Court: Couple who helped sheriff can’t seek damages for attack
Jim and Norma Gund were attacked by their neighbor's killer while conducting a welfare check at the request of their sheriff's office
By Ryan Sabalow
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Nine years ago, a rural California sheriff’s corporal called Jim and Norma Gund and asked them to check on their neighbor, who had called 911 and hung up. When the Gunds arrived, a murderer armed with a Taser and hunting knife attacked the couple and almost killed them.
Did the Gunds become de facto deputies when they agreed to help Cpl. Ron Whitman, or were they just being good neighbors?
On Thursday, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office in a case that sought to answer whether people who volunteer to help law enforcement should be entitled to sue for damages if they get hurt, or if they’re merely eligible for workers’ compensation as employees.
“We conclude the Gunds were indeed engaged in ‘active law enforcement service,’ the Supreme Court wrote Thursday. “When the Gunds provided the requested assistance, they delivered an active response to the 911 call of a local resident pleading for help. A response of this kind unquestionably falls within the scope of a police officer’s law enforcement duties.”
The sheriff’s attorneys argued that the Gunds were volunteers and only entitled to workers’ compensation for their injuries.
In its written legal arguments, the county cited “posse comitatus,” a term that harkens to the days of the Old West, when sheriffs could conscript any citizen into an officer of the law on the spot. Posse comitatus has become controversial in recent years as tensions have risen after high-profile cases of officers using excessive force on minorities.
The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that it didn’t matter to the case that the officer omitted key details that the Gunds said would have made them much more cautious upon approaching their neighbor’s home. Under an arcane section of state employment law, law enforcement volunteers can’t sue an agency for damages — no matter what.
“Whether or not any alleged omissions in Corporal Whitman’s request could conceivably prove relevant to legal actions alleging malfeasance, they do not change our conclusion about the scope of workers’ compensation in this tragic case,” the court ruled.
The Gunds story, which raises troubling questions about the lack of law enforcement in the vast rural reaches of California, began March 13, 2011, in the remote former timber town of Kettenpom, about 250 miles north of San Francisco.
That afternoon, Whitman called them, asking to check on their neighbor, Kristine Constantino, who lived about a quarter mile away. He told Norma that the call was “probably no big deal” and likely related to a snowstorm that was blowing in. He was making his way there, but because of the storm it would take him several hours to bisect the huge rural county.
The Gunds contend Whitman neglected to mention that a dispatcher who took the 911 call told him she heard a woman whispering “Help … help …” before hanging up.
The dispatcher told Whitman she was leery of calling the number back because she didn’t want to alert a possible assailant, the Gunds claim.
After receiving Whtiman’s call, Norma and Jim drove their Ford pickup to Constantino’s home.
Norma Gund walked to the home while Jim waited in their Ford truck. A man she had never seen before met her outside. She asked him about Constantino, and he said she was fine. Norma said she wanted to be sure, and the man escorted her into the house.
The bodies of Constantino, 33, and her boyfriend Christopher “Sky” Richardson, 26, were wrapped in plastic on the floor.
Their killer, Tomas Gouverneur, a musician from Corvallis, Oregon, shocked Norma Gund with a stun gun as she entered the house. He slashed her throat, head and face with a hunting knife. The blade opened her carotid artery and cut her trachea in half, Jim Gund said.
When Jim Gund entered the house to check on his wife, Gouverneur attacked him, too. “I had never been in a fight in my life,” Jim Gund told The Sacramento Bee in 2018. “He had a Taser, a knife, a black belt in karate and he outweighed me.”
After being shocked and stabbed, Jim Gund bit the assailant’s arm until he dropped the knife. Gouverneur fled in his teal blue Subaru. After leading sheriff’s deputies in neighboring Mendocino County on a 40-mile chase, he fatally crashed into an oak tree on Highway 101.
In his car, authorities found bags of marijuana and $11,000 in cash taken from Constantino’s home.
Norma Gund, blood gushing from her neck, managed to drive to Kettenpom’s only store as her husband fought with Gouverneur. Struggling to speak through her damaged throat, she had to scribble what happened on a notepad.
Medics eventually flew her to the University of California, Davis Medical Center, where she underwent multiple surgeries to reconstruct her face and her neck. Jim Gund, who later made his way to the store as well, suffered less serious injuries.
Initially, the sheriff’s office disputed the Gunds’ version of what Whitman had said during the phone call. In statements to local media, the sheriff’s office said Whitman told Norma Gund to stay put and see if she could see anything from her home.
“At no time was Mrs. Gund instructed to go to Kristine’s residence,” the statement said. “Nor would the Trinity County Sheriff’s Office ever send a citizen to perform a deputy’s job.”
But the county’s story shifted in court after the Gunds sued.
The county’s attorneys said the corporal asked Norma Gund to go to Constantino’s house to see if she was OK, but Whitman advised her not to go without her husband. The department also acknowledged the deputy had suggested the call might be related to the snowstorm and failed to tell them Constantino had repeatedly whispered for help.
The Gunds attorneys say they would have been much more cautious about approaching their neighbor’s house if Whitman had given them all the facts.
But instead of being entitled to the $10 million the Gunds sought after the attack, the sheriff’s office successfully fended off the Gunds’ legal arguments both in Trinity County and after the Gunds appealed.
A separate federal civil rights suit the Gunds filed has been put on hold, pending the resolution of the state case. The attorneys in the case couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Reached by phone, James Gund said he needed to speak to speak with his attorney before commenting.
©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)