In the chaotic last moments of John Berry's life, Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies attempted to pull him from his car and stunned him with a Taser as a woman screamed at them to stop. Then came the gunfire that sprayed the windshield of his BMW. Minutes later, the 31-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene — the curb just outside his Lakewood home.
The July 6 encounter was captured on a shaky, three-minute cellphone video that attorneys for Berry's family said Monday is key evidence in a claim they filed against the county and the Sheriff's Department for negligence, assault and battery and violation of civil rights.
At the time of the shooting, the agency said Berry had rammed his black BMW into a patrol car and trapped a deputy between the two vehicles. "Fearing for the deputy's life, the assisting deputies fired at the suspect," read a statement released shortly afterward.
But Berry's family believes that the incident was prompted after a deputy fell down beside the cars.
"One of the officers, while apparently trying to get out of the way, slipped or tripped and fell briefly on the ground before getting up," the claim reads. "Shortly after Johnny's vehicle began to move backwards, one of the sheriff's deputies fired a gunshot at Johnny."
More than 20 bullet holes pockmarked Berry's windshield.
Berry suffered from a mental illness that was diagnosed a couple years ago. The day of the shooting, he appeared to be off his medication, according to his older brother.
Chris Berry, John Berry's brother and a federal police officer who works at a facility with two psychiatric hospitals, said he called the Lakewood sheriff's station and asked that a mental evaluation team be dispatched. He was informed that deputies would be sent instead.
The deputies who arrived were immediately aggressive and escalated the situation, Chris Berry said. He said he watched as they unleashed pepper spray, used a Taser on his brother at least four times and struck him with batons. His brother, he recalled, looked stunned and cried, "What did I do wrong?"
"They said he accelerated and crashed into the police car. That did not happen — I was there for the whole thing," said Chris Berry, 37. "But they have to say that because it justifies their aggressive actions.… I believe in my heart and I know Johnny wasn't trying to hurt them."
Chris Berry said that as a law enforcement officer, he is pained to be mixed up in what feels like a family fight. "I called one brother to help another brother and..." He stopped, unable to finish the sentence.
Neighbors and friends described John Berry as a compassionate community member who liked to give food and money to the homeless. One of nine children who grew up in a tightknit neighborhood, Berry was remembered as a sweet kid.
"He was always introspective," said his neighbor Lisa Carter. "He was not a violent person. Never ever."