South Gate Asks for U.S. Probe of Fatal Beating by Deputy

Times Staff Writer

The City Council has asked the Justice Department to investigate the Oct. 20 death of William Sisoyev, a 54-year-old South Gate resident who died after his skull was shattered by blows administered by sheriff's Deputy Thomas Kirk.

The Sisoyev case was the subject of a six-month investigation by the district attorney's office, which last month decided not to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence. The district attorney's office, in a May 17 report, said it could not disprove that Kirk had acted in self-defense. Besides Kirk and Sisoyev, there were no other witnesses to the altercation, the district attorney's report said.

Sisoyev died Oct. 21 at Charter Suburban Hospital in Paramount after blows from Kirk's sap (a metal night stick covered with leather) left the right side of his skull "broken into pieces," according to the district attorney's report. The altercation took place at Sisoyev's home when Kirk visited the man--in violation of Sheriff's Department policies--to discuss an outstanding $171 speeding ticket, according to a South Gate police report on the incident.

The request for a federal civil rights investigation was made in a letter from Mayor Bill De Witt to U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese. The council unanimously approved the letter Tuesday night.

FBI May Investigate

John Wilson, a spokesman for the Justice Department in Washington, said in an interview Thursday that the agency's lawyers probably would review the case.

"In all likelihood, we would at least ask the FBI to get all the local records and see what it was about," Wilson said. He said such a review would take weeks, and that if an investigation is warranted, it would take months to complete.

In an interview, De Witt said the council requested the federal investigation because, "We feel there are indications that there may have been excessive force used." He added that council members also were concerned about "an inequality of justice."

"If it were you or I who went down there to collect a $171 debt, and the same circumstances occurred, you or I would be facing serious charges," De Witt said.

"If he (Kirk) was an average citizen, he would have been hanged by now," added Councilman Hank Gonzalez.

Kirk on Medical Leave

Kirk refused to be interviewed by the district attorney's office or South Gate police. Kirk, 14 years a deputy, is on medical leave, said Sgt. Irene McReynolds of the Sheriff's Department. Kirk's lawyer, Richard Shinee of Encino, did not return The Times' phone calls.

In his statements on the incident, Kirk told sheriff's investigators that he acted in self-defense after Sisoyev attacked him for no reason.

Sisoyev's daughter, Katherine, who has filed a notice of claim against the county, in an interview called it a "travesty" that the district attorney decided not to prosecute Kirk.

"Deputy Kirk violated my father's constitutional rights," she said. She added that the case is a "manifestation of a growing phenomena by police across the nation, where they are taking the law into their own hands."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Healey said in an interview that "the key question is whether we can disprove he (Kirk) was defending himself, and we concluded we cannot beyond a reasonable doubt."

The following account of Sisoyev's death was given in the district attorney's report prepared by Healey and reviewed by Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Sowders. The report was based on a six-month investigation by the district attorney and included 17 interviews, along with reviews of reports from the city police and the Sheriff's Department, the only agency to interview Kirk.

According to the district attorney's report, two months before the Oct. 20 altercation that led to Sisoyev's death, Kirk had stopped Sisoyev for "erratic driving." He later told investigators that Sisoyev was "hostile and unpleasant."

The deputy then radioed a dispatcher to run a computer check on Sisoyev's license for outstanding warrants. The dispatcher told Kirk the system was not operating, and Kirk let Sisoyev go with a warning. Kirk later that day ran a check on Sisoyev and found the outstanding speeding ticket.

Kirk later told the Sheriff's Department that "perhaps once every week" after he stopped Sisoyev, the deputy would leave his patrol area to drive by Sisoyev's house in South Gate. On Oct. 20, he found Sisoyev at home. He told sheriff's investigators that he was going to arrest Sisoyev.

In later interviews, however, Kirk changed his story and told investigators he merely was going to warn Sisoyev about the outstanding warrant, according to the district attorney's report.

"After his initial antagonistic encounter with Sisoyev, Kirk sought out a second face-to-face confrontation," the report said. "Had he (Kirk) only wished to warn Sisoyev about the arrest warrant, as he later insisted, he could easily have left a note to that effect on Sisoyev's door during one of the earlier visits."

Deputy's Account

Kirk maintained to sheriff's investigators that Sisoyev attacked him without warning, striking him on the head, and that the deputy used his sap in self-defense, according to the report. He told investigators that he first struck Sisoyev on the head once but the blow had no apparent effect, and that Sisoyev had rushed Kirk again, shouting and flailing his arms.

Kirk then landed five to eight blows on Sisoyev's head and Sisoyev fell to the floor, the report said.

The district attorney's report said that although Kirk insisted Sisoyev struck him several times with "violent blows," Kirk's face and body were unmarked and his clothing showed only "trivial" damage.

The report also said the condition of Sisoyev's apartment after the altercation did "little to indicate a violent brawl," and that a next-door neighbor, Gloria Hernandez, told police she had heard no sounds that would have indicated a fight was taking place.

The report said Kirk, who is 40, is 5 feet 11 and 190 pounds and that Sisoyev was 5 feet 7 and 153 pounds. The report added that "in any physical clash between the two men, Kirk would seem to be at a decided advantage, and should not immediately have to resort to lethal force to subdue the unarmed Sisoyev."

The report also says, however, that Sisoyev was of "violent, assaultive character," citing his arrests on charges more than 15 years ago for assaulting his wife, interfering with a police officer, arson and assault with intent to commit murder.

Sisoyev also apparently had "grave mental problems" and was suffering from an emotional disorder that produced "intermittent rages," the report said. It said Sisoyev was taking a tranquilizer and a sedative to manage psychotic disorders and depression.

Daughter Denies Violence

Sisoyev's daughter conceded in an interview Thursday that her father was not "mentally well," but denied he was violent. She said "his bark was bigger than his bite."

According to the South Gate police report on the incident, a deputy who investigated the incident, Sgt. Ray Verdugo, told city police that Kirk had made "tactical errors" by driving four to six blocks out of his patrol area to visit Sisoyev, and by not asking for other officers to be present if he intended to arrest Sisoyev. The Sheriff's Department has an informal policy against arresting anyone for tickets of less than $400, and had Kirk arrested Sisoyev, he would have been subject to a reprimand from superiors, Verdugo told city police.

Sisoyev's employer, Gerald Keyes, manager of Stanley Smith Security Inc. of South Gate, said in an interview Thursday that Sisoyev was a good employee. Sisoyev was a security guard licensed by the state who worked for Keyes for about a year, he said.

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