March 28-April 3, 2007

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The Byrne Report

Chass Cover-up

By Peter Byrne

The March 12 slaying of 16-year-old high school student Jeremiah Chass by sheriff's deputies dominated front-page headlines of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat for a week. Seldom have I witnessed such inept and slanted journalism.

It is perhaps explained by noting that Press Democrat publisher Bruce Kyse sits on the board of directors of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, a politically powerful organization that regularly privileges the protection of corporate profits over the protection of the populace.

The day after Chass was gunned down in a violation of protocols for handling mentally decompensating people by two combative deputies, editor Pete Golis' headline was "Deputies Kill Teen Suspect." Of what was the lad suspected? Of being a teenager? Of being a bank robber? Of being black?

This and subsequent articles through March 26 failed to report on several extraordinarily newsworthy facts, including that Chass was of African-American descent and looked black, and that the two deputies who shot him eight times at point blank range are white. Nor did the Chamber-affiliated newspaper report that the Chass family, including their six-year-old son, were interrogated for hours after the shooting as if they were criminals, but without the presence of an attorney. Nor did that newspaper of record mention that, before the body was cold, the police pawed through the Chass' home, seizing computers, personal papers and even their vitamins.

Kyse and Golis' March 14 headline read: "Report: Officers Tried to Disarm Teen." The article identified one of the deputies as sheriff's medal-of-valor winner John Misita, but failed to note that Misita had beaten up another decompensating man in similar circumstances in June 2005, as reported by the Press Democrat's sister paper, the Petaluma Argus-Courier. In an interview, reporter Jeremy Hay, who wrote several of the breaking news stories, says he knew about Misita's background but decided not to include it. He said that several of his colleagues have asked him why Chass' race has not been mentioned, stating, "I do not have an answer to that legitimate question."

In general, the Press Democrat stories have relied heavily upon contradictory law-enforcement versions of the event that are not demonstrably backed up by the 911 tapes that police have stubbornly refused to release, or by non-law enforcement witnesses. The most likely explanation of why the tapes are being kept from the public is because Santa Rosa police investigators and the sheriff and district attorney Stephan Passalacqua are intent upon avoiding a wrongful-death lawsuit. Hence, they would like to blame the victim for his own demise rather than the deputies' professional incompetence, as might be revealed by the tapes.

In the March 15 story--"Sharp Questions for Police in Sebastopol Teen's Death"--Hay quotes a retired local police chief, who, fearing "political" retaliation, asked for anonymity. He observes that the deputies failed to use options to de-escalate the situation and did not need to kill Chass.

On March 16, the paper countered this criticism with "Police: Teen an Immediate Threat." Sheriff Capt. Dave Edmonds was given a platform to accuse the anonymous chief of "speculation" and "misportrayal of known facts." The rest of reporter Paul Payne's story was a recital of "facts" from the point of view of the sheriff's department. Columnist Chris Coursey chimed in with what became the official mantra: "The truth is, we won't know the facts of the shooting of Jeremiah Chass for many months." Don't ask, don't tell.

Saturday, March 17, was Chass' memorial service. The headline? "Sheriff: Deputies Saved Others from Potential Harm." Fully one-fifth of the front page was filled with a photo of Sheriff-Coroner Bill Cogbill. The sheriff-centered story submerged the first public statement by mother Yvette Chass, who said, "We are concerned that parts of the story have been left out, and that renders the reader with an inaccurate impression of events." Chass' statement should have been the headline, not Cogbill's spin. The Kyse-Golis editorial: "Because of the confusion . . . there may never be answers to all the questions raised by this horrific incident."

The same story reported that the "results of an autopsy" on Chass had been released. How Orwellian. The incomplete summary of the autopsy, written by the sheriff's department, did not mention blunt force and other injuries suffered by Chass as the deputies beat and choked and pepper-sprayed him. As part of what appears to be an official cover-up abetted by the Press Democrat, Kyse and Golis' writers have consistently neglected to mention that the sheriff is also the coroner and, as such, he is in charge of supervising the autopsy. This is an obvious conflict of interest, since the sheriff's department is supposedly under investigation by fellow law officers and the autopsy is a potentially damning piece of evidence.

How about this headline, gentlemen? "Sheriff and Police Department Cover Up Facts About Chass Killing."

To read Byrne's account of the Chass case, click here.

Contact Peter Byrne or send a letter to the editor about this story.