After a rare shooting by a deputy at Lake Tahoe left a Silicon Valley engineer paralyzed, a huge payout
Samuel Kolb took his last steps inside a cabin on the shore of Lake Tahoe.
The software engineer from Silicon Valley had rented the place in January 2018 with his 16-year old son for a few days of skiing and watching football. The teen had awoken before sunrise one morning to find his father acting strangely and called 911 to report that he was suffering some kind of “mental psychosis,” court records show.
A dispatcher for the Placer County Sheriff’s Department sent the call out over the radio, saying it was a “possible 5150" — police code for a person who needs serious mental health treatment, according to the records. Kolb, the dispatcher added, had a brain condition that can cause him to become dazed and unaware of his surroundings.
Kolb says he doesn’t remember the sheriff’s deputy illuminating the dark cabin with his flashlight and has no memory of picking up the large fork from the counter as he paced. He does remember waking in a hospital and being told he had been shot and would never walk again.
This week Placer County finalized a $9.9 million payment to settle the federal lawsuit Kolb and his family filed against the Sheriff’s Department for excessive force, negligence and other alleged violations. The settlement, which spares the county the possibility of losing a larger verdict at a trial, is the largest of its kind in the county’s history. The huge payment belies the deputy’s claims he had no choice but to shoot when Kolb attacked him.
Beyond the size of the settlement, the shooting itself stands out in Placer County, where law enforcement officers rarely use deadly force. In 2018, deputies shot only one other person in the county, which stretches from the suburbs of Sacramento to the shores of Lake Tahoe and is home to just over 400,000 people, and shot no one in the year before or after, according to the California attorney general’s office. By contrast, officers in the much larger Los Angeles Police Department hit people with gunfire 25 times in 2018.
Kolb’s shooting generated local headlines. The stories stuck to the official account released by the Sheriff’s Department, which framed Kolb as a distraught man who was shot after attempting to stab a deputy with a sharp instrument.
But in court Kolb’s attorney, Ron Kaye, presented a far different story. Kaye, who was recently chosen to become a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles and declined to comment about the settlement, portrayed Deputy Curtis Honeycutt as a member of a department poorly trained in handling calls involving mentally ill people.
Kaye also centered his lawsuit on testimony and evidence that undermined Honeycutt’s account of the shooting. There were, for example, no tears or marks on his uniform shirt from the tines of the fork that Honeycutt claimed Kolb had jabbed into him.
Attorneys for the county argued in court papers that Honeycutt acted reasonably in light of what they described as the split-second decisions he had to make when he encountered a man brandishing a possibly deadly weapon. In its review of the shooting, the Placer County district attorney’s office determined that the deputy had “no other choice but to use deadly force” to defend himself and that “the deputy’s actions were reasonable to protect his life” — language that mirrors the legal standards for when an officer is justified in using deadly force.
Today, Kolb sits in a wheelchair, unable to feel anything below his belly button. Forced to use a colostomy bag, he has survived several serious infections including sepsis. He said he lives with constant pain.
“I would pay all the money plus interest to walk again,” Kolb said. “It changed everything about how I lived. I was athletic before... I skied, played tennis, swam, ran and I was an active father.”
Kolb said the financial settlement provides only some closure to the encounter that upended his life.
“There are no consequences for Sgt. Honeycutt,” he said. After 27 years in policing, Honeycutt retired in May.
“A wide range of risk factors went into the decision to settle,” said Placer County Deputy General Counsel Greg Warner. “The county maintains the actions of the deputy were reasonable and appropriate.” Honeycutt could not be reached for comment.
Kolb worries about the lasting impact the shooting has had on his now 19-year-old son, who called for help after his father began mumbling nonsense and curled up on the cabin floor. For more than two decades, Kolb said he has suffered similar episodes brought on by what his doctors suspect is temporal lobe epilepsy. Although a formal diagnosis has been elusive, Kolb said he was hospitalized once in 2002 after an incident at a San Francisco cinema.
When Honeycutt pulled up and saw Kolb standing outside barefoot in the cold, he asked if he needed medical help and Kolb replied in a low monotone that he did, according to a court filing from the lawsuit. Instead of placing Kolb in the back of his SUV, as is common practice, the deputy opted to take the 48-year-old man and the teen back inside the cabin.
Once inside, Kolb grabbed the fork, which Honeycutt said he took to be a knife, according to court papers. Honeycutt said he radioed for backup after Kolb advanced on him, touched him with the fork and then backed away. Then, he claimed, Kolb came at him a second time, prompting him to fire his 9-millimeter Glock pistol twice. One bullet hit Kolb in the left side, the other entered his back, injuring the computer engineer’s spine, records show.
In a deposition, Honeycutt said Kolb was coming at him when he fired, but the trajectory of the bullets and Kolb’s injuries suggested otherwise, according to forensic analysis Kaye submitted in court.
Kolb’s son, according to court records, said the deputy didn’t warn his father to drop the utensil or otherwise try to resolve the situation peacefully before firing.
An expert witness hired by Kaye, retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Lt. Roger Clark, said in court records the failure to warn Kolb was one of several mistakes Honeycutt made. Before resorting to his gun, Clark said Honeycutt should have tried to subdue or distract Kolb with the stun gun he was carrying or a strobe setting on his flashlight. Clark added that Kolb, who weighed about 100 pounds less than the deputy and stood six inches shorter, was unlikely to overpower him.
Kolb’s son, court records show, yelled at the deputy, “Why did you shoot him? Why did you shoot him?... It was a fork, dude!” The lawsuit alleged that deputies detained the boy and questioned him, surreptitiously recorded his telephone conversation with family members, and tried to get him to give an account of the shooting that jibed with Honeycutt’s.
Following the shooting, Kolb was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and child endangerment. In trying to defend against Kolb’s lawsuit, attorneys for Placer County pointed out in court filings that Kolb ended up pleading guilty to a less serious charge of brandishing a weapon as part of a plea deal.
Kolb said he accepted the deal because it allowed him to avoid jail time and to start searching for a new job to support his family. He now works at Facebook, where he manages a team of engineers.
“This is a uniquely American problem,” he said, referring to the comparatively high number of police shootings in the U.S. “If I lived in any other first world country, I wouldn’t be paralyzed.”
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