Questions first raised by an NBC Bay Area investigation into a fatal shooting at the hands of Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputies are now at the center of a lawsuit filed in United States District court on Monday.
The lawsuit alleges Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies violated the constitution and used excessive force and violated due process rights when they entered the home of 86-year-old Eugene Craig and shot and killed him as he stood in his living room.
The lawsuit makes nine different assertions in its Complaint for Damages, including violation of the 4th and 14th Amendements, lack of due process, wrongful death from negligence, and wrongful death from battery.
According to the Sheriff’s Department news release sent out immediately after the September 12, 2016 shooting, deputies found Craig standing in the home with his 90-year-old wife. Deputies saw that Craig was armed with a .38 caliber revolver prompting Sgt. Douglas Ulrich to fire several rounds at the Navy veteran.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit obtained the autopsy report on Eugene Craig. It shows the retired veteran was hit by four bullets to the chest and pelvis and grazed once. Pictures obtained by NBC Bay Area of the scene after the shooting show two bullet holes in the door frame and wall. All shots appear to have been fired from the same direction.
Extensive reporting by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit uncovered questions about whether sheriff’s deputies created what legal experts call the “exigent circumstances” necessary to justify their entrance into the Craig home.
Several experts in police use of force tactics say that “exigent circumstances” are defined as exceptions to the general requirement of a warrant under the Fourth Amendment governing search and seizures. “Exigent circumstances” occur when a law enforcement officer has probable cause to believe there exists an emergency or other situation that requires swift action to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property, and there is no sufficient time to secure a warrant before entering that location.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of Craig’s widow, Harue Craig, further claims that the sheriff’s department failed to train, discipline and supervise the deputies involved in Craig’s death last September.
County attorneys told NBC Bay Area they will review the lawsuit, but that they cannot comment on pending litigation.
A spokesman for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office said his department also could not comment on pending litigation.
The shooting incident took place when deputies responded to a “wellness” or “welfare check” at the home on the 1200 block of Titus Avenue. The official news release from the Sheriff’s Office said that responding deputies believed an elderly person inside the home had medical issues.
According to that same release, after knocking for about 50 minutes, deputies broke down two doors and forced their way into the home, where they confronted Eugene Craig with his wife.
In the days after the shooting, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman said deputies gave Craig several verbal commands to drop his firearm before he was ultimately shot by Ulrich.
Craig’s widow told her attorney that she was standing right behind her husband when the shooting occurred.
“From the perspective of the client and her husband, they thought that there were intruders coming into their home,” the family’s attorney Ara Jabagchourian told NBC Bay Area.
“They (deputies) went from window to window shining lights in,” said Ronnie Roberts, a Craig family friend who was on the scene during the event. Roberts told NBC Bay Area that he saw deputies milling around the house with flashlights when he arrived on scene approximately 15 to 20 minutes before the shooting.
“All they had to do was let me go in the house,” Roberts said. “I could have got in to the door. I could’ve called him. I could’ve done anything, but they wouldn’t let me do anything. [The deputies told me to] just stay there, stay back out of the way.”
Sheriff’s Office records show this wasn’t the first time deputies had gone to the Craig home in Saratoga. They’d been there six times since 2011 in response to medical issues, suspicious circumstances, vandalism and an abandoned vehicle call.
Jabagchourian says the call that ultimately ended Craig’s life should have been routine for the deputies and should never have resulted in the death of his client’s husband.
“What was supposed to be a welfare check ironically turned into the worst case scenario where the checkers become the intruders,” Jabagchourian said. “A home is a person’s castle. And nobody has consent to be sending other people into my home. Do everything else you have got to do before you knock that door down.”
Jabagchourian added that the situation “taken in its totality doesn’t smell right from the get go, and it should have been handled differently.”
He wants this lawsuit to bring change to the Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office and its policies regarding “welfare checks.”
“I hope that there are some policy changes,” Jabagchourian said. “Before doors get knocked down, I hope that this policy—if this is the way they conduct welfare checks—is not the way that the next one is conducted.”