Latest Police Slaying Stuns San Diego

Times Staff Writer

Police officers here were stunned Monday as they reflected on the death of Agent Thomas E. Riggs, the third of their colleagues to die in the line of duty in less than seven months, and they were alarmed by national statistics that show a higher mortality rate among San Diego police officers than in any other major city police agency in the country.

Riggs, 27, died Sunday night after he was shot twice in the chest when he went to the aid of a fellow officer who was trying to arrest the driver of a pickup truck.

Officer Donovan Jacobs, 28, who Riggs had been trying to help, was shot in the neck. He was in critical condition at San Diego’s Mercy Hospital.


Doctors were discussing “when, how and if to take out the bullet,” hospital spokeswoman Esther Lange said late Monday night.

And Sara Pena-Ruiz, 32, a southeast San Diego housewife, who was a passenger in Riggs’ patrol car under the city’s civilian Ride Along program, was shot in the arm and the abdomen. She is likely to remain hospitalized for several days. Police said Pena-Ruiz had an interest in joining the Police Department or the California Highway Patrol.

All three were shot with a police revolver wrested from Jacobs as he fought on the ground with Sagon Penn, 23, the driver he was trying to arrest, police said.

Penn, 23, fled from the scene in Jacobs’ patrol car, but turned himself in to police a few minutes later. He was booked on suspicion of murder and attempted murder and remains in San Diego County Jail without bail. Arraignment was set for Wednesday.

Riggs, who as an agent was ranked just below sergeant, was the sixth San Diego police officer killed in the line of duty since 1980. Only New York has had more officers killed--21--in the same period, but the New York Police Department is 20 times the size of San Diego’s.

“I’m sick about it,” Police Chief William B. Kolender said Monday. “It’s sad sending these men and women out there. It’s very dangerous and I’m concerned that too many of them are losing their lives.”


But Kolender said he has no immediate plans to change departmental policies in the wake of Sunday’s incident.

“We’re seeing what the officers did Sunday night and how they did it and then we’ll make judgments on policy,” he said.

Exactly what happened and why is not yet certain. After more than 40 interviews with people who witnessed the incident, homicide investigators still could not explain Monday why a verbal confrontation between Officer Jacobs and Penn, a man described by people who knew him as a believer in non-violence and self-discipline, ended in bloodshed.

“It was just one of those things that escalated,” Lt. Paul Ybarrando, chief of the department’s homicide unit, said.

Ybarrando and Police Cmdr. Larry Gore said investigators were still not sure why Jacobs stopped Penn’s pickup truck, in which seven other young men were riding, on Brooklyn Avenue a few minutes after 6 p.m. Sunday.

“We won’t know for a while why he stopped the truck,” Gore said.

What followed is clearer, because it was seen by so many witnesses, investigators said.

According to police accounts of the incident, a fight broke out after Jacobs asked Penn for his driver’s license and Penn handed over his wallet.


However, police regulations forbid officers from handling citizens’ wallets, so Jacobs gave the wallet back and asked again for Penn’s license. At that point, witnesses told police, Penn walked away and Jacobs grabbed him by the arm. The two men fought, and Riggs, who had responded to Jacobs’ radio call for assistance, joined in the struggle.

Penn grabbed Jacobs’ revolver and allegedly shot the officer in the neck. Then, police allege, he shot Riggs twice in the chest and walked to the side of Riggs’ patrol car and fired two shots at Pena-Ruiz.

Police said Penn had never been in trouble with the law before. Why he resisted is not clear.

“I think sometimes something disengages up in a person’s head,” Ybarrando said. “They don’t stop and think what’s right.”

Friends and neighbors described Penn as an all-round athlete, a gifted boxer and part-time karate student.

The suspect’s karate instructor, Orned Gabriel, described Penn as a spiritual man, a Buddhist who believes in non-violence and self-discipline.


“Sagon holds a brown belt, one belt away from black,” Gabriel said. “It takes a lot of self-discipline to get that far. He has too much self-discipline to pick a fight with police.”

Friends said they had known Penn to step in to stop other people fighting on the street.

Penn’s sister, Subrena Penn, 21, said Monday that her brother had told her that “everything just happened so fast. He said he just panicked.”

For the slain agent’s family, which has a strong tradition of police service, his death was a repeat of a recent nightmare. Only last September, Rigg’s brother-in-law, San Diego Police Officer Timothy Ruopp, was shot and killed, along with another officer, Kimberly B. Tonahill, 24, while they were trying to issue misdemeanor drinking citations.

Riggs’ father, Charles, retired as a San Diego police sergeant in 1982 after serving for 20 years.

Funeral services for Riggs, who leaves his wife and one child, are scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the First United Methodist Church in San Diego.

Times staff writers Glenn Burkins, David Freed, Leonard Greenwood and Scott Harris contributed to this article.