MARTINEZ -- Four Walnut Creek police officers testified Monday that they had "no choice" but to shoot a 22-year-old man when he came at them with a 10-inch knife while inside his apartment, in a killing that has spurred a $15 million lawsuit against the city.
"I gotta tell you, as a grown man, I was scared for my life," Capt. Michael Sugrue said tearfully at the coroner's inquest into the Dec. 27, 2012 fatal shooting of hairdresser Anthony Banta Jr.
Sugrue, and Officers Holley Connors, Guy Ezard and Amber Griffith testified that they all fired at Banta after responding to a 911 call placed at 3 a.m. by the girlfriend of Banta's roommate.
The couple told police that after a normal evening with Banta, they awoke to him on top of his roommate, choking him. After a struggle, they barricaded themselves in a bedroom, the door of which Banta was allegedly trying to break down.
The woman told a dispatcher that she thought Banta was sleepwalking. On the 911 call, she's heard screaming, "Anthony, Anthony, please wake up!"
Police said they entered the apartment through a large broken window next to the front door and spotted Banta pacing at the top of the stairs with a crazed look in his eyes and a chef's knife in his hand. They testified that he looked "through" them as they shouted their commands: "Put down the knife or we are going to shoot you."
"He yelled back, 'Just shoot me,'" Connors testified. "I told him I do not want to shoot you, put down the knife."
Banta then jumped down the staircase, nearly landing on the officers, and several of them fired their guns, they said. He was at their feet when he partially rose and they fired again, killing him.
Afterward, Sugrue said, the woman who called 911 hugged him and said, "This wasn't like him."
"I didn't know this person was a roommate until that very moment. I didn't understand at all," Sugrue said.
Banta was hit six times, but it was one shot to his head and another to his chest that were fatal, forensic pathologist Arnold Josselson said. He had marijuana and a very low level of alcohol in his system.
As Banta had no known history of mental illness, Josselson was asked what could have spurred the behavior that the roommate and his girlfriend told police was "very out of character" for Banta.
Josselson said it could have been caused by one of three things; a designer drug that could not be detected by testing, an underlying mental illness that suddenly manifested, or psychosis caused by chronic marijuana use.
Contra Costa County holds inquests into officer-related killings as a matter of protocol, and juries decide the mode or manner of death. Banta's jury ruled his death was accidental, though the verdict is essentially meaningless, having no criminal or civil implications.
Banta's family in January filed a $15 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Walnut Creek and its officers in federal court. It alleges that Banta was unarmed, and was shot accidentally when the officers tripped over themselves at the bottom of the stairs.
"We were mostly struck today -- not by the evidence -- but the evidence we know exists but was not presented," said the family's attorney, Larry Peluso. "After today, there is no doubt at all that we will be going forward (with the lawsuit)."
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.