Investigators: Calif. deputy's suspected killer made anti-police posts hours before shooting
The Air Force staff sergeant made posts online that were critical of police brutality hours before he fatally shot a deputy
Matthias Gafni and Alejandro Serrano
San Francisco Chronicle
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — In the 48 hours before Steven Carrillo allegedly shot a Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputy to death in an ambush, the Air Force staff sergeant who led an elite protection unit posted a flurry of Facebook posts that were critical of police brutality and law enforcement’s responses to the Black Lives Matter protests.
“Who needs antifa to start riots when you have the police to do it for you,” Carrillo wrote Friday, sharing a post about tear gas fired at protesters in Richmond, Va.
Carrillo posted another meme before Saturday’s shootout with deputies in Ben Lomond, mocking the idea that tear gas kills the coronavirus and commenting: “Unfortunately it just kills people with asthma, RIP Sarah Grossman.” Carrillo was referring to the Ohio woman who died after getting tear gassed by police at a protest in Columbus.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said Monday it was too soon to say if Carrillo had an animus toward police, but he called him “dangerous” and offered additional details about an attack that appeared to be premeditated and included multiple improvised explosives.
“He’s an angry man intent on bringing harm to police officers,” Hart said at a news conference at the Sheriff’s Office in Soquel. “I trust that our district attorney is going to bring justice for Damon’s murder.”
An FBI official said investigators were still looking at whether the slaying of 38-year-old Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller on Saturday was connected to the May 29 killing of a federal security officer standing watch at a federal courthouse in Oakland as protests took place blocks away.
“We’re actively investigating the possibility of links between these two cases,” FBI Special Agent in Charge John Bennett said Monday.
Hart detailed the heroic actions Saturday of a Ben Lomond resident who eventually pinned down and captured Carrillo. After numerous failed carjacking attempts along Highway 9, which travels through the small wooded town, Carrillo asked for the keys of an unnamed citizen who went inside to fetch them.
When the man returned he wrestled a rifle away from Carrillo, Hart said. Carrillo grabbed a pipe bomb and attempted to ignite it, but the resident grabbed this from him as well. Finally, Carrillo pulled a pistol from his waistband and yet again the resident disarmed him.
Police soon arrived and arrested Carrillo, who is scheduled to be arraigned Friday. The citizen did not want to be named, but the chief said he would be honored for his brave actions.
Law enforcement officials said it was too soon to announce a motive for Carrillo’s alleged attack on Gutzwiller and another unnamed deputy who was wounded and in stable condition Monday, but a fellow airman of Carrillo’s who served with him at Hill Air Force Base outside of Salt Lake City called the suspect’s recent social media posts out of character.
“Just crazy to think that a few minutes before he does this he’s posting things on Facebook,” said Justin Ehrhardt, who met Carrillo a decade ago.
The two last saw each other in person in 2014 but remained in communication, exchanging comments and messages on Facebook and talking on the phone just few weeks ago.
More recently, Ehrhardt said, posts on Carrillo’s Facebook page, which appears to have been taken down, turned political as he started posting about police brutality. When another colleague sent a Facebook message to Ehrhardt about the shooting, he thought, “There is no way this could be Carrillo.”
Posts about reforming police and holding law enforcement officials accountable were typical for Carrillo, but he never condoned violence — on social media or in person, Ehrhardt said. He also shared an anti-fascism screed and gun rights article.
“There was nothing ever to the extent of, ‘They should die,’ or doing anything like that,” Ehrhardt said. “It threw a lot of us off.”
Ehrhardt took screenshots of about a dozen recent posts, which he shared with The Chronicle.
It appears Carrillo last posted at 1:22 p.m. Saturday, minutes before his alleged attack on the deputies. That post shared an anti-fascism image.
Ehrhardt said Carillo has “lost every bit of respect” from his friends.
“None of us are ever going to condone what he did,” Ehrhardt said. “It’s not a reflection of how we are in the military at all.”
Carrillo, 32, was active duty at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, serving as the team leader for a specially trained security group called the Phoenix Ravens, said Technical Sgt. Traci Keller.
He arrived at the Northern California base in 2018, and led the team that is tasked with providing security for aircraft transitioning air fields where security is unknown or additional security is deemed necessary.
Carrillo also performed recruiting duties in Brentwood and served at Hill Air Force Base and Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
Carrillo’s wife, Monika Leigh Scott Carrillo, died in May 2018 while stationed with the Air Force in South Carolina at the age of 30. A mother of two, she had lived in Boulder Creek (Santa Cruz County) with her husband. She was found dead at a hotel near Fort Sumter, where she was posted, according to reports. Her death was ruled a suicide after a joint investigation by the Sumter County sheriff and Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
Sheriff’s investigators have said Carrillo ambushed the officers Saturday, shortly before 2:30 p.m. at a remote home in Ben Lomond. Hart said Carrillo came upon the officers as they exited their vehicles on the driveway, taking advantage of the high ground and tossing multiple improvised explosives.
“They had no idea they were about to get into a firefight,” Hart said.
The deputies originally responded to a 911 call around 1:30 p.m. Saturday about a suspicious van near Jamison Creek in the town of about 6,000 in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The caller reported seeing firearms and bomb-making materials inside the van, but when deputies arrived the van left the area and led them to a home on Waldeberg Road, officials said.
Gutzwiller was killed and a second deputy was apparently shot in the chest, Hart said, but his vest stopped the bullet. Authorities had not yet confirmed that through ballistics. The injured deputy also took shrapnel and was hit by the suspect’s car as he fled the scene.
“We are looking into all of those injuries, but he’s in good spirits,” Hart said, adding the deputy’s condition had been stabilized.
A California Highway Patrol officer was also shot in the hand when the suspect “engaged” with CHP officers, Hart said. That officer’s condition was unknown.
Federal authorities found pipe bombs, bomb-making equipment, a large amount of ammunition and multiple firearms at the scene, Hart said.
Video of Carrillo’s arrest doesn’t appear to indicate an injury, but Hart said the alleged gunman was shot at some point.
Officials said Carrillo fled the shootout with deputies but made it only a short distance to a small retail area along the two-lane Highway 9, where he allegedly attempted to carjack multiple people.
Two employees of a marijuana dispensary said they spoke to the armed Carrillo in a parking lot and he asked them for their keys. After turning him down, the pair said, Carrillo entered the driver’s side of a parked car, only to immediately exit after the passenger screamed and he apologized.
Carrillo then walked about 50 feet to the unnamed resident’s house, where he finally would be subdued.
On May 29, investigators said someone drove a white van past the federal building in downtown Oakland and a passenger fired a weapon from the sliding door of the vehicle, killing David Patrick Underwood, 53, of Pinole in an ambush. Initial reports by the FBI indicated the Ben Lomond van Carrillo allegedly drove was also white.
Gutzwiller was a married father of one, with another child on the way. He grew up in the area, graduating from Aptos High School and beginning work at the department in 2006.
Thousands of well-wishers attended a vigil for Gutzwiller on Sunday outside the sheriff’s headquarters, placing flowers beneath a flag at half staff.
A message was read from Gutzwiller’s widow: “You were the heart of our little family and we love you.”