Few dates have marked the American psyche like 9/11/01. And if nothing else had transpired that day, Seth Dawson would have had more than enough reason to remember it. But before that terrible Tuesday would end, Dawson, a Santa Clara County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Deputy, would have a very personal reason to remember that date in addition to the 9/11 atrocity.
Shortly after noon, Dawson responded to a 911 call in the 11000 block of Olivia Court in the city of Gilroy, 80 miles south of San Francisco. The informant advised the 911 operator that two suspicious people were on his property, one of whom “might have a gun.” He met Dawson and Dep. Robert Cisneros in the driveway fronting his house and told the deputies he last saw the two strangers go to the west side of his house minutes before their arrival.
One minor detail the informant neglected to mention: He owed a drug debt to one of the men, Fernando Garcia.
The two officers made their way around the house where they encountered Garcia and Edmundo Solorzano, who were seated on the backyard lawn. Dawson did not recognize either of the men, but he recognized their look—shorts and wife beater t-shirts suggested Norteños, gang members.
Dawson told the men to stand and put their hands in the air. The men responded with marginal compliance, rising to their feet and asking, “Why? We weren’t doing anything!” Dawson recognized the obligatory challenge for what it was—a means for the men to buy some time. As Dawson moved to close the gap, Garcia took off running toward the western portion of the property, Solorzano quick on his heels.
The deputies gave chase.
Keying his portable radio, Dawson advised that he was in foot pursuit. As he did, he saw Garcia’s hands in the area of his waistband. The two suspects split up, and Dawson remained step for step with Garcia for an additional 200 yards.
Garcia’s sprint took him to the outer edges of the informant’s property, but the smooth soles of his tennis shoes and the slick grass conspired against him. Dawson watched as Garcia slipped and fell face forward onto his hands. A handgun that Garcia had stashed in his waistband popped loose, and his forward momentum propelled the weapon onto the ground.
Dawson aimed his sidearm at Garcia yelling, “Stop! Stop!”
But as Garcia regained his balance, he turned, twisting his body counterclockwise. Dawson immediately spotted a gun barrel emerging into view beneath Garcia’s left armpit.
Dawson stepped to his right and fired his duty weapon. A splash of red dotted the upper back of Garcia’s t-shirt as the man continued to spin then collapsed onto his back. The gun landed about an inch or two from his hands. Dawson advised over his portable radio that shots had been fired and requested paramedics to roll.
Living With It
Roll the paramedics did, but only to the outer perimeter of the crime scene where they remained, refusing to enter while a second and possibly armed suspect was thought to be in the area. Finally, it fell upon a Department of Forestry Fire Captain to enter the scene and pronounce the man dead.
A search of the area failed to locate Solorzano, but the gun Garcia had pulled on Dawson was recovered at the scene. Subsequent investigation revealed that the weapon had been reported stolen from a Gilroy Police reserve officer’s car in the days preceding the shooting. With Solorzano’s arrest a few days later came corroborative evidence that Garcia had been in possession of the pistol before they went to the home.
Dawson was relieved of duty while the department conducted its investigation. The protracted investigation began to take its toll, and he acquired a wary disposition by the time he returned to work five weeks later.
“They started treating me with kid gloves.”
On Dawson’s first night back to work he trailed a car with expired registration tags. He made a routine radio request for backup, and was surprised to find a number of officers from different areas busting their asses to roll code 3 to his location. Clearly, things had changed.
And in more ways than one.
Dawson found himself reliving the shooting in nightmares, and it took several more weeks for him to return to some semblance of normalcy. He also had to deal with the occasional ill-considered remark such as when a former Marine said of him, “Oh yeah. He’s got a confirmed kill. He’s a mean motherf_____.” Such comments were perhaps born of good-natured ribbing, but Dawson didn’t want to hear them.
Some officers under similar circumstances have found help from professional counselors. Dawson was not so lucky. “Not very good,” is Dawson’s terse appraisal of a department-affiliated counselor who he says has never seen fit to even go on a ridealong to learn what cops do.
Charges and Counter Charges
In December 2002, Dawson was on leave due to stress. The president of his labor union called. “Seth, what the hell are you doing? Here, I’m trying to get you back to work and you’re messing things up!”
Dawson was taken aback.
“What are you talking about?”
The union president proceeded to lay it out for him. He related that a lieutenant on the department had accused Dawson of being uncooperative with a pair of supervisors who had visited his house, almost precipitating a barricade situation over Dawson’s refusal to turn over the department-issued AR-15. Dawson recognized the lieutenant’s name. The man had already created grief for him by making accusations that Dawson had disobeyed a direct order upon his latest return to work. So Dawson wasn’t surprised by the lieutenant’s latest salvo, but he was angry and disappointed.
“That’s B.S.! The rifle wasn’t even at my home!” Dawson told the union president. “It was in my locker at the station like it’s supposed to be. I gave the lieutenant and sergeant my locker combination when they came by the house, and they retrieved it from the locker when they returned to the station.”
The union president promised Dawson that he’d look into the matter, assuring the distraught deputy that if his version of events proved to be the case, the union would “fight this to the wall!”
It was a short distance to the “wall.” Less than a day later, the union leader called Dawson back. “Look, it’s a politically volatile time,” he explained. “We’re in benefits negotiations.” There was a pause then Dawson’s representative—the man who had vowed to fight for him—cut to the chase. “How would you feel about a 50-percent retirement?”
Dawson—besieged with sideways glances in station hallways, outlandish accusations, a union rep who was now less than resolute in his support, and his wife’s complicated pregnancy—said the only thing he could say, “I’ll take it.”
Though retired, Dawson nonetheless filed a complaint against the lieutenant with the department’s internal affairs. The subsequent investigation ruled that Dawson’s complaint was founded.
Dawson is immensely appreciative that Bobby Linderman—a lieutenant who has since retired from the department—and the sergeant who responded to his house on the day in question were candid with investigators and corroborated his version of events. He declines to identify the sergeant as he does not want to the man to suffer any political grief while he remains an active employee with the department.
When asked if he would do anything different with regard to the shooting and its aftermath, Dawson is adamant that he would have changed only one thing: “I would have sued the lieutenant,” he says.
But the only legal action that was spurred by the incident was against Dawson. The Garcia estate sued Dawson, the sheriff, and the department for failing to provide emergency medical services, alternately claiming that Dawson shot Garcia either as he was surrendering or while he was running away with his back to Dawson. This, despite a county coroner’s findings that the trajectory of the bullet fired into Garcia’s torso tended to support the deputy’s version of events.
The judge threw the case out on summary judgment. But the family has appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Dawson is not overly optimistic about the court’s findings given its track record. He suspects that the case will go to trial. “I’ll just have to go through all this again,” he says in frustration.
While the court costs have been covered by the county, the personal costs have been borne by Dawson alone. “Not exactly how I thought my career would end up,” is how he sums up his current state.
Fortunately, things are looking better for Dawson. He works with his dad on the country’s largest sweet potato farm that they share in Louisiana.
Looking back, Dawson says any number of things factored into his ability to come out on top of the shooting. Two things that he is grateful for are taking the initiative to qualify every three months instead of the department-mandated six, and practicing mental imaging on the range when he did. For Dawson, the silhouettes were more than figures on cardboard; they were shadows that portended future threats, and he put a face and a scenario to each of them. He is also thankful that he kept himself in good physical conditioning, and was wearing quality uniform attire and gear on the day of the shooting.
Asked why he’s willing to discuss the shooting even as it continues to make its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, he gives a quick reply. “It’s simple,” he says. “My story is the only one that hasn’t changed.”