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Radio Mistaken for Shotgun : Newport Officer Shoots Unarmed Man in Mix-Up

Times Staff Writer

A Newport Beach policeman, looking for a man reportedly carrying a sawed-off shotgun near the Balboa Pier early Sunday morning, shot and critically wounded an African immigrant who was carrying only a portable radio.

The victim, Sundaga Bryant, 26, of Orange, was in critical condition late Sunday after undergoing surgery at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center. Bryant, a cab driver who emigrated from Liberia eight years ago, is a board member of the Liberian Community of Southern California and a soccer player for that organization of immigrants, according to family members.

Police had been called to the area after getting reports that “a man was carrying a sawed-off shotgun,” according to Newport Beach Police Officer Bob Oakley, a spokesman for the department.

Shortly after Bryant was shot, police found a 14-year-old boy on the beach nearby who was carrying a paint-pellet gun similar to those used in simulated war games. The unidentified teen-ager was not with Bryant, police said.

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Oakley said the unidentified policeman who shot Bryant believed Bryant was armed and preparing to shoot. Oakley, in a prepared press release, said the police officer told Bryant to “freeze” but that Bryant “spun quickly towards the officer.”

“In the darkness the officer could see the subject was holding a long black object at waist level, which was consistent in size to a sawed-off shotgun. Believing his life and the life of his partner was threatened, the officer fired one shot. It was later determined that that the object the subject was holding was a long black radio,” Oakley said.

It is the fifth police-shooting incident in Orange County this summer.

Bryant’s wife, Marlene, said the two of them were at the beach to cool off from the night’s heat. She said they were leaving the beach about 2:50 a.m. when three police officers ran toward them.

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Bryant was given emergency treatment by paramedics at the beach and taken to Fountain Valley hospital; he suffered wounds in both arms and the torso from the single gunshot, his wife said.

“But the doctors tell me he is going to survive,” she said.

Marlene Bryant’s account of the shooting differed from the police version.

In an interview at the hospital, where she was waiting as her husband underwent surgery, she said Bryant was not holding the portable radio in his hands when he was shot. She also said that her husband was neither turning toward nor actually facing the policeman who fired the shot.

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“We were at the beach, getting ready to leave, and he (Sundaga Bryant) put the radio, which has a strap, over his shoulder so we could take off and carry things with our hands,” Marlene Bryant said. “And police were running with their flashlights. I said, ‘The cops are here.’ And he said, ‘What’s going on?’ And at the same time he said that, they made a statement, ‘Drop it,’ and then they shot him right then and there. Smoke came out of the (police) rifle.

‘Spun Around and Fell’

“I saw it. The rifle. And it hit my husband’s arm, and my husband spun around and fell on his face.” She said police were about 12 feet away when the shooting occurred.

(Police Lt. Tim Riley said Sunday night that the officer was armed with a “department issue shotgun.”)

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Marlene Bryant said that her husband’s back was to the officer when the officer fired the shot. She said the shot hit Bryant in the left arm then traveled across his back and entered his right arm.

She said that after the shooting one officer grabbed her and handcuffed her.

“They wouldn’t let me go to my husband,” she said.

She said she was handcuffed beside the teen-ager, who police seized after the shooting. Marlene Bryant said she was not released until after her husband had been taken by ambulance to the hospital.

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No charges have been filed against her or her husband.

Police spokesman Oakley had said that the police officer who fired the shot was facing Bryant. Oakley said the gunshot struck Bryant “in the front.” He was unavailable later Sunday to respond to allegations made by Marlene Bryant.

Oakley, in a brief interview after he had read his prepared press statement, said that the officer who fired the shot is being placed in an administrative position while an investigation of the incident is in progress. Such investigations are always held following an officer-involved shooting, Oakley said.

Oakley said the Newport Beach Police Department has asked the Orange County district attorney’s office to investigate the incident. Additionally, the Newport Beach city attorney’s office and the Newport Beach Police Department also make their own investigations of police-involved shootings, Oakley said.

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‘He Was No Rookie’

Oakley said the officer involved in the shooting had been with the Newport Beach police “about three or four years.” Oakley added, “He was no rookie.” The officer had been with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department before coming to Newport Beach, Oakley said.

Oakley said the police search of the Balboa Pier was triggered early Sunday morning when several people called the Police Department and said they had seen “a man carrying a sawed-off shotgun.”

A few minutes after the shooting of Bryant, police found the teen-ager on the beach carrying the paint-pellet gun that apparently triggered the anxious calls to police. Oakley said the teen-ager’s “paint pellet gun . . . resembled a sawed-off shotgun and is commonly used in simulated war games.”

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The youth, identified only as being a 14-year-old juvenile, “was detained for questioning and released to his parents,” Oakley said. Oakley also said that the beach incident with the pellet gun demonstrates the danger that such “play” guns can be because they look so realistic.

The incident became the fifth police-shooting episode this summer in Orange County. On July 15, an 18-year-old Westminster High student was fatally shot in that city after he allegedly attacked three police officers. On July 22, city of Orange police shot and killed a man who allegedly pointed a gun at them as they arrived to settle a family fight. On July 23, Anaheim police shot and killed a man who allegedly drew a gun. On July 26, Huntington Beach police shot and wounded a drug suspect after the man allegedly tried to run over pursuing officers.

Victim’s Father at Hospital

Sunaga Bryant’s father, Dan Martyn, was also at the hospital Sunday, as were several representatives of the Liberian Community of Southern California.

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Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, is a nation founded in 1822 by freed slaves from the United States. It is the oldest independent black nation in Africa. Martyn, an accountant for a former president of Liberia, also immigrated about eight years ago to the United States.

Sunaga Bryant drives a taxicab in the Anaheim area, his wife said. The couple have an 11-week-old baby girl.

The couple’s lawyer, Chris Keena, who is also a Mission Viejo city councilman, said the couple had decided to go to the beach “because it was a warm evening.” He said Marlene Bryant picked the Balboa beach area “because when she was growing up, that was her favorite (beach) location.”

“They were just two innocent bystanders who happened to go to the beach,” Keena said. “He was shot just because he was on the beach.”

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