Moments after Sarah Pina-Ruiz saw two police officers gunned down, she stared directly into the eyes of Sagon Penn and knew she was next, she said Wednesday during Penn’s murder trial.
“The next thing I looked at was the barrel of the gun,” recalled Pina-Ruiz, 34, who accompanied San Diego Police Agent Thomas Riggs on March 31, 1985, as part of the department’s civilian ride-along program. “I knew he was going to shoot me in the face. . . . I thought I was going to get killed.”
Penn fired twice through the driver’s side window of the patrol car she was sitting in. One bullet hit Pina-Ruiz in the left arm, then entered her side and exited through her abdomen; the other grazed her back.
Pina-Ruiz said she counted five shots and then lay injured in Riggs’ patrol car waiting for Penn to pump the last round into her. Penn, 24, is being tried on one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder.
“I thought he would come to the other side (of the car) and put the gun to the glass and make sure I wasn’t alive,” Pina-Ruiz said. “I was going to pretend that I was dead.”
But Penn, who actually had fired all six rounds in the .38-caliber police revolver in less than six seconds, jumped into a second police car and left the scene, running over the wounded officer, Agent Donovan Jacobs. Jacobs was shot once, Riggs three times and Pina-Ruiz twice.
Pina-Ruiz’s statements capped the second consecutive day of crucial testimony by the two surviving shooting victims in the seven-week-old trial. Jacobs took the witness stand on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Pina-Ruiz faces cross-examination today.
On Wednesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Carpenter played for the jury a tape of Pina-Ruiz crying for assistance into the police radio as Riggs was dying and Jacobs lay paralyzed on the ground.
“We need help! We need help!” Pina-Ruiz shouted into the radio. After several moments of silence, her voice came back on the air.
“Two officers down. I’m a ride-along and I’ve been shot . . . the officers . . . I can hear them moaning.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Jacobs continued to insist that he was not involved in the initial confrontation with Penn.
Numerous prosecution witnesses--including Pina-Ruiz--have stated that Jacobs first swung at Penn after the Southeast San Diego man refused to take out his driver’s license. But Jacobs repeated his story Wednesday that Riggs was the first to use his night stick on Penn.
Defense attorney Milton Silverman read aloud various statements Jacobs made to a police investigator in the weeks following the shootings. Jacobs confirmed that he spoke with the investigator on the condition that none of his statements could be used against him in court even if they indicated he was guilty of criminal conduct.
The police detective, Sgt. James Manis, asked Jacobs if he could explain why each of the five passengers in the bed of Penn’s truck independently stated that Jacobs, not Riggs, had initiated the confrontation with Penn.
“If it is incorrect, and that may be possible, it may be due to my injuries,” Jacobs told Manis. “I’m not saying my memory is perfect or anything . . . I guess it could be possible I made a mistake. Not that I made an intentional mistake . . . I don’t have any reason to lie about that . . . If my memory is screwed up for some reason, it’s possible.”
Silverman handled the slight, sandy-haired SWAT team veteran delicately Tuesday while politely posing questions on cross-examination. But on Wednesday Silverman pressed harder, suggesting to the jury that Jacobs, whose arm is still in a sling because of his injuries, lied to cover up his aggressive behavior.
“You wouldn’t have any reason, would you, to lie about whether it was you or Tom Riggs that become involved in the initial confrontation?” Silverman asked.
“No reason at all,” Jacobs replied.
“But if you had (hit Penn first) and you knew you had, you wouldn’t lie and say it was Riggs who was first in attacking, would you?”
“I wouldn’t lie,” Jacobs said. “I wouldn’t lay something on somebody else.”
“Isn’t it true . . . Officer Jacobs, that you sat in that (hospital) room and you realized that you had done something wrong on the side of the truck with Mr. Penn by initiating the attack and assault on him? And that you made this up about going around the truck to cut Penn off?”
“I didn’t make anything up,” Jacobs said. “I did not attack Penn . . . I know myself well. . . . What I did was what I was trained to do. I did not go in excess.”
Witnesses have testified that Jacobs beat Penn repeatedly with his baton, punched him in the face and hurled racial slurs. Penn claims that he was provoked by Jacobs into defending himself by shooting the two officers and Pina-Ruiz, who he believed was a police officer. Silverman told Jacobs Wednesday that witnesses said they heard him call Penn “boy” and “nigger” as they grappled.
Jacobs said he has never used racial slurs during his law enforcement career.
Pina-Ruiz said that from her vantage inside the closed patrol car she never heard the word “nigger.”
Both Jacobs and Pina-Ruiz have filed civil lawsuits against Penn. Jacobs’ personal injury suit, filed earlier this month, seeks $5 million in damages. In court papers, the suit alleges that Penn “committed a battery upon (Jacobs) by striking him . . . “
Silverman pointed out that the lawsuit contradicted Jacobs’ testimony on Tuesday that Penn did not hit him. Jacobs explained that the lawsuit was prepared by San Diego attorney James Gattey without his input. He stood by his testimony that Penn did not strike him.
Pina-Ruiz, dressed in a pink jacket, reiterated testimony heard throughout the trial that Penn and Jacobs exchanged blows before the shootings.
Pina-Ruiz recently sued Penn and the City of San Diego, claiming that police broke regulations by bringing her into the midst of a life-threatening confrontation. Her suit claims that Jacobs “conducted his detention (of Penn) in such a manner as to result in a violent reaction which (Jacobs) was unable to control.”
During her testimony Wednesday, Pina-Ruiz said that she participated in the ride-along program because she was interested in applying for a job with the California Highway Patrol or San Diego Police Department.
She said that minutes before the shooting Riggs drove within a half block of her Southeast San Diego home while he was looking for an armed gang member. Pina-Ruiz said she offered to have Riggs drop her off near her residence because of the possible danger involved with the search for an armed suspect, but the officer refused.
Pina-Ruiz, along with numerous other witnesses, said she never saw Penn’s pickup truck make a U-turn before Riggs followed Jacobs and the truck into a driveway. Jacobs had testified that he stopped the vehicle after he spotted Penn make an illegal U-turn on 65th Street.
Pina-Ruiz said she saw Jacobs contact Penn and that a scuffle ensued after Penn threw his hands in the air and turned away. The two tugged at one another as Penn assumed a karate stance and Jacobs pulled out his police baton, she said.
“I felt that (Penn) had the upper hand,” Pina-Ruiz said. “He was more in control of the situation than (Jacobs) was.”
Riggs drew his night stick and joined the tussle, which moved down the driveway and next to the driver’s side of the patrol car in which she was sitting, according to Pina-Ruiz.
She said that Penn slipped and fell and Jacobs pounced on top of him, telling Penn to turn over and put his hands behind his back. She said Penn resisted and kept saying, “Why are you doing this to me?”
Pina-Ruiz said that Penn reached for Jacobs’ gun and the officer reacted by grabbing Penn’s shirt around the neck. She added that Penn pointed the revolver at Jacobs’ arm and walked the weapon up the officer’s chest.
“He moved it several times upward . . . to the left side of the neck,” Pina-Ruiz said. “I saw the trigger going back. My eyes went right to the hammer . . . I saw it go off and I saw blood splatter back.”
Pina-Ruiz’s version differs from defense claims that Jacobs kicked Penn’s arm, forcing the gun to go off.
Riggs, who had walked to the rear of the patrol car to request more back-up officers, was standing with a police radio in one hand and a baton in the other.
"(Riggs) was just dumbfounded,” Pina-Ruiz said. “He didn’t have time to react. I saw (Penn) lean back, pull the gun up and shoot. (Riggs) immediately fell back.”
Riggs was pronounced dead at the scene minutes later.