December 2016: A man died in police custody after resisting arrest and after officers deployed a Taser twice in an effort to bring him under control after he was involved in a crash involving four vehicles on Elk Grove Boulevard, said Officer Christopher Trim. Jessica Hice The Sacramento Bee
December 2016: A man died in police custody after resisting arrest and after officers deployed a Taser twice in an effort to bring him under control after he was involved in a crash involving four vehicles on Elk Grove Boulevard, said Officer Christopher Trim. Jessica Hice The Sacramento Bee

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Three men died months ago in confrontations with police. The coroner won’t say what killed them.

By Sam Stanton

sstanton@sacbee.com

April 08, 2017 12:00 PM

UPDATED April 10, 2017 11:27 AM

Jesse Lee Attaway died more than six months ago after being shot by Sacramento sheriff’s deputies. Logan Ron Augustine, 17, died last Thanksgiving in a confrontation with deputies at a Carmichael 7-11 store. Daniel Joshua Landeros died Nov. 30 after Elk Grove police struck him with a Taser twice and restrained him after a struggle.

The official causes of death and autopsy reports for each of the three remain secret because the county coroner’s office is refusing to release the documents, a legal challenge filed last week in Sacramento Superior Court charges.

The petition seeking release of the documents was filed by Los Angeles attorney Donald Cook on behalf of Stewart Katz, a Sacramento lawyer who specializes in police use-of-force cases and contends the county is refusing to disclose the reports because of his past success suing law enforcement.

“Because of his efforts, (Katz) has enabled many victims of police abuse – including those abused by Sacramento County-based law enforcement agencies and departments – to recover meaningful compensation for wrongful acts carried out by local officials, acts that reflected outrageous and egregious abuses of police power,” the petition states.

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As a result, Katz has caused “great embarrassment to county officials who take exception to having misuse of governmental power exposed, held up to ridicule and condemned,” the petition adds.

Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin said she did not know about the legal filing. In cases where a criminal probe is involved, the office routinely waits until the District Attorney’s Office has completed its investigation because the autopsy is part of that process.

“Typically, we don’t release autopsy reports or any information until the DA’s investigation is complete,” Gin said.

Shelly Orio, spokeswoman for Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, also said all three cases remain under investigation and that autopsy reports typically are not released until the probes are complete.

Katz said he has been approached by families of all three men asking for his help in determining how their loved ones died. He added that he believes there are no active DA’s investigations into any of the three cases.

“I’ve never had a case where they’re saying we’re not going to release it because of the claim that law enforcement is investigating,” Katz said. “I mean, never.”

The legal filing comes as local law enforcement faces greater scrutiny over use-of-force cases. The City of Sacramento has pledged greater transparency in such cases, including the release of dashcam and other videos of such incidents.

“On the one hand, you have the City of Sacramento making some big steps in trying to create more transparency and recognizing there is a public interest when you have these fatal occurrences, and at the same time you have the county, which has decided to take an opposite tack,” Katz said.

Katz’ petition said he began trying to get the records with a Jan. 26 letter seeking the autopsy and coroner’s report for Augustine, and that the county answered by sending a handwritten note saying officials were “unable to release any info or reports regarding this case.” He followed up with a Feb. 22 request for all three autopsies that he filed as a request under the California Public Records Act. The county responded with a March 3 letter saying all three deaths “are still being investigated by county law enforcement.”

“Because these matters are still being investigated, the public’s interest in disclosure is outweighed by the need to conduct these investigations without interfering with or influencing witness perceptions and memories which could happen were these reports released to the public,” the letter stated.

Even without an official cause of death, Katz already has filed two claims against the county in the Attaway case because such claims – precursors to lawsuits – must be filed within six months, he said.

The claims, filed March 17 on behalf of Attaway’s children, seek reimbursement for wrongful death, loss of relationship, financial and emotional support and funeral costs. The claims also state that the coroner “is unlawfully withholding relevant information thus making it impossible to provide further information on this claim form.”

Those claims were filed just before the six-month anniversary of Attaway’s Sept. 23 death at the hands of two deputies who were hunting for a burglary suspect in Fair Oaks.

A sheriff’s spokesman said at the time that deputies spotted a man matching the burglar’s description at about 5 a.m. on Mohawk Way near Piedra Way and ordered him several times to show his hands. The man ignored several commands, turned toward the deputies and pointed something at them, the spokesman said, and the deputies fired out of concern for their safety.

No weapon was found at the scene, the spokesman said at the time. Witnesses told The Bee after the shooting that they heard from eight to 15 shots fired. The man was later identified by the coroner as Attaway, 41. As of Friday, the coroner’s website still did not list an initial classification for how he died.

Augustine, a 17-year-old boy from West Sacramento, died on Thanksgiving Day at about 1:50 p.m. at the 7-Eleven store at Marconi and Walnut avenues in Carmichael.

Authorities said deputies responded to a 911 call they believe was made by Augustine himself. When deputies arrived, the teenager was belligerent and told them he had a gun, a sheriff’s spokesman said at the time. Augustine had a knife in his hand and stabbed himself in the neck, causing a deputy to fire a rubber bullet that failed to disable him, the spokesman said. Augustine continued to hold the knife and became more agitated, and a deputy who feared for his life fired a single shot, the spokesman said.

Augustine’s death was not listed on the coroner’s website as of Friday, and Gin said that was because the case is still pending and has a hold on it. She also said glitches in the coroner’s computer system sometimes leave names off the website. Katz filed a claim with the county Friday on behalf of Augustine’s father.

The third case involved Landeros, 41, an Elk Grove father of five who died in a Nov. 30 incident.

Elk Grove police said at the time that they were responding to reports at 10 p.m. of a wrong-way driver in a pickup truck running red lights at Laguna Boulevard and Bruceville Road. As they tried to intercept the driver, the truck was involved in a crash with three other vehicles and the driver ran away.

Officers gave chase. When they caught up with the man, he appeared ready to fight, Elk Grove police said at the time. One officer fired a Taser that did not penetrate the driver’s jacket.

The driver ran again, then turned and took an aggressive stance toward the officer, who fired his Taser again, police said. The device incapacitated the man. As officers were trying to handcuff him, he resisted and a struggle took place, police said.

Shortly thereafter, officers noted, Landeros became unresponsive. They tried to revive him and called for an ambulance, but he was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Landeros’ death also was not listed on the coroner’s website as of Friday, and Katz said his wife still has no idea how her husband died.

“He’s got five kids,” Katz said. “She doesn’t know what happened, I mean, she literally really doesn’t know how he died.”

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam