SACRAMENTO, Calif. - It seemed like an open and shut case. The official account said: a suspected drug dealer opened fire on deputies and they returned fire; one officer was wounded and the suspect was shot and killed.
But Dennis Dean's family always knew there had to be more to it than that.
Last April, narcotics officers caught Dean off guard at his Orangevale home, but once they had him in custody, they said he began cooperating with their investigation. So how then did he end up dead? Everyone who asked that question got an answer that day, but the answer was wrong.
Dennis Dean's father is the first to admit his son had problems. For a number of years Dean managed to keep his struggles with substance abuse under control, but in recent months old habits returned.
"He was doing wrong, sure he should be in jail, not dead," Dennis Dean, Sr. said.
In April, what began as a narcotics investigation led to a brief foot chase, but deputies quickly caught Dean and brought him back to his home.
"If you could just have seen the room. You could tell that he had to be down on his hands and knees," Dean, Sr. said. "He was shot in the back. I just don't see how they could have felt threatened."
The day of the shooting, investigators spoke with reporters saying, "Definitely a very brazen act. That's a really good word to use to describe his actions," Sgt. Jason Ramos said on April 12.
That day, the sheriff's department said Dean fired several shots at officers, even hitting one of them, prompting deputies to return fire. The sheriff's office cited "imminent danger" to the lives of the officers, leaving them no choice but to defend themselves.
Dean's family couldn't believe it.
"When we went to see the scene, we were immediately puzzled because we didn't see any bullet holes in the direction of where officers would have been standing," Dean's brother-in-law, Steven Vincent said.
Sure enough, when family members met with detectives a week later, their suspicions were confirmed.
In a recording Vincent made at that meeting, homicide investigators outlined a new scenario.
"We don't believe that Dennis ever fired a shot," a homicide detective told family members. "We believe that the injury that the other officer sustained was likely from ricochet from other officers, so it doesn't appear that Dennis ever actually was able to fire the gun."
So what prompted officers to open fire? That's just one of the key questions Dean's family said it still doesn't have answered. The sheriff's office denied the family's requests for more information after that meeting, which might have shed light on what happened.
"He runs from the residence, jumps over a fence. As he's going over the fence, he accidentally kicks one of the officers in the face," the homicide detective said in the recording.
Also in that meeting, detectives told the family after they caught Dean, he became cooperative. So they brought him back home and asked him to open a safe they found, a safe that required his fingerprint to open.
"That's the big thing that just keeps going around and round. Why would you let this guy go back in there," Dean, Sr. said of the decision.
When News 10 first contacted the Sheriff's Office to get information on this case, they declined the request, citing an exemption from the California Public Records Act. However, several days later, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones agreed to sit down with us.
Jones confirmed Dean never fired a shot; he was asked how that story became the public version of events?
"You make an issue of the fact that bad information got out in the press release. It's unfortunate, but I really don't, I don't have, I guess as much of a problem coming to the conclusion that, you know what, in this dynamic situation, we put out information that turned out to be bad," Jones said.
The information wasn't just bad, to Dean's family members, it seemed designed to prevent suspicion.
"How often do they make up a story when there's not someone to contradict it?" Vincent asked.
"This was a tremendously confusing time at the time the press release went out," Jones said. "The officers hadn't even given statements yet, and so it was impossible for us to know from them what happened. We only had the benefit of limited information from other folks what happened at that time."
A week after the shooting, investigators had a much clearer picture of what actually happened. In the family's recording, detectives said Dean told them he had a gun in the safe, so they warned him they would shoot him if he made any sudden movements. They thought things were under control until Dean opened the safe. Deputies said he then reached for the gun.
"At that point at least one of the officers sees the gun. They make an announcement there's a gun, and the officer in the closet and at least one other officer begin shooting at him," a homicide detective told the family in the recording.
"I just think one of them jumped the gun, and once one started shooting, I just figure they all shot," Dean, Sr. said.
Jones was asked if Dean never fired his gun, what prompted the first officer to start shooting.
"That is the critical piece of this investigation," Jones said.
Jones was then asked if any conclusions were drawn by the investigation.
"I have, and I am perfectly satisfied that at the moment each of those three officers fired their weapons, opted to use deadly force, felt compelled to use deadly force that they felt like they were in danger," Jones said.
Without access to the written report, News10 asked specifically if Jones knew why deputies felt endangered.
"Yes, I do know what that was, but it's nothing I'm going to comment upon the investigation," Jones said.
"Can you say why you can't reveal what that was?" News10 asked.
"It's just part of an ongoing investigation," Jones said.
Dean's family is also critical of how the shooting has been investigated.
"I don't think it's right for them to investigate themselves," Dean, Sr. said.
In the summer of 2011, District Attorney Jan Scully, citing budget issues, announced her office would no longer conduct independent reviews of officer-involved shootings, leaving law enforcement to conduct its own reviews.
"The investigating officers know personally the officers who shot, so where's the oversight? Who watches the watchmen?" Steven Vincent questioned.
On this point, Dean's family appears to have an unlikely ally.
"I've talked to the District Attorney about it. I would much rather see them continue," Jones said. "I've made no secret about the fact that I want that independent oversight. I want that second set of eyes looking at it."
A newly adopted protocol by the sheriff's office includes an additional review by the Sacramento Inspector General, but critics said it still won't match an independent review by the District Attorney.
MORE: Sacramento Co. Sheriff's Department Officer Involved Shooting Policies
"There is no substitute for that," Jones said.
Since Scully's decision, officer-involved shootings have climbed to a record high in 2012, doubling the decade-long average.
"To what degree do officers cover their friends on the force when they all investigate themselves?" Vincent asked.
Jones insists his investigation into the three officers who shot Dennis Dean find no crime was committed and no departmental policy was violated. Dean's family members stress they're open to that possibility, but without evidence, they can't help but fear the worst.
"It looked to me like somebody got trigger happy," Dean, Sr. said.
"They said that Dennis accidentally kicked one of the officers in the face. My worst fear is that that was the officer who was standing behind him," Vincent said.
Asked if any one of those three officers who shot Dean was one of the ones Dean accidentally kicked in the face, Jones replied, "I have no idea, and I'm not sure I'd disclose that even if I knew."
"It still just goes on and on. It's like a tape in your head 'cause you don't have an answer. All you have is questions," Dean, Sr. said.
Last April in the days following the shooting, the three deputies who fired at Dennis Dean were placed on paid administrative leave. They have since returned to active duty. However, the sheriff's department still considers this case an ongoing investigation.
By Gabriel Roxas, firstname.lastname@example.org
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