‘It didn’t sound right’: Attorney for Gabriel Strickland’s estate questions death of witness in civil suit against Sheriff’s Office
Attorneys for the estate of Gabriel Strickland, the man fatally shot by Nevada County law enforcement on Jan. 1, 2020, wanted to stop a cremation from happening, court records state.
John Anderson, a witness in the estate’s case against the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, is dead. His body was found almost two months after he gave his deposition in the civil case. In that deposition, he talks about an intact, orange tip being on the Airsoft gun Strickland pointed at officers moments before he was shot, court documents state.
That conflicts with a video of the incident, which appears to show a solid black weapon held by Strickland.
Attorney Patrick Dwyer, who filed the civil suit on behalf of Strickland’s estate, said a conflict of interest exists. The Nevada County Sheriff’s Office — a defendant in the civil suit — is investigating Anderson’s death, and Anderson was a witness in the suit.
Dwyer wanted to stop Strickland’s cremation, because he wanted a third party to investigate the death. However, that request was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Dwyer now said he’s moved on from that specific legal battle to the larger civil suit that remains pending.
The suit names the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, Grass Valley Police Department, and Wellpath — which provides medical services at the county jail — as defendants, demands a jury trial and requests $10 million.
According to court documents submitted early this month, Misty Lee Dufour discovered Anderson seated upright in his vehicle, just up the hill from the trailer he was living in the morning of July 29. He had “an odd, hole-like mark” on either side of his neck.
According to the Sheriff’s Office website, deaths should be reported to the coroner if they took place without medical attendance, where suicide is suspected, following an injury or accident and “under such circumstances as to afford a reasonable ground to suspect that the death was caused by the criminal act of another.”
DuFour, the owner of the land Anderson was living and working on at the time of his death, called 911. Deputies arrived about a half hour later. According to Dwyer, Dufour had misgivings about the responding officers’ conduct, as both the body and vehicle were removed within 45 minutes of their arrival.
Dwyer said he learned about Anderson’s death through a series of emails beginning with Dufour. Concerned by the minimal visible investigation and unsure of how to swab for DNA evidence himself, Dwyer decided to call licensed private investigator Larry DeMates.
“I spoke to Dufour on (July) 30,” Dwyer said. “It didn’t sound right, and (Larry) came out with me. He’s been at many a homicide scene.”
Demates’ declaration about Dwyer’s suit states that the responding officers failed to identify themselves with a business card to the reporting party, collect interviews and secure the scene — all standard protocol in legal authorities’ dealings with a dead body.
County Counsel Kit Elliott said Deputy Daniel Morales, Sgt. Russell Greene and Officer Conrad Ball were the reporting officers on scene.
Ball was one of the officers at the scene of Strickland’s death. He didn’t discharge his weapon, reports state.
Demates said Dufour told him the officers left without leaving an incident number or inquiring after next of kin.
Elliott said contrary to the documents submitted, law enforcement took a statement from Dufour on scene.
According to Dwyer, the July 29 daily activity report updated regularly by the Sheriff’s Office does not contain any record of Dufour’s call. Elliott said California Highway Patrol dispatched the call and logged it under the “medical” category.
The Sheriff’s Office has not released Anderson’s autopsy report. Elliott said her office is waiting on a toxicology report.
“We are just concerned by the lack of transparency,” Dwyer said. “(The Sheriff’s Office did) an autopsy on someone who testified against them. They should have turned the investigation over to Attorney General’s Office of California. They needed someone neutral to take over.”
Anderson in his June 9 deposition said that 30 to 40 minutes before Strickland’s death, he saw the Airsoft gun had a complete, orange tip.
In June, Anderson testified that he “knew right off the bat” the weapon Strickland was marching around with before his death was, in fact, a toy.
“Not only could I see the tip, but I could also see the diameter of the hole in the barrel was not a caliber smaller than a .22,” Anderson said, according to transcriptions of the deposition.
Anderson said from a higher vantage point under the winter morning’s full sun, the orange tip was not only visible, but obvious, on the day of Strickland’s death.
“It was the first thing I saw, to be honest with you,” Anderson said in the deposition.
According to Dwyer, the deposition “directly contradicts” the claim made by the Sheriff’s Office — that the tip of the BB gun was broken before Strickland’s confrontation with the police.
A footnote in the district attorney’s review of the “officer involved shooting” said a man by the name of Frank Beyer told officers he saw Strickland remove the gun’s plastic, orange tip prior to the incident.
According to Dwyer, Beyer was in Rough and Ready at the time of the officer-involved shooting.
An orange tip does not not appear visible in the body cam footage made available to the public, but the district attorney’s report notes that one officer on scene exchanged weapons after seeing a “broken off piece of plastic” inside the gun’s barrel.
“From his vantage point Officer (Conrad) Ball realized the gun Gabriel Strickland was holding was fake and instantly switched his service rifle to the side and grabbed his baton to strike the gun away,” the report states. “In that same moment, as Gabriel Strickland lowered his gun and pointed it at them, Deputies (Brandon) Tripp, (Taylor) King, and Detective (Brian) Hooper all fired their service weapons at him.”
Dwyer requested the county’s law enforcement recuse itself from the investigation about the death of a witness in a civil case against them.
The Nevada County Counsel’s Office rejected all requests by the plaintiffs – that the autopsy and investigation into Anderson’s death be conducted by an independent third party — without explanation.
“(Counsel) stated the autopsy would proceed unattended by any independent pathologist and that NCSO would not transfer the investigation to another law enforcement agency,” legal filings state.
Dwyer said he suspects the appeals court denied his request because the body will not be cremated for 30 days until after the autopsy, which was conducted Aug. 9.
“My guess is that (the judge) learned the body would not be cremated for 30 days, and the stay on the cremation was denied because no one was (going to be) cremated,” Dwyer said.
Dwyer said he believes the California Attorney General’s Office should investigate Anderson’s death, as the man was a witness in a civil case against the agency currently responsible for his autopsy report.
“There’s nothing I can do,” Dwyer said, adding that he is preparing for the next steps of the Strickland case. “I’ll see it when the sheriff makes it available, and sometimes that takes several months.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story was updated Aug. 25, 2021, to correct the names of the deputies who responded to reports of Gabriel Strickland walking down the street with a weapon
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User