Inside the Kill Zone
On the morning of Aug. 25, 2006, Huntington Beach resident Patrick Carigan was standing in the garage of his house across the street from Sun View Park, drinking coffee and watching TV. His garage door was open. He heard someone yell "Drop the knife," and walked to his driveway. In the middle of the park, he saw a girl holding a knife in both hands, the blade hovering beneath her chin. Surrounding her were two uniformed Huntington Beach police officers.
What happened next was by all accounts the most controversial and tragic Orange County officer-involved shooting in recent memory. The official story goes like this: Ashley MacDonald, an 18-year-old woman who had just fought with her mother and claimed she had been date-raped the night before, committed suicide by cop. When the officers tried to get her to drop the knife, she charged at them full-speed, giving them no choice but to shoot. A third officer was seconds away from loading his bean-bag gun when the two cops fired 15 bullets in MacDonald.
A Sheriff's Department investigation upheld by the Orange County District Attorney's office cleared the two officers of any wrongdoing, noting that if an armed suspect is within 21 feet, an officer who fears for his or her life is allowed to shoot to kill. Last November, MacDonald's family filed a $20 million claim against the police department, which the city recently rejected. The family's Newport Beach-based attorney, Jerry Steering, said he plans to sue the police "just as soon as I can get out from under this mountain of paperwork."
"I recall at the time of the shooting that the two officers approach[ing] the female were in plain view," Carigan said in a sworn declaration obtained by the Weekly. "They used nothing for cover. . . . The shooting started a very short time after the yelling started. . . . I never heard the officers tell the person to turn away, get on the ground, kneel down. . . . Just shots. . . . I do recall seeing the girl take at least one step away from the officers as if to try and run into the park and that was all. Shots fired."
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Besides Carigan, two other eyewitnesses to the shooting have signed sworn declaration saying they'll testify in court to what they saw. Their detailed statements also contradict the official claim that MacDonald charged the officers with her knife, affording them no choice but to shoot.
John Pierson, who lives in an apartment adjacent to the park, says two officers, "both with crew cuts and about 30 years old" began yelling at MacDonald, who started "walking away, then stopped, then started walking away again." The officers demanded three times that she drop the knife, Pierson recalls. "I then heard shots—and I saw both officers shooting. They looked like they were in shock with their mouths wide open. I saw Ashley fall and start shaking."
Jack Bixby awoke that morning to hear someone yelling from the direction of the park. He says he looked out his window and saw three officers, at least one of whom had already drawn his weapon, surrounding MacDonald. "They were yelling 'Drop the knife,'" he says. "I believe the officers repeated this four to five times . . . I never heard the officers give the female any other commands." Bixby says the officers were standing within 15 to 20 feet of MacDonald and were not using either their police vehicles or a chain link fence inside the park for cover when the shooting began. He added that he had never been interviewed by anyone with the Huntington Beach Police Department or the Sheriff's Department about what he saw.
David Brent, chief homicide investigator for the DA's office who cleared the two officers of any wrongdoing, concluded that the shooting was legal. That conclusion was based on reports and taped interviews with eyewitnesses provided by Sheriff's detectives. Brent did not personally interview any eyewitnesses and refused to release their identities, citing privacy concerns. "The officers are begging her to drop the knife," Brent said. "One backs up and she's [approaching] within six to eight feet. That's when they start firing. Their training, good or bad, is if there is a person with knife 21 feet away you don't have any choices. . . . They view her as a threat to life and whether or not there were other ways of handling this is not a call my office makes."
Joseph Travers, a former L.A. County police training officer and licensed private investigator, was hired by attorney Steering to interview Carigan and other eyewitnesses to the MacDonald shooting. He doesn't dispute Brent's decision not to file criminal charges against the officers who shot MacDonald. "Based on my expertise, it appears they were legally justified in shooting her," Travers said. But he doesn't buy Brent's claim that the two officers had no choice but to pull the trigger. "The problem is, they put themselves in the kill zone," Travers said. "They were so close that all she had to do was move with the knife. Even if she moved away it could be seen as a threat. If those officers hadn't put themselves in the kill zone, they could have talked the knife out of her hands or used non-lethal force."
Steering told the Weekly that putting eyewitnesses on the stand who say they never saw MacDonald rush towards the officers will be crucial to his wrongful death case. Given that the DA's office has never filed charges against a law enforcement officer for pulling the trigger in the line of duty, he's not surprised that the officers were officially cleared of the shooting. "For that to happen, Ashley MacDonald would have had to be handcuffed, lying face down on the ground when they shot her," Steering said. "And there'd still be no charges filed unless you had a videotape to prove it."
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