAT team with an armored vehicle, descended on Swindell’s home and remained for hours after he released the kids and refused to come out. He committed suicide sometime the next morning when deputies filled the attic he was hiding in with tear gas and other chemical irritants, causing him extreme suffering, the lawsuit says.

The suit claims deputies overreacted after reading what they thought were anti-law enforcement statements on Swindell’s Facebook page and learning he had two legally registered guns. It alleges authorities violated his right to free speech, to bear arms and to be protected from illegal search.

“They were going after him for who he was,” said his younger brother Rick Swindell, who flew in from Arizona to announce the suit. “That’s the problem here. They pushed him into a corner where he had to kill himself.”

He and other family members are seeking unspecified damages for pain and suffering as well as punitive damages to make an example of deputies who they claim punish people for asserting their rights.

Swindell’s widow, Sarah, 30, his brother and mother Deborah Belka of Bellingham, Wash., held a 1 p.m. news conference after filing the suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The family’s lawyer, Arnoldo Casillas, also represents the parents of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, the Santa Rosa youth who was killed by a sheriff’s deputy as he walked down a street with an airsoft gun designed to look like an assault rifle.

The Lopez family is reportedly seeking millions of dollars in their wrongful death suit against the county and Deputy Erick Gelhaus. A trial is scheduled for some time next year.

Sarah Swindell is represented by her own lawyer, Sebastopol attorney and Lopez activist Jonathan Melrod.

Sheriff’s officials and county lawyers declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Lt. Mark Essick previously denied any wrongdoing, saying deputies were bound by policy to arrest Swindell after receiving a report of domestic violence with guns in the house.

Essick said deputies were acting on a report from the wife that Swindell attacked her before barricading himself inside. The wife said this week the dispute was only verbal.

When he wouldn’t come out, deputies and SWAT team officers tried to talk to Swindell by phone and loudspeaker and brought in a hostage negotiator.

At some point, he used a cellphone to call his mother, talking to her for more than an hour. But he wouldn’t surrender, in part because he feared being killed by deputies “just like Andy Lopez,” she said.

“He just wanted them to go away,” his mother said.

As the standoff wore on, authorities set off flash grenades and fired tear gas into the home through broken windows. Eventually, they used the armored truck to break down the front and garage doors and go inside.

Swindell was found dead in the attic with a gun beside his body.

His mother said deputies created a situation where he was forced to shoot himself.

“It was a gas chamber up there,” Belka said. “He was suffering from all the chemicals.”

Swindell had no mental health issues and wasn’t suicidal but may have suffered a kind of post-traumatic stress from a car crash, his family said.

His Facebook page contained a comment that Americans are seven times more likely to die from police violence than terrorism, but he was not a paranoid person or a conspiracy theorist, his brother said.

His mother had previously said that Glenn Swindell spent a year off work following a car accident and had started following, a website operated by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. In the same interview, however, she stressed that her son “was not a violent man.”

His family on Thursday said Swindell was a family man and longtime Safeway employee who enjoyed gardening and fixing up the house he and his wife bought in a foreclosure sale in 2009.

His dreams were shattered by the fateful encounter with deputies, his wife said.

In addition to her husband’s death, she said their home suffered about $300,000 in damage, including broken windows and doors and contamination from chemicals.

She recalled walking back into the damaged house the day after her husband died. On the kitchen counter, beside two bowls used by her kids for ice cream, was a pamphlet of the Bill of Rights that her husband kept in a drawer.

“He must have been looking at it going, ‘What do I do?’ ” she said as she thumbed through the pages. “He wasn’t going to walk out into a war zone with these guys all pointing guns at him.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or On Twitter @ppayne.

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