Sagon Penn found dead in apparent suicide

Cop-shooting case roiled county in '80s

By Elizabeth Fitzsimons

July 5, 2002

Sagon Penn, a man acquitted of killing a police officer in a case that divided San Diego County in the 1980s, was found dead yesterday morning, the result of an apparent suicide.

Penn shot and killed San Diego police Officer Thomas Riggs, shot and ran over another officer and shot a civilian observer after a traffic stop in Encanto went terribly awry on a March night in 1985.

His attorney argued that Penn acted in self-defense in the face of excessive force from police.

Penn was acquitted of murder at his first trial, but the jury deadlocked on manslaughter charges. A second jury acquitted him of attempted-murder and manslaughter charges, but deadlocked on lesser charges. He was not tried again.

But his life was never the same.

The case raised questions about police conduct, ultimately prompting the city to create a citizens police review board.

It also forced the city to look at racial tensions, particularly between blacks and police.

"It was a very intense time," Milton Silverman, Penn's defense attorney, said yesterday. "Everyone in the city had an opinion about the case and very strong feelings about the case. And we tried that case in an intense pressure cooker amidst death threats and intense public feeling that divided the community."

Penn, 40, was found yesterday morning by his mother, Peggy Richmond, in the living room of her Spring Valley apartment. Empty pill containers, a half-empty bottle of wine and what appeared to be a suicide note were nearby, authorities said.

Sheriff's deputies and paramedics tried to resuscitate Penn but were unsuccessful. He was declared dead about 7 a.m.

An autopsy, including toxicology tests, was expected to be performed today or tomorrow, the county Medical Examiner's Office said. The note Penn left included directions for relatives after his death, authorities said. Further details were not available.

No one answered the door at Richmond's apartment yesterday. An upstairs neighbor, Wakeelah Miller, said Penn's mother, sister and aunt had packed some belongings and left the complex.

They could not be reached for comment.

"Anyone who has a heart should feel sorry for him and the way he died," said the retired Rev. George Walker Smith, who as pastor of Christ United Presbyterian Church was an outspoken community leader. Penn joined the church about four years ago, had attended an adult Bible class and was a member of the church choir.

"I think basically it's another loss of a life that really could have done something, yet he did not get the help that he needed," Smith said.

The news of Penn's death quickly reached Riggs' family.

"I think we were all a little bit in shock," said his widow, Colleen Frey. "It made me think of Tom and how special he was to the family and that he's still missed."

Bill Farrar, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said of Penn's death: "We don't have him out there creating problems now. As far as the Police Officers Association is concerned, the world is better off without him."

The San Diego Police Department had no comment on Penn's death, referring inquiries to the Police Officers Association.

Sheriff Bill Kolender, who was San Diego's police chief during the Penn case, said it was a very painful time for the Police Department.

"I have always felt he was guilty of killing a police officer and wounding another and the innocent lady who was a ride-along," Kolender said. "I think his conduct and his behavior after his release shows there is some validity to what I'm saying."

Miller said that on Wednesday night she returned to her apartment about 11:30 p.m. to find deputies, guns drawn, at Richmond's door.

The deputies were looking for Penn to serve an emergency temporary restraining order, said sheriff's Sgt. P. Astuto. Astuto said the reason for the order involved a domestic disturbance between Penn and a woman who lived a couple of doors down.

But a woman contacted at that apartment yesterday said Penn had nothing to do with the disturbance Wednesday night.

Penn was nowhere to be found, so deputies gave up their search and left. Yesterday morning, Miller said, she awoke to voices below her apartment and looked off her balcony to see deputies once again. Soon after, she watched medical examiner's personnel wheel Penn's body away.

Miller added that although quiet and gentle with her two small children, Penn seemed troubled, and at times he had been distraught over a woman.

His name came up here and there in the neighborhood, and people knew who Penn was. But Penn never talked about his past.

On the evening of March 31, 1985, Penn was returning home from Balboa Park, his pickup full of friends. He was pulled over in Encanto by police looking for a gang member who had been seen with a gun 15 minutes earlier.

According to testimony, San Diego police Officer Donovan Jacobs asked to see Penn's license, but Penn didn't remove it from his wallet as Jacobs had asked. From there, the confrontation escalated.

A crowd gathered to watch the fight that ensued, and as Jacobs straddled Penn, Penn wrestled Jacobs' service revolver from its holster.

The gun discharged, wounding Jacobs. Penn then shot Riggs, killing him, and fired into Riggs' patrol car and wounded Sarah Pina-Ruiz, a woman who had been riding along to learn about police work.

With Jacobs' gun empty, Penn grabbed Riggs' weapon, jumped into Jacobs' car, drove over him and sped off. A half-hour later, Penn, accompanied by his grandfather, Yusef Abdullah, surrendered at the downtown police station.

"I see Sagon as a person who was thrust into the vortex of circumstance and did his best to survive and endure and persevere," Silverman said.

While some San Diego residents saw the Penn case as open and shut – one officer was dead, another severely wounded – others saw it differently.

Some residents viewed Penn as acting in self-defense, while police bitterly resented the perception that they, not Penn, were on trial.

Penn's two trials focused attention on the uneasy relationship between San Diego police and minority residents.

To cool the tensions, the City Council appointed a citizens advisory task force on police community relations. From the task force, and a series of eight public forums held throughout the city, came a recommendation for the city's first citizens police review board.

Silverman yesterday recalled how stoic Penn had been through the trial, how he had done everything Silverman told him to do.

After his second acquittal, Penn became a father and proudly took the baby to his attorney's office to visit. Penn would also visit Silverman's wife, Maria. The two would talk, and Maria Silverman took Penn to church, Silverman said.

But the visits dropped off and they lost touch until about a year ago, when Maria Silverman ran into Penn at the courthouse.

Penn asked her for money to buy shoes. She didn't have the money with her, but told him she would get it and bring it to him. When she returned, Penn was gone.

Penn led a troubled life after his acquittal. His father was arrested and imprisoned on drug charges. Penn was in and out of jail for various crimes – getting into fights and domestic abuse.

Most recently, in 1999, he was arrested on suspicion of trespassing and disturbing the peace at the San Diego Sports Arena, but was not charged.

In 1997, Penn was arrested after a scuffle with five police officers. He had been stopped after making an obscene gesture to a U.S. immigration officer.

In 1993, he was sentenced to two years in state prison for violating probation by throwing a brick at his wife's truck while she and her 3-year-old daughter were inside. He had been placed on probation in 1991 for forging a restraining order against a former girlfriend's new boyfriend.