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Editor’s note: Although Steve DuBois is not a trained journalist, he is a lay writer, and one of ANewsCafe.com’s regular photography contributors.
Steve was so deeply moved by the news of Desmond Phillips’ death last year that he felt compelled to reach out to the Phillips family. His goal was to write what he learned about Desmond, a 25-year-old man who suffered from mental illness and who was fatally shot by a pair of Chico police officers on March 17, 2017. The evening started with Desmond’s father’s 911 call for mental-health assistance at his small Chico apartment. The evening ended with Desmond dead, shot at least 10 times by two officers.
As Steve put it, “You might remember this story, or maybe you never heard about Desmond. We often hear about tragedies, but we rarely hear about the victims.”
The more Steve learned about the night Desmond was killed, and the way in which he was killed, the more troubled he felt. To Steve’s knowledge, Desmond did not have a criminal record, although family had made 911 calls for medical/mental health assistance with Desmond in the past.
Steve wanted to know more about Desmond the man, before the shooting.
Steve searched the internet for stories about Desmond’s death. He made a few trips to Chico for this story. He spoke by phone several times with Desmond’s father, David Phillips, and in person with Desmond’s 18-year-old nephew, Chad Ingram. The Phillips family described Desmond as yes, mentally troubled, but also a brilliant, beloved young man with a great sense of humor and a kind heart. Steve heard one story after another about Desmond’s generous heart, how he fed the homeless, and gave freely to those in need.
Included in Steve’s story are excerpts from the media briefing by Chico Police Chief and Butte County District Attorney Michael L. Ramsey.
Below this story you’ll also find a series of links about Desmond’s death, including those published by ChicoSol, and an opinion piece by Dave Waddell, ChicoSol’s news editor.
David Phillips made the announcement that he would seek an independent investigation into the death of his son, Desmond Phillips, shot to death by Butte County law enforcement on March 17, 2017.
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra affirmed that an investigation would be underway, one that would be independent of the influence of Butte County law enforcement or District Attorney Ramsey. Attorney General Becerra stated he would personally oversee this case.
Before this announcement by Becerra, Butte County District Attorney Michael Ramsey determined that the two officers named in the shooting, Jeremy Gagnebin and Alex Fliehr, were justified in shooting Desmond.
Since Ramsey would not charge the officers, David Phillips and his Justice For Desmond team appealed to the state to seek justice with capital murder charges against the officers. David Phillips has had various meetings during the last year with his lawyer John Burris, and an ACLU representative, and Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
In that meeting David Phillips presented evidence that there may have been more than two officers who shot his son. Two photos were shown at the press release related to that evidence. One photo was of a shell casing found by the family dog after Desmond was shot.
Police evidence showed Desmond was shot 16 times by the two officers who emptied both their guns, and that all those casings were accounted for, which corroborated their report. But the Justice for Desmond team believed that this 17th bullet casing – found by the family dog – proved multiple guns were used.
Also, officers claimed Desmond came after them when the taser they used didn’t work properly, which they explained is why, when Desmond lunged at them, officers opened fire. But the second photo presented at the press conference showed that the only blood splatter was on the wall about one foot above the floor where Desmond landed after being tased. A photo showed an air compressor on the floor to help illustrate the wall height.
Mr. Phillips said that when Desmond was shot, the father crawled on the floor toward his son as the last bullets were fired. The elder Phillips said that he saw with his own eyes that Desmond was falling from the taser as the bullets were fired at his son. That’s why Phillips’ father claims that what happened to his son was murder, an action he also believes was racially motivated.
March 2018 update
Desmond Phillips’ father, David Phillips, has twice met with California State Attorney General Xavier Becerra, along with John Burris, the famed civil rights lawyer.
The most recent meeting with Becerra and several investigators was on Feb. 22. However, the elder Phillips has been advised to hold off on disclosing anything about those meetings yet.
Several months ago Phillips said that the Justice for Desmond team has facts and evidence that disprove all of Ramsey’s previous claims. Because of that, Phillips believes that the Justice for Desmond case is “rock solid”. However, Phillips said that Becerra cautioned him to wait for a recommendation regarding whether or not charges will be brought against the officers who shot Desmond.
But, Desmond’s father said Becerra told him that an official finding could be a few weeks away. Because of this communication from Becerra, Phillips said he’s feeling “quite positive – as long as everyone does their job”.
On this St. Patrick’s Day, in honor of Desmond Phillips, and to commemorate his life and the one-year anniversary of his death, family, friends and supporters will hold an event at the One Mile Picnic Area in Bidwell Park from 2 to 4 p.m. The gathering will include a barbecue, music, and people who will speak about Desmond and his death.
Today, a few days before the one-year-anniversary of Desmond Phillps’ death, Steve Dubois tells the story of how Phillips died. His goal is to keep this story alive to ensure justice for Desmond Phillips.
St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2017 – The Night Desmond Phillips Died
On March 17, 2017, Chico police officers fatally shot Desmond Phillips, a 25-year-old black man who suffered from mental illness. The shooting happened inside the living room of a small single-level Chico apartment, a home Desmond shared with his father and two nephews.
Sixteen shots were fired, hitting Desmond in the face and chest. At least two bullet holes remain in the Phillips’ living room wall, reminders of the night they lost Desmond.
Two of the bullets that went through Desmond entered the adjacent apartment and damaged a TV and microwave oven. One of those bullets continued on and passed through yet another wall and blew through a hanging shirt before lodging in the wall above a bed.
A petition on Organizefor.com collected about 40,000 signatures that demanded that the officers who killed Desmond would be fired and charged with the killing. The petition was addressed to the Chico Police Department, the Butte County Grand Jury and California State Attorney General Xavier Becerra with the request.
Here’s how the Organizefor site told the story of the night Desmond died:
The Chico 911 dispatch, Chico Police, and Chico Behavioral Health Department were familiar with Desmond’s background and had successfully taken him in for mental health treatment twice before. On March 17 the first responders who arrived at David’s apartment removed Desmond’s headphones and sunglasses which is how he was coping with the crisis he was in. When he became agitated in response, the first responders called in the police. The police arrived at the scene with a non-lethal beanbag gun and shield, but those things were never used. When Desmond saw the police he panicked and locked the front door. The police broke down the door, tased him and within seconds Officers Gagnebin and Fliehr fired 16 shots total from their two semi-automatic handguns.
According to Desmond’s father, David Phillips, on March 17, 2017, he placed a 911 call for mental health assistance for his son, Desmond, who was having what the elder Phillips referred to as one of his son’s “episodes”. The elder Phillips was hoping for some kind of medical intervention to help Desmond.
As an aside, some Phillips family members said Desmond had epilepsy, which may have been linked to what they thought of as one of Desmond’s “episodes”. Either way, they described a transformed Desmond – incoherent, sometimes eyes closed or unfocused, or, for lack of a better term, just “zoned out”. They said that during these episodes Desmond had difficulty identifying the current time, place and his location. They said it was almost as if he were sleepwalking.
In addition to those episodes is what the Phillips family said was Desmond’s PTSD that stemmed from an earlier police beating in Sacramento that was so severe that Desmond was hospitalized in an intensive care unit.
One nephew said that the police beating followed an incident where law enforcement found an unresponsive Desmond, praying while lying in a fetal position near the railroad tracks, and police used force to remove him from the area.
After Desmond was discharged from the Sacramento hospital his father brought Desmond home to Chico to live with him and recover from his injuries.
Phillips said his thinking, when he called 911 the night of March 17, 2017, was for medics to come and possibly administer tranquilizing medications to help Desmond calm down, or perhaps they would even take Desmond to the hospital for observation and care. The medics arrived, but when Desmond was uncooperative, they called the police.
The situation turned violent. Rather than assisting the medics’ attempts to calm Desmond so he could receive medical care, the officers fatally shot Desmond multiple times.
When I contacted Mr. Phillips, he talked about what happened the night police killed Desmond. He said that despite how the Chico police justified their force against Desmond – to supposedly protect the Phillips family inside the apartment – at no time did any of them – the father and his grandsons, including Chad Ingram- feel threatened. Phillips called 911 because it was clear to him that his son was in the state of a mental health emergency, and he needed professional help for Desmond beyond what he and Desmond’s family could provide.
Phillips said that the “help” from officers included tasing Desmond twice, and when that didn’t subdue him, the police “unloaded” their guns into Desmond’s body. He said Desmond died on the family’s living-room floor.
Mr. Phillips recalled how, on the night of the shooting, he was in the bedroom when he heard the police break down the front door, and then heard as Desmond was tased. Phillips said at that point he immediately came out of the bedroom and saw his son’s body “locked up” from being tased, and that his son was falling. Phillips said there was an officer beside the bedroom door he’d just exited. Phillips said that as he came out of the bedroom and saw Desmond falling, the shooting began instantly. Phillips said that when he saw his son begin to fall, the father dropped to the floor and began crawling toward Desmond.
As Phillips recounted this part of the story, he sobbed and stopped to collect himself before he could finish telling what happened next. He regained his composure and said that he knew as he was crawling toward his son that Desmond was already dead.
In the aftermath of the shooting, in horror and disbelief, Phillips said he yelled, “I called for ya’ll to help. You killed my son!”
Phillips said he doesn’t care what the police or district attorney claim. Phillips said he saw with his own eyes that the Chico police officers murdered his son. Still crying as he spoke, Phillips said there was nothing he could do to help his son after the officers arrived.
Phillips said police left one shell behind, found later by the family dog.
At the funeral home in Sacramento, Phillips said he spoke with man who’d embalmed Desmond, who told Phillips that 16 shots went through Desmond’s body.
Before the Shooting
Phillips said he was a single dad for 13 years, but there was a period of about four to five years when Desmond lived with his mother. Phillips said that when Desmond was about 17, Desmond moved to Sacramento to live with his girlfriend, who he’d met at church. Phillips said Desmond was still living in Sacramento when the beating by police took place. At the time Desmond worked for a clothing store.
Phillips said it was important to him that people knew that Desmond was a religious and humble person, someone who prayed a lot. And when he was praying, Desmond didn’t like to be disturbed, to the point where he wouldn’t respond to his father if he interrupted Desmond during prayer. The elder Phillips said that whenever Desmond felt the need to pray, he would just pray. He told the story of the night when Desmond lived in Sacramento and he was in prayer outside, somewhere near the Sacramento Light Rail. When Desmond prayed, he bent over into almost a fetal position. Phillips said officers approached Desmond, who was in his usual prayer position, but he wouldn’t respond.
Phillips said that when his son wouldn’t respond, officers started beating Desmond. One thing Phillips said that Desmond remembered from that beating was his face being slammed into rocks. Phillips said that according to Desmond, the police then took him to their vehicle where they continued to beat him even more.
Phillips said his son was beaten so badly that at first officers didn’t know if they’d killed him, so they had him admitted to a hospital where he was placed in the intensive care unit. According to Phillips, the Sacramento beating of his son resulted in kidney and liver damage, as well as head trauma.
Meanwhile, while Desmond was in the ICU, his girlfriend and family were trying to figure out where Desmond was. They eventually found him after calling around to area hospitals. Phillips said that the entire time Desmond was in the ICU, police wouldn’t let anyone in the family see Desmond, not even his father.
When Desmond was released from the ICU he was arrested and taken to jail for resisting arrest. The elder Phillips was then able to bail him out. Phillips said that Desmond had never had a problem with police before the Sacramento incident.
Phillips said he took Desmond to Chico so he’d feel safer there. And he said Desmond did feel safe in Chico. But as time went on Phillips said that Desmond began showing problems, such as short-term memory loss. That’s when Phillips took Desmond to doctors who diagnosed Desmond with PTSD. Various doctors were recommended to treat Desmond. In fact, Desmond had a medical appointment scheduled in Roseville two weeks after his death.
Desmond lived with his father approximately seven months before the Chico shooting that ended Desmond’s life. During that time Desmond joined a church in Chico and had three jobs; two were with temporary agencies and the other job was home care, personally taking care of Phillips.
At this point in the story Phillips was sobbing. Phillips said Desmond always stayed humble and never got involved in any arguing. Phillips called Desmond his Angel, his Baby, his King.
After the shooting police handcuffed Desmond and his body was taken to Enloe Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
The Police Version of the Night They Shot Desmond Phillips
The day after the shooting, Chico Police Chief Michael O’Brien and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey held a media briefing. During the briefing O’Brien said that on March 17, 2018, Desmond’s father called 911 because his son was having a mental-illness episode. O’Brien said the elder Phillips hoped emergency responders would give his son medication to calm him since he was acting erratically. According to O’Brien, the trouble began when firefighters arrived and attempted to communicate verbally with Desmond, who was “hostile” – dancing in the living room in a “trance-like state” and wearing headphones and sunglasses.
Ramsey said Desmond would not leave with the medics, and “suddenly became animated with punches and swings of his arms and hands” as medics attempted to touch him.
That’s when medical responders removed themselves from the Phillips home and contacted police dispatch. When officers arrived, they directed Desmond’s father into one back bedroom and Desmond’s two nephews in another bedroom, which officers said was for protection from Desmond’s erratic behavior.
Officers said they saw Desmond pacing in the small living room area as he held two knives. The officers said they tried to communicate with Desmond to calm him down, but without success. The officers said that as they attempted to diffuse the situation, Desmond slammed the front door closed so officers couldn’t see what was occurring inside.
That’s when the situation escalated.
District Attorney Ramsey said officers heard that Mr. Phillips made another 911 call saying that he feared that Desmond would stab his father if Desmond broke down the door where the elder Phillips was hiding. The officers said at that point they believed there was an imminent threat to the elder Phillips and his two grandchildren.
(Phillips contradicts that statement. He said that at no time did either he or his grandchildren – including 19-year-old Chad Ingram – feel threatened by Desmond. Phillips said he and his family knew that Desmond was having an episode and just needed help.)
Officers said they broke open the front door to protect those inside. According to the officers who entered the apartment, once they were inside the small home, Desmond was adjacent to the door and in very close proximity to them.
(Side note: According to Ramsey at another briefing, the two officers who shot Desmond had also responded to a 911 mental health call for help from David Phillips about his son in December of 2016, so this was not their first encounter with Desmond Phillips.)
Chief O’Brien said that Desmond was aggressive, while swinging his arms in a windmill fashion as he rapidly approached the officers. O’Brien said Desmond held a knife in one hand and part of the broken door jam in the other as he approached the officers. O’Brien said the officers tased Desmond, but with minimal effect. Chief O’Brien said Desmond got to his feet and began to slash at the officers before a second taser attempt could occur. Within seconds the officers discharged their weapons and Desmond fell to the floor.
Medics at the scene then gave medical attention to Desmond. At the time of the shooting, Chico police officers hadn’t yet begun to wear body cameras, so there’s no video of the incident.
It was later reported that the officers fired their weapons a total of 16 times, and of those 16 shots, 10 struck Desmond Phillips.
Desmond’s Father’s Version
David Phillips said he talked to someone at the coroner’s office who said 16 shots fired by the Chico police officers hit Desmond in the chest and face.
Phillips said Desmond died on the family’s living-room floor, and that after the shooting, Desmond’s still body was handcuffed and taken to Enloe Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
Phillips believes the death of his son was racially motivated by police who already knew Desmond was mentally ill, a fact known by law enforcement as they’d responded to 911 calls for help with his mentally ill son on two previous occasions.
Phillips said that his 911 call was an attempt to get help for his son, not to have him killed.
Nineteen-year-old Chad Ingram is Desmond’s nephew. He was at the Phillips apartment the night Desmond was killed. Ingram said he heard everything, and after the shooting, his grandfather David Phillips told him what he saw.
Last year, Ingram spoke with me from the front room where he said his Uncle Desmond had once played video games, joked with family and loved having fun. This was also the room in which Desmond lost his life.
Two bullet holes remained visible in the wall near where Ingram was seated. He said he was still overcome with grief and horrific memories of the night his uncle died.
Ingram said he looked up to Desmond, and wanted to be like him. Ingram said he felt proud when people said he sounded like his Uncle Desmond, or that he seemed like his uncle. He said Desmond was like a “big brother” – and that Desmond would say Ingram was like the younger brother he never had. (Desmond was the youngest of four). Ingram said he was willing to follow his uncle into whatever endeavor he pursued.
Ingram said Desmond was interested in a career in engineering, or creating video games.
“He was a smart guy,” Ingram said.
Ingram had a deep admiration for Desmond, whose nickname was Bubba – though nobody could recall how the name got started.
Ingram described Desmond as someone who was humble, quiet and never raised his voice. Ingram said Desmond had a strong belief in and relationship with God. Desmond played basketball and loved music so much that he sang with the church choir and traveled to places around the world singing with the choir. Ingram said singing was one of Desmond’s biggest gifts of all. But Ingram said he believed his uncle’s greatest gift was his heart. He said Desmond had a deep love for not just family, but most people in general.
“If Desmond had known the police officers who shot him, he would’ve loved them, too,” Ingram said. “His love for everyone was the best part. Desmond warmed up the room and brightened the day.”
Ingram said Desmond was loving to others, and that he was kind and treated everyone well. Desmond liked to help others, too. If someone needed money and asked for $20, Desmond gave $40, if he had it. If all he had was change in his pockets, he’d give all he had to someone in need.
Ingram laughed sadly when he mentioned the time he helped his uncle look for his misplaced phone, and when Ingram found it, his uncle gave him money as a token of his gratitude.
Desmond had a good sense of humor, liked to laugh, and was a practical joker. Ingram said Desmond loved shoes. Ingram said although his uncle wasn’t the conceited type, he liked dressing in a way that he wouldn’t be considered a thug. He wasn’t into ‘sag’ pants. And he didn’t walk in a way to get attention. In fact, Desmond wore glasses and embraced the ‘nerd’ look.
Ingram said Desmond tried to look professional, was an honest person, and never had so much as a parking ticket.
Desmond played by the rules to the point where, when the nephew and his uncle played video games, such as “Grand Theft Auto” – Desmond wouldn’t break the game’s rules, even when it was allowed. If they were on a mission in the game to kill someone, Desmond couldn’t kill anyone. If a car could be hijacked, Desmond couldn’t do it. Ingram had to do it for him.
Despite the obvious pain Ingram still suffers over the loss of his uncle and the extreme and violent way in which his uncle died, Ingram did not express anger, or the need for revenge. Ingram’s wish, other than that his uncle had never died, was that one day justice would come for Desmond.
Ingram talked about the night his uncle died. He said that when paramedics first responded to his grandfather’s 911 call for help with Desmond, Ingram was in his bedroom with his 12-year-old brother. His grandfather had told them that their Uncle Desmond was having “an episode” and to go to their room.
Ingram said he was later told that when medics arrived, Desmond was playing video games, so the medics removed Desmond’s headphones and tried to grab his arm so they could take him to the hospital. He was told that Desmond pulled back, because he said he didn’t want to go, and that’s when the responders then called police. When police arrived, the front door was open, but the screen door was closed. Ingram said he looked out his bedroom window and saw officers – weapons drawn – wearing riot gear. One officer had a shield. Ingram was later told that the officer holding the shield thought the space in the apartment was too small to enter with it.
Ingram said he was told by his grandfather, David Phillips, that one officer went around behind the ground-floor apartment and broke through a fence. The family dog started barking, so the officer tazed the dog.
During the media briefing Chief O’Brien said that officers claimed that when Desmond closed the door, they couldn’t see inside. Officers said they believed the elder Phillips and his two grandchildren were in imminent danger, so they broke the front door open to allow law enforcement entry into the apartment.
Ingram said one officer that had been out back then entered through the kitchen. When multiple officers were inside, Desmond was confronted and tased. Seconds later the shooting occurred.
Ingram said that despite the officers’ version – that they reacted as forcefully as they did because Desmond’s family was in danger – Ingram said he, his brother and grandfather never feared for their lives, nor felt in any danger nor fear of Desmond. Ingram said he can’t understand why, if the officers truly believed the grandfather and grandsons were in imminent danger, why hadn’t the officers simply removed the three from the apartment through bedroom windows to safety? Had officers done that, there would have been plenty of time to calm Desmond down and help – not kill him.
Ingram said Desmond – as a mentally ill citizen – deserved the police officers’ help, not harm.
Immediately inside the Phillips apartment, there’s a narrow passageway between a wall and the back of a couch. And that couch faces another couch on the opposite wall with approximately 3-4 feet between them. It was that opposite wall that displayed the two bullet holes.
Ingram said when the officers broke open the front door, it probably triggered something in Desmond with his PTSD from his earlier encounters with Sacramento police, which escalated the situation.
Ingram said that when his uncle had episodes, sometimes his eyes would close and he’d “zone out” and Desmond would have trouble knowing where he was or what was happening — that he almost appeared to be sleepwalking.
Both Ingram and David Phillips told me the officers knew Desmond had a mental illness due to previous calls. Ingram said the entire way the evening ended was completely avoidable and unnecessary.
District Attorney Ramsey countered this point, saying David Phillips himself had said during a 911 call that Desmond had tried to stab him and that he and his grandchildren could not leave the rooms. “He’s trying to stab me now. Come through the window,” David Phillips was reported saying during the last 911 call. But Mr. Phillips says he wanted the police to help his son.
You don’t have to stand next to Mr. Phillips to know and see his pain. You can clearly hear it in his voice over the phone. During our first call, I mentioned I heard that Desmond liked to join his father to help feed the homeless. Phillips said that actually, feeding the homeless was Desmond’s idea, not the elder Phillips’.
Phillips said he continues to feed the homeless in memory of his son after church on Sundays.
The Phillips family wants to keep Desmond’s name alive and for justice to be served by having the officers who killed Desmond held accountable.
In the meantime, District Attorney Ramsey concluded his investigation and determined the officers were justified in killing Desmond. The officers returned to duty.
Click here to read the letter by Diane E. Schmidt to District Attorney Michael L. Ramsey, published online at ChicoSol. Schmidt is a 40-year veteran policy analyst and ranking professor of Public Administration in the California State University, Chico, political science and criminal justice department.
A News Cafe.com publisher Doni Chamberlain contributed to this story.