Meet the late Morgan James Davis — “Mo” or “Big Mo” to his friends — depicted above operating a dual spindle glass blowing lathe, a machine he mastered on his way to becoming an underground artist of some renown in far northern California, during the wild, wild west era of the state’s cannabis industry in the early 21st century.
Mo made some of the best glass water pipes around, his friends recall. His spun-out designs were thick and heavy duty. “My most cherished pipe was a piece by Mo,” claimed one customer and friend. Davis spent the better part of the past 15 years practicing his craft from Redding to Chico and beyond.
“The man was truly an artist,” said another close friend.
During the past five years or so, friends say Davis began transitioning from glass-blowing to truck-driving and other occupations. As much as Mo loved creating works of art, glass blowing just wasn’t paying the bills.
“Glass is a hard gig,” said another friend of Mo’s, a fellow glass-blower. “You have to stay in it for the art because you don’t make any money.”
The fellow glass-blower, who wishes to remain anonymous, worried about his burly friend’s attempt to leave the glass blowing scene behind completely.
About a year ago, out of the blue, he said Mo told him if he was ever confronted by law enforcement officers, he’d bite chunks out of his arm, smear his extra-large frame with blood and scare the cops off with the frightening spectacle.
It sounded impossible at the time, but that’s exactly what Davis did early in the morning on June 9 at the Americana Modern Motel in downtown Redding. It cost him his life.
The incident began when a woman at the motel called 911 to report a domestic disturbance between a man and a woman in the room above her. The same woman live streamed the Redding Police Department’s response on Facebook.
The RPD later posted her nine-minute cell phone video (shot through the partially open door of her motel room) on its Facebook page with a 524-word description of the incident.
The five RPD officers, including a K-9 unit that responded to the domestic disturbance call, encountered Davis howling incoherent nonsense from his motel room balcony; no woman in distress in sight. He was naked from the waist down and bleeding from a wound on his arm. The police kept their distance and were off camera early in the video.
“Come on downstairs,” one of the officers calls up to Davis. “We’ll get you a Band-Aid.”
After 90 seconds, Davis comes downstairs, still naked from the waist down and bleeding. The RPD Facebook post notes that Davis weighs “in excess of 400 pounds,” but it’s not all fat. He’s a stout man, and as he explores the police perimeter set up around him, he looks not unlike a sumo wrestler circling the ring, exploring his opponent’s weaknesses.
The following takes place in a matter of seconds.
As the K-9 unit barks and a beanbag gun goes off, Davis stops in the center of the ring, places his left wrist in his mouth and bites into it like it was a turkey drumstick. He pulls and yanks his left arm, shredding the flesh off his wrist and spitting it out. He repeats this four times before falling to the ground, either from his own momentum, or perhaps because he was tased.
The five RPD officers pounce on Davis. During the physical encounter, which lasted about seven minutes, the suspect was kicked violently in the head, struck with a baton, tased, shot twice with a beanbag gun, placed in various control holds and bitten by a police dog. The RPD Facebook post concludes:
“The subject was transported by ambulance to a local hospital for treatment. He arrived at the hospital at 1:43 a.m. While at the hospital the subject began to have medical difficulties and eventually died. He was pronounced dead at 2:15 a.m.”
Morgan James Davis, Mo to his friends, was 37.
Davis’s death is the 40th fatal encounter between a suspect and Shasta County law enforcement officers since 2000, according to Fatal Encounters, a national online database that documents killings by police. Shasta County continues to rank No. 2 in California for fatal police encounters per capita.
Full disclosure, I’ve worked for Fatal Encounters as an assistant researcher in the past and its CEO is a personal friend of mine. His database is considered one of the two best in the United States for tracking deaths involving law enforcement officers.
In fact, I consulted the Fatal Encounters database on my last story, about the death of Robert Lyon on June 2, the 39th killing by Shasta County law enforcement officers since 2000. The story was published on June 8, a week after Lyon was killed by a Shasta County sheriff deputy in Cottonwood, and the day before Davis’s death in RPD custody.
I’ll admit that even though I didn’t personally know Davis, his death while in the hands of local law enforcement, coming so quickly after Lyon’s death, and in the midst of a nationwide debate on police brutality, deeply depressed me.
Until law enforcement officials are stripped of qualified immunity and held legally accountable for their fatal and non-fatal errors, it’s not just Black lives that don’t matter. White lives, Red lives, Brown lives, Yellow lives? Forget about it.
No lives matter.
Perhaps that’s too cynical. Certainly, Mo’s life mattered, at least to his friends.
Graphic artist and cartoonist Thorn Hart from Chico is several decades older than Davis and has fond memories hanging out with Mo in the university town’s art and bar scenes.
“My most cherished pipe was a piece by Mo,” Hart said. “I lost the pipe and reconnected with him [online] several years ago, and discovered he was driving truck.”
“Morgan Davis — ‘Mo’ to his friends — was a good guy,” Hart continued. “A kind heart. A talented artist. He worked as a glass blower at Blazin’ J’s in Chico for years back in the early to mid-2000s. He was a bouncer and bartender at one of Chico’s most iconic college bars back in the day, Normal St. Bar. If Mo was your friend, you knew that he always had your back. He got along with everybody.”
Hart was disappointed Mo couldn’t make him a new pipe, but made a point of staying in touch with the truck driver through Facebook Messenger and texting in the years since then. It wasn’t always easy since Hart is a progressive liberal and Mo was a die-hard Trump fan. Mo’s last message to Hart was a Sean Hannity-style rant sent several days before his death:
“Well I guess we both believe the other side has lying leaders with a bunch of cronies trying to hijack and destroy the country with corrupted news media backing them. I’m pretty sure I can’t stand or believe anything from the left with as much passion as you on the right. To me this is all system overload stop trump at all costs election year tricks. I hope you pay attention to crossfire hurricane! Obama’s attempted overthrow of president Trump is finally being investigated and dirty Democrats and cronies gonna get indicted for real crimes against our country!!”
“My challenge was to keep my channel to Mo open, despite my abhorrence for Trump,” Hart says.
Anthony Eidem, owner and operator of the Gearhead Barbershop and Social Club, which features shops in Chico and Reno, also goes back to the early 2000s with Morgan Davis. At the time, Eidem had a barbershop and tattoo parlor just up the street from Blazin’ J’s. Eidem decorated his shop with Mo’s work, cut Mo’s air and inked Mo’s body.
Mo would often hang out and swap stories with Eidem after haircuts and the two grew close over the years. The RPD said it found “suspected methamphetamine, cocaine, acid and other prescription medications” in Davis’s motel room. Eidem freely admitted that he had done drugs with Mo in the past, but said Mo had given up controlled substances because he faces regular drug testing as a truck driver.
“He was truly an artist,” said Eidem, who last saw Mo in person about a year ago, when he stopped in at the Gearhead Barbershop in Reno for a haircut with his sister in tow. Mo would sometimes confess to having the blues, but Eidem said he and Mo shared a similar approach to fighting depression: stay busy, and that’s what Mo appeared to be doing.
“He wasn’t drinking or taking any drugs; he was goal orientated,” Eidem said. “I find this all very hard to believe. Even if he was under the influence, he would never attack anyone. That’s not Mo. That’s not the guy I know. He was sweet. He was good.”
But the anonymous glass blower says Davis had a darker side.
“He’d come in the shop and be depressed,” he said. “It’s hard to get behind a 1400-degree torch and you’re putting all this work in and not making any money. He was at it for 15 years.”
He was aware that Davis was driving truck and attempting to better his life financially. About a year ago, Davis told him what he’d do if he ever found himself surrounded by police.
“He said he’d scare them by biting chunks out of his arms. He had this mentality that he was unstoppable, along with the fact that he’d be bleeding and looking crazy.”
Davis was a big man who was aware his size was intimidating, the anonymous glass blower said.
“Sometimes when he’d catch a buzz the big burly person would come out of him,” he said. “We all knew he could be that kind of guy.”
According to RPD’s Facebook post, no woman in distress was found in Davis’s motel room. “It is currently unknown if a female was ever in the room with the subject.”
The post also says Davis feigned a charge after descending the staircase, but as the video shows, it was a weak feint at best. The suspect was clearly more interested in harming himself than police.
Two minutes into the cell phone video, Davis falls to the ground after repeatedly biting himself. Four RPD officers and a K-9 unit immediately pounce upon him.
They have difficulty controlling the writhing behemoth. Some 55 seconds later, Davis flexes his massive body and grunts out a mighty “Argghhh!” The RPD realize they can’t control him, release their holds and back away.
The big man in the XXXTRA Large black t-shirt sits back with his bare ass on the concrete and is at least self-aware enough to cover up his exposed genitals with both hands, looking somewhat like a humble Buddha prepared for the inevitable blows to come.
A split-second later, a RPD officer standing directly behind Davis and outside the suspect’s field of vision kicks Mo in the back of the head like he was kicking down a door. Davis’s head whiplashes as the officer follows through with his black boot and shoves Davis back to the ground.
A second later, as Davis struggles to regain all fours, another RPD officer strikes the suspect across the skull with a baton. Davis continues to resist for several more minutes, but the battle is over. Slightly more than one hour after encountering the RPD, Morgan James Davis, Mo to his friends, dies at the hospital.
His life mattered to his friends but not to most of the hundreds of people who commented on the RPD’s Facebook post. While a few commenters begged the RPD to take the video down out of respect for Davis’s surviving family members, most congratulated the RPD for a job well done. This post was typical:
“Policing is now a thankless job … thank u officers for keeping society safe … white fat guy, obviously out of his mind on drugs, dies in police custody, no one cares … what is going on with our society … I didn’t see anything wrong that the police did … sometimes ppl die…don’t do drugs!”
I emailed a series of questions to both Redding Chief of Police Bill Schueller and Shasta County Sheriff Eric Magrini regarding the deaths of Robert Lyon and Morgan Davis, and despite several reminders, they’ve failed to reply.
If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it comes from the anonymous glass blower, who broke down sobbing several times while we talked about Mo’s death on the telephone.
“He had talked about doing this sort of thing while he was high,” he said. No one took it seriously. “Then, when he was surrounded by police officers, he found out he had made a bad decision.”
“I don’t want stuff like that to happen ever again,” he said. “He was my friend. I don’t want that to happen to other people.”