Officer Sean Kenney had shot two people in less than five months, and even though they had both died, he was still patrolling Vallejo, California, on Oct. 24, 2012, when he responded to a call about a domestic disturbance.
The report came in after neighbors heard a commotion in Jeremiah Moore’s front yard at around 1 a.m. Marvin Clouse, who lived next door, went outside to see what was going on. Jaime Alvarado, who lived across the street, looked out his window.
Moore, who was white, was a friendly neighbor. He was autistic, his family said. He lived with his boyfriend Jason Jessie and the two of them fixed up old cars, which sat parked on their front lawn. The garage was packed with antiques and vintage electronics that Jessie spruced up and sold on eBay. One of the items he kept in the garage, Clouse said, was a 1920s-era .22-caliber rifle.
In recent months, neighbors had noticed that the couple had started acting strange — paranoid rants, extravagant conspiracy theories, that sort of thing. They had started taking peyote and other heavy drugs, Clouse said. (Moore's family disputed this and claimed that marijuana was the only drug Moore took regularly.)
“They were really nice guys, but they had a mental breakdown,” said Clouse.
Moore and Jessie were in their front yard, naked, smashing their cars. Clouse pulled out his phone to record what he was seeing. It was dark outside, so you can’t see anything in the video, but the audio is clear. “You start the fire,” Jessie told Moore. Moore went back inside the house and within minutes smoke was rising from out the back of the house. By now, police had received multiple calls about the disturbance. Patrol cars pulled up and officers stepped out.
“And within about 30 seconds they shot Jeremiah,” Clouse said.
There was a volley of several gunshots at first. Then a pause of a few seconds. Then “Show me your hands!” Then two more shots.
The police later said that Moore had pointed a rifle at the officers. In the press release version of events, Moore “appeared from the back of the interior of the house with a rifle. The man with the rifle placed the barrel of the rifle directly against an officer’s stomach. Another officer saw this and fearing for his life and the life of his fellow officer, immediately discharged his firearm.”
In July 2014, the D.A.’s office cleared Kenney of the Moore shooting. The two-page summary regurgitated the version told in the press release, with one difference: that Moore did not press the rifle against an officer’s stomach but was pointing it at the officer from further away.
The summary did not mention any non-police witnesses. Clouse, who said he spoke to investigators, was not cited. According to Michael Haddad, the lawyer for Moore’s family, the D.A.’s office did not contact Jaime Alvarado.
“The D.A. is just choosing who to believe,” Haddad said. “Every cop knows if he wants to justify a shooting, just say, I feared for my life or for someone else’s life. If our D.A.s are just going to take police at their word, nobody will police the police.”
The version Alvarado and Clouse told was much different from what the police claimed. From Alvarado’s vantage point, Moore was standing on his porch with his hands up. His arms were flailing and he had a nervous look on his face. Clouse believed that, between his autism and the drugs (the coroner's report showed only marijuana in his system at the time of his death), Moore was in a state of panic. “He was unable to respond,” he said.
Alvarado, who was advised by Haddad to refrain from speaking to any more media outlets, recalled to local public radio station KQED last year that Moore “can’t stop moving. He starts shaking. That’s when the officer gets, like, scared. He got the gun and shoots him.”
He added: “This guy who got shot, he doesn’t have a rifle in his hands.”
Moore was the third person killed by Officer Sean Kenney in 21 weeks. Months later, rather than a reprimand, Kenney earned a promotion to detective.
In 2012, there were 20 homicides reported in Vallejo, one of the struggling Bay Area towns left out of Northern California’s tech boom. Six of those people were killed by Vallejo police officers, and three of them were killed by Officer — now Detective — Sean Kenney.
Six officer-involved homicides in a single year in a city of 118,000 is exceptionally high by any measure. It was twice as many as in San Francisco and Oakland combined in 2012. Between January 2007 and August 2014, police in Richmond, another working-class Bay Area city with a population roughly the same size as Vallejo’s and a higher crime rate, did not kill a single person.
The surge in shootings was a big local story. There were front-page headlines in the local daily and small protests shown on the local TV news. The police department defended the shootings. The Solano County District Attorney, Donald du Bain, vowed to investigate.
Many months passed. Then the D.A.’s office began to announce one “justified in using deadly force” finding after another. On Aug. 15, 2014, as people 2,000 miles away filled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, for the seventh day since the killing of Michael Brown, the Solano County D.A.’s Office absolved Sean Kenney of criminal liability for his three 2012 homicides.
In the months since, protesters across America have rallied to denounce police killings in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York City, Beavercreek. But no mention of police shootings in Vallejo — a city where whites make up a quarter of the population but 70% of the police force — even though there was no grand jury, no special prosecutor, and for Kenney, no punishment. No Vallejo city official agreed to speak on the record for this story. The Vallejo police chief declined an interview request and the department did not respond to a list of questions. Kenney, through his lawyer and a police spokesperson, declined to comment for this story. The district attorney’s office and the city manager’s office denied requests for interviews. So did the mayor and all five members of the City Council.
Not even Vallejo itself exploded in outrage over Kenney’s slaying of three men, two of them black and one of them a white man with autism.
Authorities in Vallejo dealt with the shootings quietly, suffocating any potential public outrage in the months that followed. They withheld information about the shootings and kept Kenney’s name secret, as their policy dictated. They shifted blame onto the deceased, and dragged the investigations on for up to two years. Unlike in Ferguson or New York, local outrage diminished to a whisper, and the storm of national attention skipped right past, leaving Vallejo residents wondering how a police officer could gun down three men in five months with no repercussions.
Vallejo marks the northeastern edge of the Bay Area, a final stretch of rolling green hills and modest summers before the highway drops into the Central Valley. While there are small pockets of wealth along the marina and up on the highest hills, the city is heavily working class and the unemployment rate at the end of 2014 stood at 7.8%, higher than the state and regional average.
The city is evenly split among white, black, Filipino, and Latino residents. That mix traces back to World War II, when families from all over converged in Vallejo for jobs at the Mare Island shipyard. The shipyard shut down in 1996, and the city spiraled into financial ruin. In 2008, Vallejo became the biggest city in California to file for bankruptcy. The police force was cut by a fifth, from 110 officers to 82.
“It really put a lot of pressure on us,” said one officer, who declined to give his name.
From the start of 2010 through November 2011, a Vallejo officer fired at a suspect just five times. Then in November 2011, Officer Jim Capoot was killed by a bank robbery suspect who hid during a chase and ambushed him. It had been more than a decade since the last time a Vallejo police officer was killed on duty.
A month after Capoot’s death, Officer Sean Kenney fired his gun for the first time in at least four years, while chasing a fleeing suspect. Six months after that, he shot and killed somebody.
Early in the morning on May 28, 2012, Anton Barrett was driving his white 1999 Lexus through Vallejo’s west side. His 18-year-old son and another passenger were also in the car. Barrett, who was 42 and black, worked at a winery in Napa. He was a foreman in the barrel room and he was set to receive an award the following month for reaching his 10th year with the company. He had three kids.
Around midnight two officers patrolling for possible drunk drivers saw the white Lexus with its headlights off, speeding, and “not stopping at controlled intersections,” according to the department’s account. The officers switched on their sirens but the car sped away. They pursued it into a cul-de-sac, and then around the back of an apartment complex.
The officers had put in a call for backup, and Kenney arrived at the apartment complex just as Barrett and his passengers got out of their car and ran.
Only Anton Barrett and Sean Kenney would know exactly what happened next. It was the middle of the night, in a narrow alleyway between two of the buildings, and the nearby residents were inside their homes. One resident heard shouts and then four or five gunshots. Another heard an officer yell, “Put your hands up!” two times before the gunfire.
After he heard the shots, Robert McGee looked out his second-floor window, which overlooked the backside of the complex. He saw cops all over the place. He saw neighbors stepping out their doors to see what was happening. He saw an unmoving body.
“The police didn’t talk to anybody,” said McGee. “They told people back up, go away. They just put this boy up in the ambulance and the police drove off.”
The department issued a press release that morning. It did not name the officer or the deceased, but it said that the officer and the deceased came face-to-face in the alley. Kenney had his gun drawn and told Barrett to put his hands up.
“The suspect did not comply and continued running toward the officer,” the press release said. “The officer began backing up and telling the suspect several times to show him his hands. The suspect had his hands in his waistband area of his hooded sweat jacket. The suspect reached into his pocket and pulled out a dark metal object.”
Kenney fired. Barrett fell to the ground. Kenney told the other officers that Barrett had a gun. As an officer put the handcuffs on, Barrett tried to get up and another officer fired his Taser at him.
Barrett was declared dead a few hours later at the hospital. The “dark metal object” in his pocket had been his wallet. He had been unarmed.
Kenney was cleared for killing Barrett in August 2014. Kenney said, according to the D.A.’s report, that the object in Barrett’s hand was “the scariest thing he had ever seen.” The report stated that Barrett’s judgment was impaired by alcohol, and that he did not follow Kenney’s commands. The report concluded that Barrett’s wallet, which was metal and square, looked enough like a gun to justify the shooting.
Kenney had been placed on paid administrative leave after the shooting. He was back on patrol by September.
At around 4 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2012, Officers Sean Kenney and Dustin Joseph patrolled a winding residential stretch of north Vallejo, responding to a burglary call. The neighborhood was empty as they drove through, but then they saw two people sitting inside a white Ford Thunderbird parked in front of a corner house. The patrol car pulled up nose-to-nose with the Thunderbird, and the officers switched on a bright spotlight.
Mario Romero, 22, and Joseph Johnson, 21, were inside the car, back from a party. They had drank vodka and popped Ecstasy pills, and their night was winding down, Johnson said in a deposition. Romero, who was black, had pulled up to his sister’s house to drop Johnson off. Johnson was dating Romero’s sister, and Romero planned to head to another girl’s house a few blocks away. Before Johnson hopped out, though, the young men paused to smoke cigarettes.
Romero’s sisters Ankhe Harris and Cynquita Martin had been awake inside the house. Johnson had called Harris to let her know he was about to come in, and she had gotten up to unlock the door for him. Harris had just seen her brother the previous morning. They had talked about a new job he had just gotten, and then Romero took his baby daughter and Harris’ two kids to the park.
Through the window, Harris and Martin saw the spotlight shine on. They heard shouts. Then they heard gunfire, lots of it. They heard it stop and then, after a few seconds, begin again. Harris looked outside the window and saw an officer walking toward the Thunderbird firing away. Martin burst out the front door and began screaming at the officer to stop shooting.
According to Harris, the officer turned to Martin and shouted back, “If you don’t get back in the house and I’m gonna shoot you in your fuckin’ face!”
Officer Kenney fired 24 shots. Officer Joseph fired eight shots. One bullet hit Johnson and he survived. Romero was hit with 30 bullets, and he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Many more officers arrived on the scene within minutes. They knocked on doors and asked neighbors what they had seen. It was the middle of the night and most of them had been asleep and had awoken only after the shooting began. One neighbor, though, had been awake. Patrice Johnson was packing for an early morning trip to Reno when she saw the spotlight out her front window. She watched the whole thing, she said. The officers stepped out of the car, told the young men to put their hands out the window, and then opened fire seconds later, she said. Romero, she said, had been in his seat the whole time.
“He never did get out the car, never did,” Johnson told BuzzFeed News. “What the police are saying is not the truth.”
In June 2013, the D.A.’s office released a 16-page summary of the findings of the Romero case. Kenney and Joseph claimed that Romero had “immediately exited” the car and reached for a weapon in his waistband before they fired. They had found a pellet gun inside his car.
The report argued that Romero's and Johnson’s criminal history supported the police side of the story. Both had gun possession convictions on their records. The report also cited that officers found methamphetamine pills in the car and that each of the young men had traces of methamphetamine in his blood.
“While it is difficult to explain the exact reason for what transpired after the officers decided to stop and investigate, it is worthwhile to note that Mr. Romero and Mr. Johnson were both on grants of felony probation at the time of this incident,” the report stated. “It is impossible to be certain why Mr. Romero chose to ignore the officers’ commands, but it is important to keep in mind a few facts when considering Mr. Romero’s state of mind at this particular point.”
The report listed four non-police witnesses who provided statements. Joseph Johnson told police that Romero did not get out of the car, but he “also admitted that he was intoxicated having had six or seven shots of vodka earlier that day,” the report stated. The other three witnesses were Romero’s sisters, who saw what happened only after the gunfire began. The report did not mention Patrice Johnson, who appears to be the only non-police witness to have seen the entire incident.
Instead, the report hinged on a single bit of forensic evidence. It stated that a bullet hole in the Thunderbird could only have been there if the driver’s side door was open during the shooting. Romero’s family claimed that there had been a bullet hole in that door since August, when a drive-by shooter fired at him as he stepped out of his car.
The report presented Kenney and Joseph’s recollections from that night as fact: “It is clear that Mr. Romero’s choice to ignore the commands of Officers Kenney and Joseph was irresponsible,” the report said. “Mr. Romero’s decision to remove his pellet gun … from his waistband and arm himself was also a very poor decision.”
The officers claimed that, after the first round of gunfire, they told Romero to show his hands, and he “initially complied” but then reached for the center console, and an officer opened fire again.
Moments after the shooting, before other officers arrived at the scene, Kenney searched the car. He found the pellet gun behind the driver’s seat, he told investigators. His own fingerprints were on the pellet gun, he explained, because he had forgotten to put on gloves before picking it up.
Kenney, who is now 33, had shot three people in just a few months. He was also facing two excessive force lawsuits. In one suit, Kenney and another officer were accused of beating up a suspect while he was in handcuffs. The city awarded the plaintiff a six-figure settlement in 2013. In another suit, which is still pending, Kenney was accused of choking a suspect during a traffic stop.
At the time, the public did not know any of this. The Vallejo Police Department had not released his name for any of the shootings.
Looking back, though, what confounds many Vallejo locals the most is this: Given what the department knew about all the trouble Kenney had been tied to within such a short time span, why was he still allowed to keep his job?
The department’s policy manual states that “each involved officer shall be given reasonable paid administrative leave following an officer involved shooting.” But it does not specify when the officer can return to work, how this decision should be made, or who should make the call.
By contrast, the San Francisco Police Department’s policy manual lists a detailed procedure: The officer cannot return to the job for at least 10 days. During that leave, the police chief convenes a panel “to discuss whether it is appropriate for the involved member to return to duty.” The chief writes a report explaining the decision and sends it to the Police Commission and the Office of Civilian Complaints. “Officers shall not be returned to their regular duty until the Commission has met in closed session with the Chief of Police.”
Whatever the Vallejo Police Department’s internal process, it resulted in an officer returning to duty with his gun after having already shot two, and then three, people. “Why was Kenney still on the force?” said McGee, the local resident. “They don’t care what people think.”
In January 2013, an officer anonymously mailed a letter and a video to the local ABC affiliate. The footage was from a body camera worn by Officer Steve Darden on July 24, 2011. In the video, Darden, then a 15-year veteran of the department, punches and tackles a man who called the police to report a theft after the man complained about how long it took the officers to get there.
The anonymous officer who sent the video wrote in the letter that, within the Vallejo Police Department, “criminal behavior is being allowed and nothing is being done to stop it.” Darden’s shift supervisor, the letter said, “played the video in briefing and laughed about it.” And the internal affairs division seemed “more interested in shielding police misconduct from public view than in trying to prevent it.”
There was no footage of Kenney’s three shootings. Press releases and newspaper reports did not mention that there were any witnesses. So it became the word of the police versus the word of the families of the slain.
“Police did a good job demonizing the victims, and stressed that the person probably brought it onto himself,” said Marc Cooley, who settled a police brutality lawsuit with the city in 2013. “That really got people away from protesting.”
By fall 2012, residents were showing up to City Council meetings to rail against the police department. Romero’s sister brought signs that said “Justice for Mario Romero” to anti-gun violence marches all over the Bay Area. There were rallies at City Hall and in front of the police station. But the demonstrations were small and organized by relatives of those killed, and they did not get much attention.
The protesters called on the D.A.’s office to file criminal charges against Kenney and called on the police department to fire him. Instead, months before he was cleared of all three 2012 homicides, Sean Kenney was promoted to detective.
“How’s he going to be in a position to investigate murders while he’s being investigated for murders?” said Cooley, who now works with other plaintiffs suing the city for police brutality. “I don’t understand that at all.”
Meanwhile, the Solano County District Attorney’s Office took its time investigating the 2012 police shootings, then accepted the police version of events and declined to pursue any charges or take the cases to a grand jury. Officers involved in two of the non-Kenney shootings that year were cleared after the D.A.’s office concluded the suspects were armed (one with a pellet gun), and the third is still under investigation.
Vallejo protesters waited 8, 20, and 27 months, respectively, before a prosecutor announced that Kenney would not be indicted for killing Romero, Moore, and Barrett. In comparison, Ferguson protesters waited three months before a prosecutor announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing Michael Brown.
The D.A.’s office did not release the files it reviewed for the investigations. The raw forensic evidence and the witness statements the office got are locked up away from public view. The city attorney's office denied a Freedom of Information Act request for those documents, stating that the files “are confidential and exempt from disclosure.”
By the time the D.A.’s office cleared Kenney for the third time, the Vallejo protests had gone almost completely silent, popping up only every few months when Romero’s sisters tried to gather supporters on a Facebook page.
“It’s like they were hoping that if they took long enough, people would forget,” said Harris. “But we’re trying to keep reminding people.”
If people did not forget, many at least moved on. Others may have never even known. And as thousands of people across the country marched and shouted to protest police killings, some locals wondered why the world outside Vallejo had never learned what had happened here in 2012.
“I don’t understand why there’s no outrage,” said a relative of one of the slain, who requested anonymity because “I don’t want the police coming after me.” “Everything that happened in Ferguson after that young man was shot, I don’t know why that didn’t happen here. When it was the same cop who shot three men!”
Despite its overwhelmingly white police force, Vallejo lacks the simmering racial and economic tensions of St. Louis and Los Angeles and New York City and Oakland. No one in the city seized on the killings to start a larger movement for changes to policing.
“Vallejo has an ostrich approach: Bury their head in the sand and pretend it didn’t happen until something comes along and kicks the city in its rump and forces it to deal with the issue head-on,” said Adante Pointer, a lawyer for Barrett's family.
NAACP Branch President Jimmy Jackson told BuzzFeed News he didn’t see the D.A.’s decision to clear the officers as a call to action. “We can’t run around and cause whatever, because this is what happened,” Jackson said. “We’ll let it run through the proper channels.”
He praised the police department for changes made after the six 2012 shootings. The training process was revamped. Community meetings were scheduled. Officers killed half as many people in 2013.
“Very seldom does the system indict its own,” Jackson acknowledged, but he insisted on letting the system do its work. “Let’s see what the courts have to say,” Jackson said. “That’s the procedure. We have to get the facts and determine which way to go.”
He was not referring to the criminal courts. Kenney has been cleared of criminal liability. The families of those shot by the Vallejo police are suing the city and the department.
“The decision to clear the officers was just made,” Jackson said, five months after Kenney was absolved for killing Barrett and 19 months after Kenney was absolved for killing Romero. “What we may do in the future, I can’t tell you. Right now we haven’t discussed what our final action is. I can’t just say, ‘This is what we’re gonna do.’”
This story has been updated to include that Jeremiah Moore’s family disputed claims about his drug use.