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Calif. PD chief defends decision to ‘disengage’ during standoff with retired detective

"[The suspect’s] objectives were to get into a shootout with law enforcement, kill law enforcement and be killed by law enforcement,” Chief Scott Vermillion said

Editor’s note: The suspect in this case, Chunliam Saechao, 40, was charged Wednesday with two counts of attempted murder of a police officer, six counts of assault with a firearm on a police officer, and one domestic violence charge, along with enhancements alleging use of a firearm.

By Rick Hurd
East Bay Times

PLEASANT HILL, Calif. — A retired police detective who shot his wife and sent a series of unstable, threatening social media messages wanted to goad police officers into a fatal firefight, the city’s police chief said Monday, defending his department’s decisions during a pair of standoffs last week.

But what police said they did after the first standoff — “disengaging” and monitoring 40-year-old Chunliam Saechao, a retired Pittsburg police detective who allegedly shot at his wife with a shotgun and was tweeting unstable messages from social media — left some residents feeling uninformed and unsafe. Police left the home on Cleopatra Drive in the city’s Sherman Acres neighborhood early Friday morning, but were back hours later, engaging in a second standoff that included Saechao allegedly firing at officers and eventually surrendering for his arrest early Saturday morning.

On Monday, Pleasant Hill police Chief Scott Vermillion said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group that he stood by his decisions during the multi-day event. Vermillion further laid out more specific details about his department’s response to the danger, saying that he put a number of steps in place to keep the neighborhood safe after the first standoff ended with Saechao still inside his home.

“We did have information at our initial assessment that (Saechao’s) objectives were to get into a shootout with law enforcement, kill law enforcement and be killed by law enforcement,” Vermillion said Monday. “Our assessment from the beginning turned out to be accurate.”

The first event leading to Saechao’s arrest was on Thursday evening; police called to the home around 7 p.m. for a welfare check found a woman who had minor injuries to her lower body, according to Pleasant Hill police Lt. Jason Kleven.

Police said that Saechao had barricaded himself in the home, then fired a shotgun at his wife as she attempted to gain entry to the garage. She was hospitalized and expected to recover, police said.

Authorities shut down access to the city’s Sherman Acres neighborhood, as well as a section of heavily traveled Monument Boulevard in both directions near the area. But by Friday morning, they announced the surprising decision to end the standoff without having taken Saechao into custody.

The man — whom authorities did not identify as Saechao on Friday — “was not an immediate threat to the general public,” police said in a social media post Friday.

Vermillion said Monday that police came to their assessment about the danger Saechao posed through his further social media posts, as well as from talking with his wife. The chief said the posts and discussions led police to believe that Saechao was having a mental health breakdown and that he wanted to end his life violently.

“He wanted us to assault the house,” Vermillion said. “He was waiting for us to assault the house with the intentions then of killing us and also of being killed by us.”

The chief said that as police disengaged from the scene in front of the home, they remained nearby: a police vehicle was stationed at a nearby gas station, close by but out of Saechao’s line of sight from the home. Vermillion also said marksman remained in the area “and had a constant eye on the house.”

Authorities returned to the home around 11:45 p.m. Friday; police announced they had obtained a felony warrant for Saechao after determining he posed a “danger to the public.”

During the second standoff, Saechao fired approximately 30 shots with a rifle and shotgun at armored police vehicles parked in front of his residence before daylight Saturday morning, Vermillion said. Nobody was injured.

A SWAT team and counselors were on hand when police finally arrested Saechao shortly before 8 a.m. Saturday.

“We feel like they did us wrong,” a man said Monday while walking on Cleopatra Drive, where the drama unfolded.

Pleasant Hill Mayor Matt Rinn did not respond to multiple calls from the Bay Area News Group for comment about the incident. Late Monday afternoon, the city emailed out a lengthy statement, attributed to Rinn, in a news release.

In the statement, Rinn said that “the mindful and strategic actions” of police had kept the situation peaceful and prevented any further injury or death.

“While events like this are understandably frightening for neighbors and certainly disruptive to the larger community, I support the tactics employed by the police department,” Rinn said in the statement.

He added: “I know this situation created difficulties for the Sherman Acres neighborhood and I regret the stress and inconvenience caused. Many have asked for greater communication during the situation, unfortunately, that could not be achieved without also informing Mr. Saechao of police presence and activities.”

Vermillion echoed that last point, noting that Saechao’s active presence on social media and knowledge of police and military tactics were complicating factors in releasing information to the public.

After the first standoff and the departure of the visible police presence, one resident told the Bay Area News Group that “I feel like they (police) should have done more than they did, and we don’t understand why they didn’t do more.”

Vermillion said he understood the community’s anger and frustration, adding that his department “intends to do everything we can to make things right with them. Their trust and support is the most important thing to us. We really need to earn that.”

Pleasant Hill resident Mary Fouts was one of those whose trust was shaken after the standoff.

“I just can’t wrap my head around it,” Fouts said Monday. “I just cannot believe that the police would leave a man ... holed up in a house posing grave danger to a neighborhood. It’s unconscionable, and (the chief) needs to step down.”


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