Justice delayed? In wealthy California town, officer kills 2

·13 min read

DANVILLE, Calif. (AP) — Just past the Village Theatre and a quaint corner chocolate shop is the intersection where Officer Andrew Hall shot and killed a 33-year-old mentally ill man in 2018.

History repeated itself this spring, when Hall fired his gun and killed another 33-year-old mentally ill man on the streets of this wealthy San Francisco suburb.

The Town of Danville is not accustomed to gun violence. This well-manicured place of multimillion-dollar homes regularly tops lists of the safest and wealthiest places to live in California. The two fatal shootings by the same officer in a 2 1/2-year span have now cast a spotlight on Danville, where criminal justice activists say the wheels of justice turned far too slowly and had deadly consequences.

Many of the questions residents are posing at Danville town council meetings and in emotionally charged neighborhood conversations echo those America is asking of policing nationwide. Was the officer’s use of deadly force justified or excessive?

Was the officer held accountable? Did racism play a role when Hall, who is white, shot nine bullets into Laudemer Arboleda, an unarmed Filipino man, in 2018, or when he fired a single shot to the head of Tyrell Wilson, a Black homeless man?

And then there's the question that haunts both men's families: Would Wilson be alive today if the criminal justice system had moved faster?

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Around lunchtime on March 11, Wilson was holding a bag from Lucky Supermarket and about to cross a busy intersection when Hall shouted to him.

“Hey buddy. Come here for real quick,” the officer yelled. The intersection was empty of cars, and Wilson cut diagonally through it to avoid Hall.

Seconds earlier, Hall had pulled up in his patrol car, responding to three 911 calls the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office said it received about a person throwing rocks off a nearby overpass. The Associated Press reconstructed the encounter, and earlier incidents, through police video footage, interviews and documents including investigation transcripts obtained through public record requests. The Danville police chief, the Contra Costa County sheriff, the county's district attorney and Hall's lawyer declined to be interviewed for this story.

It remains unclear if Wilson was the person throwing rocks, but Hall assumed he was.

“You’re jaywalking. You’re throwing rocks,” Hall said.

Wilson was apparently familiar to Danville police and many in the community as one of the few homeless people, and one of very few Black men, in the town of 45,000. He slept on a bus stop bench in a parking lot; that was the direction Wilson headed as he walked away.

As a boy growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in Riverside, Orange County, Wilson had a promising future, his parents said. He was a good student and excelled at sports, especially track and football; he made the varsity football team as a sophomore.

He was handsome and a bit shy, with “big brown puppy eyes,” said his father, Marvin Wilson, a retired correctional officer with the Orange County sheriff's department. As a child he wanted to be “a fireman and a preacher, because he said he wanted to save lives and save souls,” his mother, Diane, a retired postal worker, recalled.

But everything changed after a tragic car crash in high school. Wilson and a friend headed one winter afternoon to Big Bear Mountain, about an hour’s drive, to go snowboarding, and on the way got hit head-on by a semi truck, his father said. His friend died and Wilson was hospitalized with serious head injuries. After that, he lost his motivation for school, lost his passion for sports. “He lost his joy,” his mother said. As an adult, “he just could never stay on track,” his father said.

In the months before his death, Wilson's family knew he was homeless and had been prescribed medication for depression or paranoia, they think, which he didn’t like taking.

Several Danville residents who would see Wilson at the bus stop described him in interviews as a friendly, peaceful and polite person who usually kept to himself and listened to music. Others objected to his presence, and had urged police on Nextdoor, the social media platform, to remove him from Danville. One resident sympathized with police in a Feb. 10 post, saying the homeless weren’t easy to evict: “We can’t get rid of homeless people like we exterminate rats.”

The next day, on Feb. 11, Danville Police Chief Allan Shields addressed the complaints in a weekly online video chat, where residents asked about “the person at the bus stop.” Shields said police had spoken “many, many times” with him, and offered food, shelter and medical help.

Police could not just “move him along” if he hasn’t committed a crime, Shields said. “If there was a need to act on that we would, but there is not.” Shields did not respond to numerous requests for an interview.

Exactly one month later, Hall confronted Wilson.

The officer radioed for backup as Wilson evaded him. Hall quickened his pace, narrowing the distance between them to several feet. “We’re not playing this game, dude,” he told Wilson, who turned to face Hall and is seen on video holding a knife.

Wilson kept the knife at his side and verbally challenged Hall but never lunged at him.

“Touch me and see what’s up,” Wilson said. Hall ordered him to drop the knife and pointed his gun.

“Kill me,” Wilson responded, tapping his chest and taking a small step forward.

“Drop the knife,” Hall yelled for a second, then third time. Then he fired, a single shot to the face. Wilson fell to the ground and lay motionless as blood pooled around him. His grocery bag fell to the side.

A clerk at Lucky’s said earlier that day Wilson bought a cherry pie, a knife and Cheetos, attorneys representing his family said.

Just 32 seconds elapsed from the moment Hall first spoke to Wilson to the moment he fired.

Six weeks later, on April 21, Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton announced charges against Hall for manslaughter and assault with a semi-automatic firearm — for the death of Laudemer Arboleda in 2018.

The announcement, a day after a jury convicted Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin of killing George Floyd, came two years and five months after Arboleda’s shooting.

And six weeks too late for Wilson, his mother said.

“Why was he still on the street?” Diane Wilson said of Hall. “If they had pulled him off the street until this was settled with the DA, Tyrell would still be here with us now.”

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Why did it take so long?

That's the question being asked by the families of Arboleda and Wilson, who have never met but are now united by trauma and a desire to see Hall behind bars.

“He struck again. He killed another person,” said Arboleda’s mother, Jeannie Atienza, seated in the office of civil rights attorney John Burris. “All this time, there is no justice for my son. And now this.”

Burris, whose roster of high-profile police violence cases includes Rodney King and Oscar Grant, is also representing Wilson’s family. A year after Arboleda was shot and killed, Burris sent letters in December 2019 to District Attorney Becton, the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco and urged them to prosecute Hall.

“I said, ‘This looks like murder.’ I never heard back from them,” Burris said.

Floyd's murder last May sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice and prompted more intense scrutiny of police misconduct. Now Burris asks: “Did the wheels move faster because of George Floyd?”

Burris is lobbying the U.S. Department of Justice to examine the two shootings to see if they show a pattern of misconduct and racism by Hall.

“All I know is a Black man and a Filipino man were both killed in a town that is predominantly white,” said Burris. The two are the only police shootings in Danville in at least a decade. “This man should be prosecuted, and like Chauvin, he should be in handcuffs for what he did.”

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The shootings of Laudemer Arboleda and Tyrell Wilson bear similarities.

In both cases, police were responding to routine calls that escalated quickly when Hall arrived, said Burris. For Wilson, it was not established he had thrown rocks from the overpass, and there were no reports of injuries or accidents from the rock throwing.

“How do you go from reasonable suspicion to murder?” asked Burris. “It’s an outrageous shooting, he did not have to kill this man.”

In Arboleda’s case, police responded on Nov. 3, 2018, to a call about a “suspicious” person knocking on doors in a Danville cul-de-sac. The slim, 5-foot-5 Arboleda, dressed in a gray sweatshirt and black pants, was ringing doorbells and “lingering in the area,” the district attorney said in a news release.

Arboleda was driving away when officers tried to initiate a traffic stop. Like Wilson, he tried to avoid police.

Arboleda led officers on a nine-minute, slow-speed chase through tree-lined residential streets. Hall was not involved in the initial pursuit but stopped his vehicle at an intersection to block Arboleda’s car, then jumped out and opened fire.

Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston, who declined to be interviewed, publicly defended Hall, saying Arboleda was “trying to run down and murder” the officer. A nine-month investigation by the sheriff’s office, which contracts police services to Danville, cleared Hall in the shooting with no discipline, finding that Hall used “deadly force to protect his life” and followed department policies.

It was not the first time Hall was investigated and exonerated by the sheriff's office. In 2014, Hall was accused of “brutally attacking" an inmate when he worked at a county jail in the city of Martinez. The inmate, identified as a 6-foot-3 Black man in his booking sheet, said Hall rammed him face-first into a door while he was handcuffed and repeatedly punched him in the face and side. The inmate was treated for a fractured eye socket and needed stitches in his lip. An internal probe by the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office found no evidence of unreasonable force.

In contrast to the account by Hall and the sheriff's office, police video shows that Hall stepped into the path of Arboleda's moving car at the last moment, as he was slowly maneuvering around Hall’s vehicle. Hall fired 10 shots into Arboleda’s windshield and passenger window. Nine bullets hit Arboleda; the fatal shot pierced his heart, the coroner’s report said.

Hall noted that Arboleda appeared “very dazed" as if he was “mentally not understanding what was going on," he told investigators, according to an interview transcript. He said he feared Arboleda was “going to ram into me and kill me."

District Attorney Becton, who declined to be interviewed, said in a statement accompanying the April 21 charges that Hall’s actions underscore the need to improve de-escalation training and response to people suffering from mental illness.

“Officer Hall used unreasonable and unnecessary force when he responded to the in-progress traffic pursuit involving Laudemer Arboleda, endangering not only Mr. Arboleda’s life but the lives of his fellow officers and citizens in the immediate area," the statement said.

Two experts on police use of force, who analyzed the video of both shootings, told the AP that Hall made a series of poor tactical decisions.

“In my opinion, in both cases the use of force was not necessary,” said Timothy T. Williams Jr., who spent nearly 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department.

In Wilson's case, “There was a threat, he had the knife in his hand, but it wasn’t an imminent threat that justified lethal force,” Williams said.

A 2019 California law restricts officers from using deadly force unless it's necessary to prevent an immediate threat to someone’s life or to catch a person fleeing after committing a violent felony.

In Arboleda's case, Hall placed himself in harm's way then used lethal force, Williams said.

Brian Higgins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former police chief in Bergen County, New Jersey, agreed.

“The general rule is you don't shoot at moving vehicles," Higgins said, adding that in this case Hall appeared to have put his fellow officers in the line of fire. Contra Costa County bans shooting at moving vehicles except to save an officer’s life or that of another person.

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Nobody knows exactly why Arboleda or Wilson ended up in Danville. In both cases, their families say, mental illness played a role.

Arboleda was working long hours as an Amazon courier and taking online coding classes that he hoped would help him get a job at Kaiser Permanente, where his mother worked for years as a medical secretary. The schedule was wearing him down, physically and mentally, said his sister, Jennifer Leong.

“He was overwhelmed and tired, he was working so hard,” Leong said.

At the same time, Arboleda wanted more independence. He was living with his mother in Newark, California, and wanted his own apartment. His family believes that's why he went to Danville, about an hour’s drive away, ringing doorbells and searching for the property manager of his mother’s condominium, who lived there.

Arboleda had periodically shown signs of depression, but only began displaying concerning behavior in the months before his death. At times he would wrap himself in plastic bags, put duct tape on his forehead if he had a headache; he told his family he was hearing voices and once, in April 2018, he uncharacteristically threatened to hurt his mother.

His mother called police, who took Arboleda to a psychiatric hospital where he was involuntarily committed for three weeks and prescribed medication for psychosis and schizophrenia.

“When he came out, he was different,” his sister said. Arboleda disliked how the medication made him feel and refused to take it.

Troubling behavior continued, along with more calls to police. When officers would arrive, Arboleda would run away, his mother said. He feared they would force him to return to the hospital.

His family is not surprised that Arboleda fled the police in Danville. “He was afraid of police. I know that he was just trying to get away,” said his mother. “He is like a child, he just wanted to get away from the situation.”

Wilson’s parents believe he chose Danville because it reminded him of home.

“He grew up in a really quiet neighborhood, where you see kids playing in the middle of the street, the type where you see people after the sun goes down walking their dogs at 11 at night,” his mother said.

“The environment where Tyrell was killed was the environment he grew up in. He felt comfortable there.”

Jocelyn Gecker, The Associated Press