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The tragedy of Idriss Stelley
S.F. cops shot and killed a man they knew was mentally disturbed. The 911 tapes show what they might be trying to hide.

By A.C. Thompson

HIS BAGS WERE packed. Idriss Stelley was going to Africa. On foot.

For months he'd been tuned to his own channel, behaving bizarrely, neurons apparently misfiring. Everyone was worried.

Stelley had seen a psychiatrist a few times but soon decided the doctor was plotting against him and quit showing up for appointments. That was followed by the debacle with his school, Heald College, where he studied computers. First Stelley was convinced that school administrators were pumping poisonous chemicals through the air ducts to sicken him. A few weeks later he decided Heald was really a front for a secret military recruiting center.

On this day, though – June 13, 2001 – the charismatic, biracial, trilingual 23-year-old was making even less sense than usual. In the throes of a dark, uncommunicative mood, Stelley didn't want to talk, didn't want to play chess or read, his usual favorite activities. He didn't want to do anything.

And then Stelley's girlfriend, Summer Galbreath, suggested a movie. They wound up standing in line at the Sony Metreon, at Fourth and Mission Streets in SoMa. "What's the best movie to see?" Stelley asked the dude at the ticket counter. The ticket seller recommended Swordfish, the John Travolta bomb. "Two for Swordfish, then."

In the theater, according to Galbreath, Stelley downed two or three shots of tequila. On-screen Travolta lit up a smoke. So did Stelley. Soon the ushers were giving him grief, and Stelley was getting agitated.

Stepping out of the theater, Galbreath used her cell phone to call Stelley's mother, Mesha Irizarry. Irizarry had a succinct plan: call the cops and tell them he's in the midst of a mental breakdown. The police, she figured, would be able to help.

A horde of San Francisco police officers arrived while Galbreath was on the line with the 911 operator. Clearing moviegoers out of the theater, the police swarmed in.

From the hallway of the Metreon, Galbreath called Irizarry back. Minutes later the cops unleashed a barrage of gunfire, slaying Stelley and leaving bullet holes in his head, chest, abdomen, buttocks, right leg, right foot, left arm, right shoulder, and right arm. Irizarry heard the shots over the phone.

You may be familiar with the broad outline of this story – it's been written up in the dailies and weeklies. Still, the incident really hasn't gotten the kind of ink it deserves. In part that's because so far the San Francisco Police Department has kept the case cloaked in secrecy – it won't even identify the officers involved – effectively preventing reporters from covering the tragedy in any depth.

But new evidence obtained by the Bay Guardian and revealed here for the first time provides a clearer picture of what went wrong that night. Under legal pressure from this paper, the SFPD recently released the 911 dispatch tapes from June 13. The recordings indicate that responding police officers knew they were dealing with a mentally disturbed person. Galbreath had specifically warned the cops to approach Stelley carefully to avoid setting him off. It also appears the SFPD might have mistakenly thought, at least initially, that Stelley was armed with a gun – although Galbreath clearly told the officers her boyfriend had no firearm.

The evidence on the tape indicates that there may be serious problems with the way the SFPD responded to the incident – and may help explain why the unusual curtain of secrecy has descended on this case. National police experts interviewed for this article suggest the department's secretive posture in the Stelley case is far from routine.

Seven months after Stelley's death, the SFPD has offered only a sketch of the moments preceding the shooting. According to the department, Stelley was menacing officers with a knife attached to a chain. The blade got close enough to one cop to nick the officer's shirt. Pepper spray didn't stop him. "He was swinging the chain with a knife at the end of it like a ninja," homicide detective Holly Pera says. "When he refused to drop the knife, and he continued to swing the chain, some officers made the decision to shoot. It was a very sad case all the way around for everyone involved."

Here's what we don't know: the names of the officers who stormed the theater, the names of the cops who shot Stelley a total of 10 times, the names of the witnesses who observed the shooting, or just about anything else. And in contrast to the way it routinely handles drugs-and-guns busts, the department hasn't allowed the press to view the knife, which Stelley's family maintains was actually a small bamboo-peeling tool with a two-inch blade.

From a heavily redacted six-page police report given to Stelley's survivors, it appears that four witnesses observed the shooting – and that's all the SFPD is willing to say on the subject. "We have gotten very little cooperation from the city," says Andrew Schwartz, the family's attorney. The information embargo – which differs radically from the way the department handles civilian crimes and the way other police forces deal with officer-involved shootings – has made it nearly impossible for Stelley's family or the press to investigate.

Before Galbreath dialed 911, the Emergency Communications Department had already taken two calls about Stelley. The first came from a Metreon rent-a-cop: "We have a guest inside, he has a weapon in his hand, and he will not leave," the security officer said.

"What kind of weapon is it?" the dispatcher asked.

"Nobody got close enough to see it – it's a knife or something like that."

The second call was from a California Highway Patrol officer. The patrolman was relaying a message he'd gotten from someone in the theater: Stelley "said he had a gun, so everybody believed him and ran out."

The 911 recording only includes incoming calls to Emergency Communications, not outgoing messages from the dispatchers to patrol cops. However, it seems probable that 911 put out word that Stelley was carrying a gun, and that may have jolted the responding officers into mortal-combat mode.

When Galbreath called, she was interrupted midsentence by an SFPD officer on the scene. On the tape she can be heard explaining the situation to the cop as a 911 dispatcher listens in. "My boyfriend is in the movie theater right now," Galbreath said.

"Does he have a gun?" the officer asked.

"No, I didn't see one on him when we left the house. But he will try to fight back because he was diagnosed as being borderline personality," Galbreath replied.

"Then why'd you say he had a gun if he didn't?" the cop pressed.

"I didn't."

"Does he have a knife?"

"I don't know."

"Then why'd you call?" the officer demanded.

When it comes to officer-involved shootings, other police departments are far more forthcoming than the SFPD. Two weeks before Stelley was slain, an analogous incident went down in the parking lot of the Hayward BART station. After a scuffle, BART cop David Betancourt shot to death Bruce Seward, a delusional, mentally ill African American man. Within a month of the slaying, BART officials had handed over 90 pages of pertinent police documents – including interviews with witnesses and cops – to Seward's survivors (see "Gun Crazy," 10/17/01).

The SFPD says it won't divulge any more details until its internal probe – which is being handled by the homicide and management control (a.k.a. internal affairs) units – is concluded. That inquest may not be done any time soon. "When it comes to a shooting, when there is a death, it takes a while," Officer Ed Martinez, the SFPD's public records coordinator, says. "It can take from a couple of months to a year or so."

But in phone interviews, nationally known law enforcement experts were surprised by both the department's sluggish investigative pace and its refusal to disclose information.

"Most departments today would want to expedite an investigation and reach tentative conclusions before too long a delay, even if it meant assigning more officers [to the probe]. In your typical case an investigation would be concluded within a few weeks," says Patrick Murphy, who has served as police chief of New York City, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Syracuse, N.Y.

Now a police management consultant, Murphy is surprised by the SFPD's refusal to release the witnesses' names. "I could imagine an unusual set of circumstances where you would not want to reveal that kind of information because you would not be able to get a witness or a piece of evidence." But such a situation, he says, "would be rare."

Hubert Williams is the former police chief of Newark, N.J., and president of the Police Foundation, a law enforcement think tank. He figures the SFPD's secrecy "simplifies matters" for the department. "It presents the least possible problems," Williams says. "The police may be afraid that the newspaper is going to stick their nose in the case and start asking the witnesses questions. You may ask questions the police did not ask. It might get people to think differently."

In the ex-chief's view, police brass shouldn't reveal details that could compromise an investigation, but they also must weigh another factor: "In a democracy, we need openness."

"We certainly understand [the family's] concern," SFPD inspector Sherman Ackerson says. "I do understand that seven months is a long time. But the investigation has to be completed as a package. This is not unusual."

The information blackout highlights a loophole in the California Public Records Act, which allows police officials to withhold any information that "would endanger the successful completion of the investigation" if released to the public. "That," complains Lucy Daglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, "is a loophole you can drive a truck through." San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance requires law enforcement to release considerable information once an investigation is concluded – but as long as the SFPD stalls, by keeping the investigation "open," that information remains secret.

'Why do I still not have the names of the witnesses? Why can't I get my son's backpack, his belongings?" demands Irizarry, a French-Basque immigrant with a potent gaze and stone jaw. We're sitting in Cafe Boheme, the 24th Street coffeehouse where Idriss once challenged all comers at the chessboard.

"Cops will kill because of a lack of training," Irizarry, 54, argues. "So I'm not really interested in seeing [the officers involved] incarcerated or demoted. I'm interested in the whole profile of the police department, and I'm interested in accountability."

Backed by Bay Area PoliceWatch and Caduceus Outreach Services – the latter a group that provides pro bono mental health care – Irizarry is bent on transforming the SFPD. She's already had some success. In early January the San Francisco Board of Supervisors urged the department to teach all 2,200 cops how to respond to psychiatric crisis situations.

Meanwhile, Galbreath looks a little lost. She met Stelley when both were 14. She planned to marry him. This wasn't in the script. "The first couple months were really rough on me," Galbreath says, eyes pointed at the floor, her voice faint. "You live with someone and suddenly they're no longer there. You think about how that person died ..."

"He didn't deserve that. Nobody deserves that."

E-mail A.C. Thompson at ac_thompson@sfbg.com.
Research assistance was provided by Will Evans.