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March 21-27, 2007

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Jeremiah Chass memorial

Photograph by Michael Amsler
Memento: An informal memorial in Sebastopol's Plaza features a photo of Jeremiah in meditation pose.

Deadly Force

Searching for facts in Jeremiah Chass' death at the hands of Sonoma County deputies

By Peter Byrne

On March 12, Jeremiah Chass, a 16-year-old teenage boy, was shot and killed in the driveway of his Sebastopol home by Sonoma County deputy sheriffs. The sudden violence of his death has not only traumatized the Chass family, but the local community as well. Close to a thousand people attended a Sebastopol memorial for Chass on March 17. Mixed with expressions of grief by young and old alike was a resolve to find out exactly what had happened.

The morning after Chass' death, his parents, Mark and Yvette Chass, asked two close friends to visit them. In person, the shocked couple told Beth Pisani and her husband, Marc Ripley, about the circumstances surrounding their son's killing. Pisani and Ripley have a six-year-old son, Tyler, who is close friends with and a classmate to the Chass' youngest son. Pisani says she has received Yvette Chass' blessing to talk on the record about the tragic event.

The Chass' account as told to Pisani and Ripley differs from inconsistent narratives released by the Santa Rosa Police Department and Sonoma County Sheriff-Coroner Bill Cogbill. Pressing questions about whether or not deadly force was used unnecessarily remain unanswered because law-enforcement officials have so far refused to release 911 tapes of the event. Like many other people, Pisani and Ripley are concerned that important facts and analysis are missing from both official and press accounts.

According to Pisani and Ripley, on the morning of Monday, March 12, Jeremiah Chass suffered a psychotic breakdown after a period of declining mental health. His frightened parents called Sonoma County emergency services for help in restraining him. Deputy Sheriff John Misita arrived on the scene at 8:43am, followed a few minutes later by another deputy, John Ryan. What the two white deputies saw upon arrival was a white couple (Yvette and Mark) and a white child (their six-year-old son Isaiah Chass) and a severely agitated black man (Jeremiah) with a jackknife. Instead of backing off and verbally de-escalating the situation as first responders are trained to do, the deputies attacked, reportedly using pepper spray, a baton and fists. It appears that the paranoiac, frightened Jeremiah kicked at least one deputy in the face, drawing blood.

What is not disputed is that the deputies shot him multiple times.

Pisani says, "When I talked to Mark early in the morning on the day after it happened, when he called to see if we could take Isaiah to be with Tyler for a while, I asked him, through my tears, if excessive force had been used. He replied, 'Yes, no question.'

"I talked to Yvette on Thursday about speaking to the Bohemian," Pisani continues. "Reiterating conversations we had before about racism in our county, and our personal experience with it, Yvette said, 'The truth has to come out.' I asked her if she thought that racism influenced what happened. She said, 'Yes.' Yvette says that she forgives the deputies. She is a very spiritual person."

The Chass' attorney, Eric Safire, underscored that Pisani and Ripley do not speak for his clients, who remain in seclusion, and declined to comment for this article.

Jeremiah Chass was known as a peaceful, loving, philosophical, articulate teenager. He was a vegan. He enjoyed the study of physics and mathematics. Along with his mother, he had a strong spiritual practice, which included meditation and chanting. His simple, meticulously organized bedroom was adorned with prayer flags and a poster of Mahatma Gandhi.

Born to a Caucasian mother and an African-American father who died when he was a small child, Jeremiah was a fan of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He had recently chatted with a member of the a cappella chorus from South Africa after a concert. The group's music inspired him to save money by performing odd jobs for neighbors so that he could travel to South Africa after he graduated from high school.

Marc Ripley, a general contractor, admired Jeremiah, who occasionally worked for him. "I was impressed with his maturity," Ripley says. "The way he held himself. We had many philosophical discussions. He smiled a lot; he was happy, he was very present."

Being close to Jeremiah, Ripley was able to see that the youngster had changed over the past few months. Ripley says that Jeremiah seemed to be retreating from reality, disassociating from the present even when surrounded by the adoring children he coached in soccer.

Last Presidents Day weekend, Pisani and her mother's group, including Yvette, made an overnight trip with their respective first-graders to Monterey to visit the aquarium and lounge on the beach. Jeremiah accompanied them. "On the drive down, Jeremiah meditated most of the time. He quietly held his hands in his lap, thinking," Pisani remembers. When one of the moms asked him what he was pondering, Jeremiah replied that he was working to integrate his scientific and spiritual sides, developing an equation of unity, acceptance, love and peace.

During the last few months, Ripley and Pisani say, Jeremiah ate and drank very little and lost a lot of weight. They attributed it, in part, to his asceticism and principled, minimalist approach to living in a materialist society. "He was self-disciplined, on a spiritual path of purity," says Pisani, who is a registered nurse, adding that both she and Yvette, who works as an occupational therapist, were increasingly concerned about Jeremiah's well-being. "Yvette reached out to friends, brainstorming about what is normal behavior for teenagers and what is not. At the same time, she had a lot of faith in him and who he was. They had deep conversations about what he was thinking. They were very connected."

On Sunday, March 11, Pisani and Ripley saw Jeremiah at Tyler's soccer game. "His parents were checking in with him during the game, patting him on the back, chatting with him," says Pisani. Jeremiah had decided to allow the team to "self-coach." He had appointed one child as team captain, and he purposefully stayed out of the game. "I looked over at him and he was not agitated, but absent," Ripley recalls.

"Yvette believes that for Jeremiah the line between his two worlds [the spiritual and the physical] was becoming less defined," says Pisani.

After the soccer game, Jeremiah went home with his parents. That was the last time that his friends saw him alive.

According to Pisani and Ripley, Yvette started making telephone calls to mental health specialists after the game on Sunday. She gathered information from five different healthcare professionals. Given Jeremiah's increasingly bizarre behavior, she was advised to admit him to emergency care if she felt it was an unsafe situation. She made the decision to wait until Monday morning. She stayed with him all night. He woke up once in an agitated state. She sat with him and calmed him down.

In the morning, he showered and dressed. Yvette told him she was taking him to see a doctor. He did not want to get into the family minivan. He did not seem to recognize his parents. His usually fluid speech emerged as broken, disconnected. He began talking about irrelevant things. He talked about army boots. He asked for ice cream (a friend of his had recently told him he needed to eat more dairy products to gain weight). He went back into the house to get an It's-It.

When he came back out of the house, he was clutching a Leatherman (a small multipurpose tool with folding pliers, screwdriver, can opener and several jack knives). He had a two-inch blade open as he advanced toward the minivan in which Isaiah sat, waiting in the front seat. Yvette was scared. She got in the driver's side to use the power locks--too late.

When Jeremiah got into the front, Isaiah leapt into the back seat. Jeremiah followed and sat on his brother; he did not hold him at knife-point. According to the informed narrative of Pisani and Ripley, Jeremiah sat on Isaiah and yelled out a death threat. He did not seem to know his brother's name. Isaiah told him, "You do not want to kill me, Bud." Mark Chass began madly clicking through the phone book on his cell phone, looking for preprogrammed emergency service numbers. He dialed what he thought was the fire department, asking for manpower and medics to help him subdue Jeremiah.

Yvette began singing and chanting to Jeremiah--meditation chants that they often did together with their spiritual group--trying to bring him back to reality, to connect with him, to show him who she was.

When Deputy Misita arrived, Mark was struggling with all his strength to hold his son down inside the minivan. Mark had pinned Jeremiah's Leatherman-holding hand to the seat. According to Pisani and Ripley's account, Misita waded right in and tackled Jeremiah. He may have used pepper spray on the teenager, but the Chasses did not mention the use of that weapon. Struggling, Jeremiah probably kicked the deputy in the face, causing bloodshed.

When the second deputy arrived, Yvette motioned him to stay back. He reportedly said, "No, that's my partner!" and moved in with his baton. In the confusion, Isaiah had escaped from the minivan and was screaming in meltdown. Yvette took him into the house. Still struggling with his son in the minivan, Mark heard a shot.

Mark told Pisani and Ripley that he turned to a deputy and said, "Is that a pellet gun?" Then he turned toward Jeremiah and saw his chest was open with blood gushing and his eyes rolling back inside his head.

A preliminary autopsy press release notes that Jeremiah was shot in his chest, right arm, right leg and left knee, suffering what the Sheriff's department terms "lethal injuries" to his heart, left lung and arteries. The release does not report on non-lethal injuries Jeremiah may have incurred during the altercation. The final autopsy report being prepared under the supervision of Sheriff-Coroner Cogbill is not scheduled to be released for 90 days.

This is not the first time that Deputy Misita has had a questionable encounter with a mentally distressed person. The deputy's nose and thumb were broken near Two Rock in June 2005 after he had a physical tangle with a man whose mother had called to have his mental state evaluated. According to the sheriff's report on the incident, Misita pepper-sprayed the subject because "he reached for his pocket."

As with Jeremiah, it was reported that the pepper spray had "no effect," and that it was "unfortunate [that] Deputy Misita was not equipped with a TASER." Nor did Misita have his TASER--which law-enforcement protocol requires to be used in these situations--with him when he confronted Jeremiah.

At 9am, paramedics who had apparently been parked at the bottom of the driveway during the fracas pronounced Jeremiah dead. Santa Rosa police arrived to take charge of the "violent crime" scene. The Chass' nightmare was just beginning. Mark, Yvette and Isaiah were transported to the Santa Rosa police station without being told by officers that they had the options of not going to the station and not being questioned. The police took the Chass' cell phones. At the station, they were held for several hours and interrogated. The police asked if they could interview six-year-old Isaiah. Mark refused. While the shocked, grieving family was being interrogated, police investigators swept through their house, removing computers, medical record files, soccer game schedules and the individual doses of daily vitamins for each family member that sat in a row on a kitchen counter.

The day after Jeremiah was killed, the Chasses asked Pisani and Ripley to take Isaiah to be with Tyler for a few hours. Looking to make some sense of the tragedy, Pisani says that as she was driving the two children to her home, Isaiah told his friend what had happened to his brother in excruciating detail.

"Jeremiah is not going to be jumping on the trampoline with us anymore," Isaiah concluded.

"Why not?" Tyler asked.

"Because he is dead," Isaiah responded.

"No, he is not dead," Tyler said. "His soul is still with us, as his spirit."

"So now he is flying free with God," Isaiah mused.

"I believe good people go to heaven," Tyler said. "Bad people just die."

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