Sagon Penn Believes He Left His Own Life Behind as Well

Times Staff Writer

More than three years after he killed one San Diego police officer and severely wounded another, Sagon Penn lives today in the shadows, in a city others say he should leave, in fear of the next time he will face a policeman.

In an interview with The Times--his first public interview--Penn described a life that remains shattered by the confrontation that occurred March 31, 1985, on an Encanto driveway--a life that acquittal last year on criminal charges has not repaired.

Penn stays some nights at his girlfriend’s apartment. He sleeps sometimes at his grandfather’s home, other nights at his father’s. Some nights he cannot be found, and longtime friends go days--sometimes weeks--without hearing his voice. Then he suddenly pops up and, with a hug and a handshake, resumes an old relationship.


Fictitious Name at College

Penn is enrolled in college courses under a fictitious name to avoid the commotion of a teacher calling his real name in class.

He gave his baby girl her mother’s maiden name to spare the child the anguish of living with his surname.

Penn, 26, who once took out an application to become a police officer, said he has abandoned those hopes. Instead, he said, he has been in contact with an out-of-town attorney and is considering filing a lawsuit against the San Diego Police Department to recover damages for his time lost in jail and for his own pain and suffering stemming from the shooting and its aftermath.

“There is a real soft spot here,” Penn said, his long fingers rubbing his left temple, the spot where he said San Diego Police Agent Donovan Jacobs pummeled him just moments before Penn grabbed Jacobs’ gun and opened fire.

“It hurt for months and months and sometimes still hurts. And that is an important part of the brain,” he said.

When Penn thinks back to that March evening, and to the young man ordered from his pickup truck on the driveway, he sees a person he no longer can recognize.


Then he was two days away from starting a job as a community services officer. He was thinking of college.

“I might have made something of myself,” he said.

But then came the racial attack by a white police officer on a young black man, the crack of Jacobs’ fists, and the young black man firing a police revolver. The gunfire killed Police Agent Thomas Riggs and wounded Jacobs and civilian ride-along Sara Pina-Ruiz.

“Sagon Penn was killed that night, too,” Penn said. “He no longer exists.”

During two lengthy and highly publicized trials that ended in his acquittal, Penn stood mute to the courtroom and to the public. His three-hour interview with The Times at the home of friends in East San Diego marked the first time he spoke publicly about an episode that wrenched the city.

Penn’s physical appearance no longer matches the photograph shown in countless newspapers and on TV screens, that of a young, attractive, well-mannered black man with short-cropped hair, dressed in a new dark suit.

He is a tall man, with long arms and a well-developed chest and biceps. His hair grows wild on the sides. Occasionally he grins like a little boy. But his eyes are large and intense, and he speaks in waves, fast and slow, throwing out hand gestures to match the cadence.

Bewilderment, Then Fright

Through much of the interview, Penn stood in the center of his friends’ living room, describing the bewilderment and then fright that enveloped him when he was stopped by Jacobs.


During the interview, neighbors and friends arrived, announcing a police raid in progress down the street at a suspected drug house. When they saw Penn standing in the middle of the living room, they stopped talking. They listened.

Penn described how Jacobs had stopped him and ordered him out of his pickup truck and then angrily--and falsely--accused him of being a gang member, shouting at him: “Are you Blood or Cuz? Are you Blood or Cuz?”

He said Jacobs demanded to see his identification, and he handed over his wallet.

“He didn’t hardly even look inside,” Penn said. “I told the officer to look inside. I wanted him to know there were no drugs or anything in there.”

But he said Jacobs pushed the billfold back at him, called him a nigger, and grabbed his arm when Penn tried to turn away from the scene.

“I pulled away. I put both arms up in the air,” Penn said.

Jacobs kept coming, he said.

“He beat me down, over and over,” Penn said. “He beat me down. He beat me down.”

Penn remembers falling backward. He remembers fearing for his life. He remembers seeing the officer’s gun. And he remembers running--fast, hard, sweating--to his grandfather’s house.

In describing what happened next--his voluntary surrender to police later that night--Penn’s temper flared. He said he turned himself in because he trusted that police would believe him when he said he fired the gun only in self-defense.


“The police were nice to me at first,” he said. “But that didn’t last.”

Penn paused. He said he felt he was not expressing himself well. He described his humiliation at the public release last spring of his interview with investigators for the state attorney general. A transcript of that interview portrayed him as rambling, confused and incoherent.

“I’m really not like that,” Penn said, explaining that he spoke that way to the investigators because he didn’t trust them or fully understand what they wanted.

Carefully Chosen Words

Throughout his interview with The Times, Penn chose his words deliberately, struggling to express himself in clear and coherent terms. For the most part he succeeded, except for a few occasions when he lapsed into abstract thought, talking out loud about love and family and religion.

Billie Nelson, who helped raise Penn and keeps an album of photographs of him growing up in San Diego, marveled at the way he expressed himself during the interview, noting that it was the first time she had heard him tell his side of the shooting.

“That was a first for me,” she said. “When I’ve seen him before, he’s been confused and sort of wandering. Now it makes a lot of sense the confusion he’s going through.”

Orned (Chicken) Gabriel, once Penn’s martial arts instructor, said he has seen a dramatic change.


Before the shooting, Gabriel said, Penn was carefree and personable. “He was loose. We could kick back.”

But a different person emerged from the two trials.

“He is hard to find,” Gabriel said. “You can go for days without seeing him before he turns up again.”

Gabriel said he still feels a kinship with his friend. Earlier this year, Gabriel allegedly was assaulted by a group of San Diego County jail deputies after he and other inmates watched a television show about the Penn case and then sent him a letter of encouragement.

Since leaving jail this summer, Gabriel said, he and Penn have discussed their problems with law enforcement officers. They have talked about victims of police action who did not survive, including Tommie Dubose, who was slain in his living room this year during a botched police drug raid.

“In that sense, we were very fortunate,” Gabriel said. “Tommie Dubose lost his life.”

Penn also shudders at the possible outcome of his experience.

“I was lucky I lived,” he said. “More than lucky.”

Penn’s father, Thomas, has said that he often counsels his son to leave San Diego. His primary concern is Sagon’s safety, he said, recalling two run-ins Sagon experienced with police officers last spring.

Urged to Use Caution

Penn was involved in a fight at a National City grocery and allegedly struck the market’s teen-age owner in the head with a stick. Two weeks later, he squared off with a San Diego officer called to a tense domestic disturbance at Penn’s girlfriend’s apartment.


No charges were filed in those incidents. But officers were warned by the police chief’s office to use caution in dealing with Penn if they met him in the future.

“(Penn’s) emotional behavior indicates he could be mentally unstable and a threat to our officers,” said a bulletin from then-Assistant Chief Bob Burgreen. “His demeanor ranged from calm and politeness to anger and verbally assaultive behavior.”

Thomas Penn said that both instances illustrate the volatile situation that exists for his son as long as he remains in San Diego.

“I’ve told him to leave. I’ve told him that would be the smartest thing he could do. If he wants to be a police officer or whatever, he should go to Florida or Mississippi, anywhere but here, and be a police officer.”

But Penn is not leaving.

“Where is there for me to go?” he said. “My baby girl is here.”

Waiting for the Next Time

Penn also believes that the moment will come when he is arrested again.

“They’ll try to catch me and get me,” he said. “Some of them will do anything to get you. Some of them will plant dope on you.”

He sees police officers in black-and-white terms, as good and bad. He remembers sitting quietly through the two long trials, never testifying, watching instead the many officers who took the stand. He said he remembers feeling gratitude toward those who characterized Jacobs as a racist, but no anger toward those who defended Jacobs.


“That was something for them to do,” he said of those who testified in his defense. “They didn’t look at me, but they knew I understood.”

He also remembers watching closely as then-Chief Bill Kolender testified. He said the chief seemed to be trying hard to tell the truth and not take sides.

“I think he really tried to go down the middle,” Penn said.

New Class of Officers

Relations between the police and the black community of San Diego were severely damaged by the shooting and the two trials, and Burgreen, the new chief, has said his No. 1 priority is to heal those wounds. He has pledged to meet with minority community leaders and to hold police storefront meetings, but Penn said much more must be done.

He said police attitudes toward the black community can be changed only with a new class of officers.

“He should go out and recruit new officers who grew up in this community, people who are black and brown and Oriental and know the people and the problems here,” Penn said.

“He should stay away from hiring people from Mississippi and other places who might come here with racist views.”


Penn said he has no vendetta with Jacobs.

“Who is he?” he said. “He doesn’t exist, either.”

Penn said he has no clear plan for his future.

Things Were Looking Up

As a teen-ager, living in a broken home, he took two jobs to help out with the family expenses. Work meant forsaking high school athletics, even though he is convinced today he could have excelled.

“I really think I could have,” he said.

Things were looking up for him in the spring of 1985. He was about to start a new job as a community services officer, working with the Police Department in various programs. He was planning for college.

Today he is unable to find work, he said. He is taking courses in English and speech and math at the San Diego Community College District’s Educational Cultural Complex. A proposed movie about the shootings has been discussed in Hollywood, but Penn said he didn’t know the status of that project or whether it would mean any money for him or his family.

He said he is constantly besieged by newspaper and television reporters. But he doesn’t trust them because he thinks many of them turn over their notes and stories to the police.

At the end of his three-hour interview with The Times, an Olympic track event on television momentarily distracted the attention of some in the room. Penn grabbed a reporter’s tape recorder from the coffee table. He ejected the tape and slipped it into his pocket and turned toward the door.

Several of his friends tried to stop him. They shouted at him, ordering him to return the tape to the reporter. Penn ignored their pleas. He shouted back that he was worried the police might eventually get the tape.


He ran out the door and down the street.

Then, realizing that nobody was chasing him, Penn slowed to a walk as he disappeared into the shadows.