Like so many residents of Los Angeles’ skid row, the homeless man shot and killed by police on Sunday had a complicated past marred by mental illness and crime.
That past seemed even more complicated Tuesday, as authorities tried to figure out who exactly the man was. They had initially identified him as Charley Saturmin Robinet, using fingerprints to link him to a man convicted for a 2000 bank robbery in Thousand Oaks.
But French authorities came forward late Tuesday and said Robinet is a law-abiding citizen who is “alive and well in France.” The man killed during an altercation with police had stolen Robinet’s identity and used it to acquire a French passport to come to the United States in the late 1990s.
Axel Cruau, the French consul general in Los Angeles, said the identity theft was discovered after the man was convicted of the bank robbery and officials began preparing the paperwork to deport him, thinking he was a French citizen. French officials notified their U.S. counterparts when they realized the man was not the real Robinet but did not know what happened after that.
Cruau said his office had contacted LAPD officials Tuesday to let know the man identified as Robinet was an impostor. “He fooled a lot of people — including us — years ago,” Cruau said.
It was unclear late Tuesday whether authorities had determined his true identity.
The man’s death drew international attention after a bystander recorded his fatal struggle with LAPD officers and posted the video on Facebook. The LAPD has said that the officers made contact with the man during their response to a 911 call but that he refused to follow their commands and instead tried to fight. At one point, police said, the man grabbed a rookie officer’s holstered pistol, prompting three others to fire.
The shooting has highlighted the difficulties police face in patrolling skid row, where many inhabitants struggle with mental illness and drug abuse. But it has also reignited anger from those living in the tent encampments and their advocates, who say police tactics are too aggressive.
The man who assumed Robinet’s identity had struggled with mental health issues in the past and had received some treatment while incarcerated.
According to federal court records, he was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for a February 2000 bank robbery. Wearing a ski mask and armed with a gun, the man burst into a Wells Fargo Bank and ordered everyone down on the floor. He jumped the counter and demanded money from a teller. He dragged the teller to the vault, and when the teller didn’t have the key to open it, he pistol-whipped and kicked him, court documents state.
After forcing a bank manager at gunpoint to open two vaults, the man and an accomplice grabbed the cash and jumped in a getaway car. They led police on a high-speed chase but were eventually captured.
Cheryl O’Connor, a former federal prosecutor who handled the case, said she remembered it because of the chase and attack on the teller. “The clerk had a lot of stitches,” she recalled. She said the defendant denied his involvement in the crime despite being found with money in his pockets and confessing to investigators.
“His defense was preposterous,” she said.
The man’s mental health issues were revealed in federal court documents filed after he was imprisoned. In July 2003, he was taken from a federal correctional facility in Minnesota to a medical center where a psychiatrist determined he suffered from an unspecified “mental disease or defect for which he requires treatment,” according to one document. But the man refused treatment at the time.
Two years later, in January 2005, federal prosecutors asked a judge for an order committing the man for hospitalization and treatment for his mental condition, records showed. They withdrew the petition later that month after the man agreed to receive treatment at a hospital.
Federal court documents filed in Los Angeles County show that in September 2013, the man was listed “in immigration custody” and scheduled for release that month. But a judge acknowledged that he “does not have a release address and has no other options for shelter,” and ordered that he stay at a halfway house for up to 180 days.
He was released in May 2014, records show. A U.S. marshals spokeswoman said the agency had an active arrest warrant for the man known as Robinet after he failed to report to his probation officer.
It was unclear exactly how the man arrived on skid row, the stretch of downtown Los Angeles that is heavily populated by homeless people. He was known there by the name “Africa,” though some residents said they knew him as “Cameroon.” They described him as showing occasional outbursts of anger but generally well-liked.
On Tuesday, dozens of protesters marched from skid row to the LAPD headquarters to criticize the fatal shooting, saying it was an excessive use of force.
Afterward, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck provided some new details about the investigation into the fatal shooting, saying a person who called 911 about the man was reporting some type of robbery or assault. The 911 operator could hear someone in the background demanding money, Beck said.
The victim was ultimately treated for an injury sustained during the altercation, Beck said.
“Sometimes what gets lost in here is there was a victim — who had to be treated by an ambulance — that called police to this location,” Beck said. “These officers weren’t enforcing tenting laws, they weren’t enforcing so-called broken windows.… They were responding to a request for help.”