The three Menlo Park police officers who shot and killed a fleeing burglary suspect on Nov. 11 used justifiable force, according to the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office.
The DA's office concluded that the man who was killed, 52-year-old Jerry Lee Matheny, had a gun and pointed it at officers. Investigators, however, said they were unable to determine whether he had fired it.
District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe released a report on Friday, Feb. 6, detailing the circumstances of the shooting and the conclusions of his investigators, who conducted a review of the incident as is standard procedure. More than 20 witnesses were interviewed as part of the investigation.
The incident started when Sgt. Jaime Romero and officers Scott Mackdanz and Nicholas Douglas responded to a report of a suspicious man from a woman who worked in an office building at 64 Willow Road around 12:30 p.m.
"Although he had simply entered her building, waved at her and left without doing anything further, she was suspicious of him because he strongly resembled a photograph on a flyer posted in her office of a person who was wanted by police in connection with a series of thefts of purses and other property from open businesses," Mr. Wagstaffe's report said.
The suspect, Mr. Matheny, then reportedly drove to 68 Willow Road.
The district attorney said the following then unfolded over approximately 65 seconds:
By the time Officer Douglas and Officer Mackdanz arrived at 68 Willow Road, Mr. Matheny had exited his car. He approached Officer Douglas from behind. When asked to put his hands on the patrol car, he cursed and fled, according to the district attorney.
Sgt. Romero, who had his 15-year-old son in the car for a ride-along, arrived as a foot chase ensued.
Officer Douglas gave a warning and then fired a Taser, which failed to stop the suspect. The investigation determined that only one barbed prong had struck Mr. Matheny, Mr. Wagstaffe said.
With three officers now in pursuit, Mr. Matheny pulled a gun. Officer Mackdanz told investigators he heard someone yell "gun," followed by a shot as the officer tripped and fell. He fired five shots at the suspect. Officer Douglas dove to the ground, breaking his kneecap in the process, to avoid friendly fire, and released three shots. Sgt. Romero, who had yelled the warning, fired one shot before his weapon jammed. He cleared it, then fired a second time.
According to the DA's report, Sgt. Romero told investigators he was scared for the lives of everyone in the vicinity upon seeing Mr. Matheny's gun, and said that he "could not let this guy get away; I could not let him take a round at us, or my son. We had to eliminate the threat. We had to stop him."
The shooting was not captured by any body-worn camera. Officer Mackdanz had turned his in for repairs at the start of his shift. Sgt. Romero activated his immediately after the shooting, and Officer Douglas did not turn his on, the DA's review concluded.
Mr. Matheny was pronounced dead at the scene. Toxicological testing performed as part of the autopsy found methamphetamine and its amphetamine metabolite in his blood, the report said.
After searching the body and scene, police located a .22-caliber semi-automatic gun about 21 feet away from Mr. Matheny. Six unshot bullets were found within 20 feet of the gun, five of them loaded in a magazine.
A gardener who had been working nearby told investigators that he had seen the man throw something silver away during the shooting. Fingerprint and DNA analysis proved insufficient to tie the weapon to Mr. Matheny; however, 19 rounds of ammunition found in the trunk of his car matched those in the magazine and the other bullet, the report said.
The investigation was unable to determine whether Mr. Matheny had fired at the officers, although his face and hands tested positive for gunshot residue. Methamphetamine and cocaine were reportedly also in the car's trunk.
Investigators confirmed that the photograph on the flier was Mr. Matheny, and that he was a suspect in eight office burglaries in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties, according to the report. He allegedly posed as an IT technician or repairman to gain access and stole items such as wallets from purses.
At the scene of the Nov. 11 shooting, officers said they found a wallet stolen from the purse of an employee at the Willow Road business complex earlier in the day.
The suspect's parole officer, Agent Donna Sanchez of Riverside County, told investigators that she had lost track of him after he removed an ankle monitor while at a casino in July 2014. A warrant was then issued for his arrest; she said that Mr. Matheny was aware that he could go back to prison for violating parole. Both she and a friend of the suspect said that he may have committed "suicide by cop," the DA's report said.
Police department response
The Menlo Park Police Department command staff expressed appreciation for the DA's thorough review.
"The findings match the findings in the criminal investigation conducted by the police department, which show the suspect's actions in this case caused the two officers and sergeant to use the appropriate force necessary to safeguard their own lives and the lives of community members in the area," Cmdr. Dave Bertini said.
"Although it is always tragic when any life is lost, the actions of Sergeant Romero, Officer Douglas and Officer Mackdanz were consistent with their training, experience and the law and they all acted heroically in the defense of others."
Police Chief Bob Jonsen said he never doubted the officers' actions, and praised their professionalism.
The department will keep striving to improve its service to the community, he said. "We'll continue working with our residents, businesses and elected officials to ensure their trust and confidence in us to keep them safe is impregnable."
Two of the three officers returned to work in December. Officer Douglas continues to recuperate from the knee injury.
Click here to see the District Attorney's Office report (PDF).