Shooting of man with mental illness justified in Coos County

Eugene Register-Guard, April 30, 2005

He told police they’d have to come in and kill him.

In the end, that’s exactly what happened.

Coos County District Attorney Paul Burgett on Friday ruled the county’s fourth officer-involved shooting in the past year justified, ending further inquiries into the March incident that left 38-year-old Ronald Love Oxford dead at the hands of sheriff’s deputies.

Oxford’s father, Frank, told the district attorney that he had concerns about how police engaged his son on March 30 and that he wanted a citizen review. But there is no citizen review board in Coos County, said chief deputy district attorney Paul Frasier, and the other avenues for further scrutiny – a grand jury or district attorney inquest – wouldn’t address Oxford’s concerns, he said.

Reached at home on Friday, Frank Oxford declined to comment, saying he hadn’t decided how he wanted to pursue the case yet.

Charleston resident Ronald Oxford had suffered from mental illness since he was 17 and had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, Frasier said.

In November, Oxford was hospitalized with “mental health issues,” about the same time he lost a close friend and his girlfriend broke up with him, Frasier said.

After four days in the hospital, Oxford was released under several conditions, including that he take medication and live at his parents’ house, near Charleston. Oxford’s father told investigators that he seemed to be doing well after leaving the hospital.

But in early March, Oxford’s mental state was deteriorating, his family told authorities. He was short-tempered and demanding, heard voices and talked about suicide. He also threatened to burn down the family’s home and kill his parents.

Frank Oxford said he called the Coos County Mental Health Department for help in the days before the shooting.

“He complained about not getting any help from the crisis line,” Frasier wrote in a 12-page report. “Frank Oxford was concerned that his son’s medication needed to be adjusted.”

County mental health Director Ginger Swan did not return phone messages.

Several days before the shooting, Ronald Oxford threw gasoline and turpentine on the family’s two-story wooden home, but didn’t ignite the fuel. His father asked Oxford to move out, offering to get a trailer for him to stay in and to find a place to park it. If he wasn’t out by March 30, Frank Oxford said, he’d call authorities and have his son taken back to the hospital.

When the day came, Ronald told his father, “If they come out to get me, I’m going to burn the house down and they won’t take me alive and I will force them to shoot me,” Frank Oxford told investigators. He added that “the voices” were going to end once and for all.

The father called the Coos County sheriff, reporting that his son was possibly armed with a knife and that one officer probably wouldn’t be enough to handle the situation.

When the first deputies arrived, they intended to take Oxford into custody, Frasier said. But the man had barricaded himself in his upstairs bedroom, in an unfinished attic. When Deputy Will Krahenbuhl tried to move some of the items used to barricade the room, Oxford tried to grab the officer, at which point Krahenbuhl realized he was holding a hunting knife.

At that point, Ronald Oxford called 911, demanding that deputies get out of his home. After a brief, profanity-laced conversation, he hung up, Frasier said. Just before more deputies arrived, Oxford called 911 again, spouting more vulgarity before hanging up.

At one point, he told a shift commander who tried talking with him, “You are going to have to come in and kill me,” Frasier said. The shift commander, Cpl. Jeff Grant, sprayed a small amount of pepper spray in the attic, which drove Oxford out of the room, through a hole in the attic floor. There he encountered deputy Jason Patterson. Twice, Patterson fired a Taser at Oxford, who was armed with a knife and hatchet. A Taser imbeds two electrically charged prongs into the skin of a subject, and the officer can administer a powerful jolt, causing the person being “tased” to lose muscular control and experience excruciating pain that does not linger once the electrical pulse ends. It had no apparent effect on Oxford.

He ripped the prongs out of his chest and continued to advance on whichever deputy got close to him. At one point, Krahenbuhl told investigators he put his finger on the trigger to fire at Oxford but released it when the man turned away.

But then Oxford backed Detective Toby Floyd into a corner in the garage, still armed with the hatchet and knife.

Floyd retreated, but eventually became trapped in the back of the garage. When Oxford got within 3 to 5 feet of him, Frasier said, the detective fired his gun three times, striking Oxford in the torso. Krahenbuhl, on the other side of Oxford, fired once, striking him in the back. He took a couple of steps toward the back of the garage and collapsed.

Officers performed first aid, but Oxford was pronounced dead at the scene, just after 11 a.m. A search of his room revealed his prescription medicines, more than an ounce of marijuana and several bottles of hard liquor, at least one of which was empty. An autopsy the next day revealed Oxford’s blood alcohol content was .26, more than three times the legal limit for driving. He also tested positive for marijuana and another drug that was likely from his medication.

Frank Oxford told police he believed that they did what they had to when the shooting occurred, but that he wanted to know why officers used pepper spray on a mentally ill subject, why they didn’t give the situation more time and why more Tasers weren’t available for officers to use.

“These are legitimate questions from Mr. Frank Oxford,” Frasier wrote in a press release. “Unfortunately, I do not know that I can answer them for him.”

He explained that the investigation was only to study whether the use of deadly force was justified, not the events leading up to it. Since Floyd had no choice but to fire or endanger his own life, Frasier said, the shooting was indeed justified. Any further review would only address the same questions, Frasier said. Thus, such inquiries are unnecessary.

The shooting is the fourth officer-involved incident in the past year, Frasier said – three were fatal and in one, the subject accidentally shot himself during a scuffle with police. Frasier said he’s amazed at how often he picks up police reports and reads about an officer who had every right to shoot a suspect but avoided it.

As for this incident, “They do happen. It’s a rare thing. But I don’t think it’s anything to indicate the officers are doing anything wrong. It’s just bad luck.”