When the other shoe dropped, it did so very quietly. On Monday afternoon, not even Eureka city officials knew that relatives of Cheri Lyn Moorehad finally made good on their threat to sue the city and members of its police department. This despite the fact that the federal suit had been filed in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago.
Moore was a mentally disturbed woman who was shot dead after a two-hour standoff with the Eureka Police Department in April 2006. The standoff took place during the day at Moore's downtown apartment, in full view of passers-by and the media, which congregated outside. Moore had been armed only with a flare pistol; when police entered her apartment, they shot her multiple times with a rifle and a shotgun. The whole incident was set off when Moore, on the anniversary of her son's suicide, made a call to the county mental health department, demanded medication and made vague threats.
The incident left many aghast and calling for reform. A coroner's inquest was held several months later, at which point public testimony was taken from police officers, mental health professionals and friends of the deceased. The jury that heard the inquest recommended that local police agencies undergo training in dealing with mentally ill subjects, and that mental health professionals be present at any future standoffs. (For more background on the Moore case, see two Journal cover stories from last year: "Scenes from a Shooting," April 27, 2006, and "Cause of Death," Sept. 21, 2006.)
There was bound to be some litigation, and now it has come. Moore's family is represented by San Francisco attorney Gordon Kaupp, who filed suit on their behalf on May 29. The suit names the City of Eureka, the Eureka Police Department and 11 individual current or former police officers, from then-chief Dave Douglas to the officers at the scene. Because Kaupp and his firm specialize in civil rights cases, the suit was filed in federal court and focuses on the alleged violations of Moore's Constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure.
The suit particularly takes aim at the decision-makers on scene. "Chief Douglas worsened an already bad situation, pretended there was a grave threat when none existed and needlessly caused the death of a woman who, stricken by a mental health crisis, reached out to the appropriate government agency in order to get help and medication." Kaupp writes.
It's worth noting that Kaupp, who could not be reached for comment, belongs to Dennis Cunningham's firm. Cunningham was the lead attorney in two high-profile North Coast cases. He successfully sued the FBI and the Oakland Police Department on behalf of Earth First!ers Judi Bari and Darryl Cherneyfor violation of their civil rights following the bombing of the activists' car in 1990, and he successfully sued Humboldt County and the City of Eureka on behalf of the "Pepper Spray Eight," the forest activists whose eyes local law enforcement swabbed with the noxious substance in 1997.
EPD Chief Garr Nielsen, who took over the department earlier this year, said Monday that the suit would surely have an effect on department morale. "I think it's certainly going to have a sobering effect on people, but I also think that we're trying, as an organization, to move on," he said. The department has become much more aware of mental health issues and different ways of approaching them, he said. He cited a case over the weekend, in which a mentally ill woman brandished a knife and begged officers to shoot her. The woman was pepper sprayed and taken into custody.
"I certainly see a much more positive attitude within the organization and the community," Nielsen said. "You hate to have anything put a damper on that." But he added that a civil suit in the Moore case was probably inevitable.
What continued to flummox him, Nielsen said, was that District Attorney Paul Gallegos has still not made a decision on whether or not to prosecute members of the police department on criminal charges. "It's a mystery to me," Nielsen said. "When we've made inquiries, we've not gotten a reasonable answer. After this much time, I find it very difficult to understand why that is."
As The Town Dandy's beatnik cousin writes elsewhere in this week's paper (see "The Hum"), not all is doom and gloom for the good folks at The Placebo, the Humboldt County organization that has for several years been doing its damndest to give your kids something safe to do at night, despite thick-headed opposition from various quarters. The all-ages, drug-free music venue is remodeling its building and submitting a permit application to Eureka city government, according to scene queen Julie Ryan, who adds that city officials "have been great."
Still, with The Placebo there's always a dark cloud to every silver lining. And now Ryan hands us late-breaking news: Apparently there's a real danger that Bummerfest, the group's annual band showcase and principal fundraiser, isn't going to happen this year.
Turns out that the Eureka Veterans' Hall, which has hosted the two-day music event for the last six years, has backed out this year. According to Ryan, some other promoters who have used the hall have behaved irresponsibly, and have drawn down the wrath of the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Fearing sanctions, the Vets' Hall is shy to rent to other music promoters, no matter how impeccably they have behaved in the past.
This latest hit has nearly driven the sunny Ryan to despair. "Anyone's who's gotten a bulk e-mail from me in the last few weeks knows I'm pretty bummed," she says. "I've been putting on my Mom voice." A lot of people want to go to Placebo shows, she says, but few want to step up and put in the behind-the-scenes work to make things happen.
Prove Ryan wrong. Come to the Bummerfest Planning meeting tonight (Thursday, June 14) at 6:30 p.m. at Redwood Yogurt in Arcata. Come with your ideas, come to volunteer your labor and especially come to share any ideas you have about alternate Bummerfest venues. Ryan figures that if The Placebo doesn't find a place within a week, the festival will be off and The Placebo will be deprived of some much-needed revenue.
Two housekeeping notes. First: A big tip o' the top hat to Joel Mielke and Scott Brown for ably holding down this space while I was away. Thanks, Joel and Scott -- we laughed, we cried, we learned important life lessons.
Second: With this issue, we at the North Coast Journal say goodbye to our colleague Helen Sanderson, who has been with the paper since 2003 and is now off to bigger and better things (with a leisurely stop in Hawaii along the way). Helen wrote this week's "Art Beat" column, which is as complete a summary of her style as you could wish. Though savagely funny in person, as a writer Helen has always portrayed her favorite subjects -- oddballs, dreamers, old folks -- with the love and respect she feels is their due. We always tried to get Helen to write with more of her natural sarcasm, but she wouldn't have it. Despite her tough-chick front, she's fitted with a deep well of compassion. That's probably what sparked her interest in health care issues; she wrote several award-winning stories for us on the topic.
In truth, we're probably not quite done with Helen yet. She's coming back to town for a month and a half or so later in the summer, and we're hoping she can be conscripted to do some freelance work for us. In the meantime, big mahalos from the Journal.