An attorney for the family of 86 year-old Eugene Craig says sheriff’s deputies violated their own department policy when they kicked in the doors and confronted Craig in his living room during what was supposed to be a “wellness” or “welfare” check.
The attorney, Dennis Luca, a long-time retired San Jose Police officer, turned civil attorney, was originally hired by Craig’s 90 year-old widow after the shooting last fall.
“Simply put, they did not follow established policy and procedure that virtually all police departments, sheriff's office follow regarding the escalation of force,” said Luca.
The widow wanted Luca to look into the September 12, 2016, shooting death of her husband, a Navy Veteran, described by friends who knew him for decades as a “war hero.” Close family friends describe the 86 year-old Eugene Craig as a Navy aviator war hero who helped land airplanes on carriers in the middle of the night during the Korean War.
“If you're there at someone's house to check on their welfare, why do you kick two doors down at night time when my client is 86 years old, his wife is 90, and they live alone at that house and they have for years?” asked Luca.
A family friend who says he’s known the Craigs for decades and was outside the home at the time of the shooting raises similar questions about whether the deputies followed proper procedure and their own policies.
“Gene died because of it,” said Ron “Ronnie” Roberts. “And there was no reason for it.”
Though the Craig family hired another law firm to represent their interests in February, 2017, before he was replaced Luca interviewed the widow and those who were at the home at the time of the shooting. Luca and his firm also collected evidence that he says shows the retired Navy veteran did not have to die standing in his own home with his wife by his side.
Sheriff’s records show this wasn’t the first time deputies had gone to the Craig’s home on Titus Avenue in Saratoga.
Since 2011 they’d been there six times before—twice for medical calls and “suspicious circumstances” and once each for vandalism and an abandoned vehicle call.
Friends, family and a source within the Santa Clara Sheriff’s office all say that because of that history deputies who worked that area were familiar with the elderly couple living there.
On September 12, 2016, deputies went to Craig’s home for a “wellness” or “welfare” check after someone from outside the home called requesting it.
That “wellness check” was not because of any reported crime and it ended up in the shooting death of Craig as he stood inside his own home.
The official press release from that incident released by the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office right after the shooting says the deputies went to the 1200 block of Titus Avenue around dusk on September 12, 2016, believing an elderly person inside had medical issues.
The Sheriff’s official news release says that after calling out for about fifty minutes, deputies tried to force their way through the front door.
Because the door was steel encased the deputies couldn’t force entry and so the news release says they tried another location and went through a side door.
There they found Eugene Craig who, according to the official news release “displayed” a .38 caliber revolver, prompting Sergeant Douglas Ulrich to shoot Craig where he stood in his own home.
“The deputies gave him several verbal commands to drop the firearm and a deputy shot the individual,” said Lt. James Jensen, a spokesman for the Santa Clara Sheriff’s office on the day after the shooting.
Pictures obtained by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit and never before shown publicly show both the backdoor into the garage and the side door into the home forced open.
The Investigative Unit took another picture showing a bullet hole in the side door frame leading into the house. It was a shot that missed.
Another picture appears another shot through the side door which apparently missed the Craigs, who were standing a few feet inside the door according to what Eugene Craig’s widow told attorney Luca.
In that picture a bullet hole is visible high in the wall behind where the couple had been standing.
“From the information we have, they turned a welfare check, meaning is everybody OK, into a deadly force situation,” said attorney Luca. A situation “that resulted in an 86 year-old man being shot multiple times and killed in his own house.”
“They went from window to window shining lights in,” Ronnie Roberts said describing what he saw when he arrived at the Craig’s home.
Roberts said he saw several deputies milling about the house with flashlights around the windows when he got to there. He estimates he arrived 15 to 20 minutes before the shooting.
Roberts went to the house at the request of another friend, Jim Marshall.
Marshall told NBC Bay Area that he got a call from Eugene Craig that night asking for him to come over.
The retired navy man whom both Marshall and Roberts said was hard of hearing, told Marshall he thought someone was outside his house trying to break in.
“Every Wednesday night, we have dinner with them for the past couple of years,” Marshall told NBC Bay Area. “It’s the only outing that they usually take. this particular Wednesday, happened to be their last Wednesday at hometown buffet which is where we always met.”
“Gene had no thoughts about this in the first place. That this would ever happen,” said Marshall
That night both Ron Roberts and Marshall say Roberts was closer to the home than Marshall and so he got there first.
When he arrived, he says he says volunteered to go up to the house and make contact with Eugene Craig whom he told deputies he knew. But Roberts says he was told to stand back by deputies.
“All they had to do was let me go in the house,” said Roberts. “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. Just stay there, stay back out of the way.”
Only later did it become apparent that Craig mistook the deputies with flashlights walking around the house for burglars. He never called 9-1-1. Instead he called his friend.
“I heard a bam, b-b-b-b-bam,” said Roberts “There was at least six shots.”
Roberts says he was standing on the driveway when he saw four officers try to break down the front door. Fail. Then run around back and Roberts said he heard them kick in the back door to the garage.
“And then a few minutes later, I heard them kicking the next door. And I heard a single shot and then just as soon as that shot, there was five or six other shots. And real fast. B-b-b-b-bam,” Roberts said. “I heard the screaming, you know. ‘Oh! Oh!’ and then the back up, I heard them holler, ‘gun!’ before the first shot.”
According to the official autopsy report, Craig was hit by four bullets to the chest and pelvis. The reports said the 86 year-old was grazed once.
Add in the two bullet holes in the door frame and wall, and it matches the number of shots Ron Roberts says he heard.
“They (deputies) didn't progress through the steps necessary, and that's why I say they created the deadly force event. Not Mr. Craig, who has a right to be in his house. He hadn't committed a crime,” said attorney Luca. “He has a right to be safe in his house like all of us do. The police just can't kick doors, come into the house and start shooting.”
According to Santa Clara County Sheriff’s written policy, the use of force entering buildings “will be practiced with the utmost restraint” “and only after all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted.”
The policy on potential hostage or barricaded subject situation also says officers on such scenes should “request the field supervisor.”
Ronnie Roberts and Jim Marshall want to know why those procedures were, in their view, not followed.
“Why they didn’t have supervisors there, why they didn’t try to negotiate, why they didn’t break a window and put a phone in the house,” asked Roberts.
A sheriff’s department source in a position to know told NBC Bay Area that neither a Lieutenant nor a Captain were called to the scene until after the shooting.
The source says the swat team wasn’t called either… nor was a negotiator… no tear gas… no intercom… no loudspeaker.
The Sheriff’s Department source worries about the legal justification—what’s called exigent circumstances—that would have made it allowable for deputies to force their way into the home.
Sergeant Ray Kelly is a spokesman for Alameda County Sheriff’s office who would not speak to the specific circumstances about Eugene Craig’s home.
But Kelly did discuss, in general, how law enforcement is typically trained when called to a welfare check.
“Welfare calls can run the gamut of interest for people and people have different motives and reasons to do it,” said Kelly. “So we don't put a lot of credibility in anonymous…welfare checks.”
It’s a situation Kelly says law enforcement officers around the state encounter all the time.
“Those calls are very common and we do go to several of those type of calls every day, throughout the year all the time,” Sergeant Kelly said.
“There are certain things that allow us to immediately violate the Fourth Amendment and go into a location. That's exigency, which is basically a fancy word for emergency,” said Kelly. “In some of those cases it’s better to kind of just walk away and come back and then keep reassessing. Use alternative means to maybe find (information.)”
“Go talk to the neighbors have you seen this person? Look to see are there newspapers piled up at the door? Is there mail piled up in the mailbox? Are there any notices on the doors? Is there any running water? Things like that.” Sergeant Kelly said.
“So those are things you balance and so it's up to you at that point as an officer to maybe notify your supervisor, have your supervisor or other officers kind of come together and make a reasonable conclusion as to what you should do,” said Sgt. Kelly. “And sometimes the most reasonable thing to do is to just walk away.”
Attorney Dennis Luca and Ronnie Roberts said deputies at the Craig home didn’t do any of that.
“Those (exigent) circumstances can't be created by the police,” Luca said. “They (deputies) are either objectively there or not. If the police had shown up and they had heard a gunshot, they'd heard screaming, they would have had to make a split second decision. Do we go in to protect our lives or the lives of somebody else? That is not the situation they were confronted with objectively when they arrived.”
“It didn't have to happen. It shouldn't have happened,” said Luca. “And now I have a 90 year-old woman who is alone, who was married for many years to a war veteran, a pilot, and now she has no one. That's not a tragedy. That is horrific.”
We asked the sheriff’s department numerous times to answer questions about this shooting or to explain their policies and procedures and why they apparently weren’t followed.
But the sheriff’s department refused comment citing what they say is still an active investigation.
They also would not let us speak with Sergeant Douglas Ulrich whom they identified as firing the fatal shots.
We contacted the new attorney representing the Craig family. He had no further comment.
Investigative Unit, you can reach us at 1-888-996-TIPS, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org