Killing in the dark

Two years later, the death of Asa Sullivan remains a mystery

The San Francisco Police Department doesn't want people to know about Asa B. Sullivan, a case that illustrates how difficult it is to get even basic information about law enforcement, which leaves the public in the dark about a public agency that makes life-and-death decisions.

Officers filled Sullivan with 16 bullets nearly two years ago on June 6, 2006. Sullivan was unarmed and hiding in the cramped attic of a townhouse at the Parkmerced complex near San Francisco State University when the shooting occurred.

The Guardian has spent the intervening time trying fruitlessly to obtain public records and other information from the department about what happened to Sullivan and about the officers involved, including the results of now-completed investigations.

Sullivan's death briefly grabbed headlines, but beyond what police told the press at the time, the department has rejected several requests for reports and other documents related to the shooting. The department in February of this year rejected another records request, one of four rebuffed since Sullivan's death.

Police initially claimed Sullivan's gun was found at the scene, but that story changed significantly within a short period of time. Police later said the officers who shot him believed an eyeglasses case held by Sullivan was a gun.

It all started when the neighbors of 2 Garces Drive called police believing squatters had taken over the townhouse, but Sullivan was helping the tenants clean up so they could get their security deposit before moving out.

When police arrived, they ordered Sullivan's friend, Jason Martin, to the floor after the officers aimed their weapons at him without explanation while Sullivan fled into an attic, according to allegations that later appeared in a federal civil suit filed by Sullivan's family.

Sullivan was on probation for pot and any contact with police would surely have caused him more problems, but as we reported shortly after Sullivan was killed, the department's General Orders instruct that when a suspect is barricaded, the responding officers should call in a negotiator. A K-9 unit was called that night, according to the suit, but it doesn't appear the officers waited for it to show up.

Two officers tried to call Sullivan down before pursuing him into the attic. The rest is unclear except that the officers, John Keesor and Michelle Alvis, shot Sullivan to death believing he was armed and intended to shoot them first. But no gun was ever found. The 25-year-old Sullivan, a San Francisco native, was working for Goodwill Industries at the time and had a young son named Asa Isaiah Sullivan.

We first sent a public records request to the SFPD shortly after Sullivan's death asking for "any and all documentation" related to the shooting including e-mails, notes, and witness statements. The department's legal division responded that the material was exempt from disclosure laws because they were part of an ongoing law-enforcement investigation, a common response when reporters seek such documents.

After learning at a September 2006 San Francisco Police Commission meeting that some elements of the investigation were complete, we filed another request. The department's rulebook requires that two divisions in the department — the homicide detail and internal affairs — complete their examinations of deadly officer-involved shootings within two months of the incident.

But again, citing the state's Government Code, which allows them to withhold material considered part of an ongoing probe, the department responded that an investigation by the district attorney and an analysis of Sullivan's body by the medical examiner were not complete.

Two months later, we confirmed through Sullivan's autopsy that he'd been shot 16 times, so we filed another request for documents related to the shooting.

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