In Vallejo, a Sister Challenges the Police Narrative of Her Brother's Shooting

30 min
Alicia Saddler, as seen in her mother's house in Vallejo, with a cutout portrait of her younger brother, Angel Ramos. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

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t a quaint little green corner home off a busy street in Vallejo, Angel Ramos' family has opened the door to random strangers mourning his death. In 2017, Vallejo police shot and killed the 21-year-old in the backyard of this house, where his mother still lives.

"So many people around here know him," said Alicia Saddler, Ramos' older sister. "He stopped and talked to everybody."

Since the shooting, Ramos' family has pieced together a much different narrative from the police's story of what happened the night he was killed.

Ramos' family has gone through what other families of those more recently killed by police in Vallejo are going through now — a frustrating search for information about the killings of their loved ones, and an uphill battle against an institution we're meant to trust.

"If [the police] were a regular person that kills somebody, they would be in jail right now awaiting trial," Saddler said. "And here, no matter what, they get found innocent, and the evidence is like right there in your face and it doesn't matter. They still don't get in trouble."

Jan. 23, 2017

The Solano County District Attorney's Office deemed the shooting of Angel Ramos a lawful shooting by Vallejo police.

It happened at a family gathering the evening of Jan. 23, 2017. Saddler, her kids, two siblings and their partners were there — roughly 10 people.

"Each of us didn’t really have a lot of friends," Saddler said. "We just hung out with each other, and that was something we did every weekend, even during the week. We would just hang out, drink, watch movies, and it was never a party."

Saddler said a family fight had broken out, and her brothers, including Ramos, got involved. Police say they responded to calls from neighbors about a "disturbance involving a large party of subjects fighting with weapons."

According to police reports, Officer Zachary Jacobsen and Matthew Samida arrived on the scene shortly after 12:30 a.m. and ran over to the backyard fence. Above them, about 15 to 20 meters away, was a second-story wooden porch attached to the back of the house where the fight broke out. The officers announced themselves, and told everyone to break it up. No one listened.

"I remember screaming 'please don't shoot,' " Saddler said. "I could see my kids standing in the doorway, and I was like crying and screaming for them not to shoot."

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Meanwhile, Officer Jacobsen had unholstered his service weapon and was watching Ramos. According to the DA’s report, Jacobsen said he saw Angel come rushing toward the other person in the fight, and that he saw Angel kneeling or “hovering” on top of him. Officer Jacobsen said he had an unobstructed view of Angel with a large kitchen knife, making stabbing motions toward the person underneath him.

"It was at that point that I thought the only thing I could do to save this guy’s life was to shoot the man who was trying to stab him," Jacobsen told investigators.

He shot Ramos four times, once at the base of his neck and three times in the chest, according to the DA's report.

"My 9-year-old seen, he heard the shots, and then saw Angel hit the ground," Saddler said. "He immediately called my mom and he was like, 'Granny, I think the cops just killed Angel cuz I heard gunshots and he dropped to the floor, and there’s a bunch of blood coming from him.'"

Police reports show Saddler was taken into custody at the Solano County Jail for resisting arrest and refusing to move out of officers' way after the shooting. It was in jail that she would learn that her brother died.

"Not 'I’m sorry' or nothing," she said.

Alicia Saddler lays out a blanket with photos of her brother, Angel Ramos, and their mother.
Alicia Saddler lays out a blanket with photos of her brother, Angel Ramos, and their mother. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

No Sympathy

Saddler's family was in shock. Their mom had moved the family from Oakland to Vallejo in 2011 because she worried about street violence. Vallejo, she thought, would be safer, said Saddler.

"Things were good, like they didn’t get into no trouble out here," she said. "They were going to school. Once they got older, working. Then, the cops killed my brother."

In a press release from the day of the shooting, Vallejo police said, "The 21 year old male was holding a knife and presented himself as an immediate and lethal threat to the victim down on his back. One of the officers recognized the threat to the victim and fired his duty weapon at the suspect to stop the threat."

The Bay's Series on Vallejo Police Shootings
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Saddler and her family contend that Angel wasn't holding a knife when he was shot.

Immediately after the shooting, the family began showing up at Vallejo City Hall demanding answers from the city. They wanted to know the names of the officers who shot Ramos. They wanted to see officer body-camera footage and the autopsy report.

Saddler said the family met with then-Police Chief Andrew Bidou on March 20, 2017, in the city attorney’s office to view the body-camera footage. But Saddler said none of the videos show the shooting itself.

"Just a whole bunch of nothing, basically," she said.

Saddler said police would stop and start the video to highlight certain moments.

"You know like, to try and put another narrative in our own head," she said.

Vallejo police declined an interview for this story.

The family hasn’t seen any footage of the actual shooting. Melissa Nold, the attorney representing the family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Vallejo and Officer Zachary Jacobsen, said that footage mysteriously doesn’t exist. According to Nold, Jacobsen — the only officer who shot Ramos — didn't have his camera on that night.

The family obtained dozens of videos from other officers who responded to the scene before and after the shooting. But none of the officers' lapel cameras captured the actual shooting, according to the lawsuit.

Saddler and her family didn't finish watching the footage in that meeting with the police chief. They were frustrated with how police talked to them. The family got up and walked out.

"My brother is still dead. You still show somebody some type of sympathy. Like, we just lost our loved one." said Saddler.

A remembrance for Angel Ramos outside the home of his mother in Vallejo.
A remembrance for Angel Ramos outside the home of his mother in Vallejo. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

What Knife?

Alicia and her family have always been skeptical of the Vallejo Police Department's narrative of what happened.

One reason is that another cop who was there — Officer Jeremy Callinan — told investigators he didn’t see Ramos with a knife. In investigative documents, Callinan described hand motions that looked like a “hammer strike” that led him to believe Ramos had a knife when he was shot.

But even though Officer Callinan said he didn’t see a knife, he still believed Ramos had posed a “lethal threat.” He told investigators that if Officer Jacobsen hadn’t shot Ramos, he would have.

According to police reports, five knives were recovered from the home. Three of them were gathered from the kitchen. It's unclear from the police report where the other two were found.

In interviews Vallejo police Detective Rob Greenberg conducted on Feb. 3, 2017, with two firefighters who responded to the scene that night, neither said they saw any weapons near Ramos when they went to attend to his body.

And the alleged victim who Ramos was described as attacking with a knife the night of the shooting — Deshon Wilson — is cited in the family’s lawsuit against the city, denying the official police version of events.

"The purported victim, D.W., steadfastly denies the offical [SIC] version of the events and reports that Angel Ramos was clearly and obviously unarmed when Officer Jacobsen inexplicably opened fire. The CITY’s official versions of the event are belied by the inciden [SIC] scene, physical evidence, placement of Decedent’s injury and physics."

Alicia Saddler addresses Vallejo City Councilmembers at a meeting on June 25, 2019.
Alicia Saddler addresses Vallejo City Council members at a meeting on June 25, 2019. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

Becoming an Activist

Greg Nyhoff, Vallejo's city manager, wouldn't say whether there is a problem with policing in Vallejo. Nyhoff said many cities are currently struggling with providing police services and that officers in Vallejo are operating with limited resources.

The city has hired the independent California-based OIR Group to assess the police department's police practices and procedures.

"I have been working in local government long enough to know there are lots of complexities and challenges that need to be considered before one concludes reform is required," Nyhoff said in an email.

"I would like for residents to understand that the City is listening, and also that the City is very pointed on taking steps to address the concerns that have been raised and to continuously improve — not only with the Police Department — but with the organization as a whole."

Saddler, meanwhile, has taken up the role of an activist — a role she never thought she'd play.

"I can’t just be out here fighting for Angel," she said. "It's these other people now. I just decided it was time to do what I have to do to fight for families."

Following the shooting of Ramos in 2017, there was the shooting of Ronell Foster in 2018 and Willie McCoy, who was shot earlier this year.

Saddler's family and their supporters have been critical of city leaders for not speaking up about shootings by its police officers. She also said her family has been intimidated by Vallejo police since speaking out.

She told City Council members at a meeting in June that she'd stopped at the corner of Nebraska and Sonoma streets in Vallejo, when she looked over and saw an officer pointing at her and other officers laughing.

"Are they laughing because Jacobsen is getting away with murdering my brother?" she asked council members. "I wanna know what is so funny?"

The fight to change the narrative around her brother's death has taken a toll on Saddler.

She has moved out of the house where the shooting happened. After the shooting, she felt guilty facing her mom. She felt like if they’d all just stopped fighting that night, police would have never showed up. On this past April 25, Alicia got a chance to view more police body-camera footage from that night that her lawyers obtained, showing something she hadn't seen before.

"I blamed myself like: How come you didn't help him? How could you be that drunk and not know that your brother was hurt?" she said. "But in the video that we watched, I was screaming for them to call the ambulance to help my brother. So that was like a big weight off my chest."

Saddler won't leave Vallejo, she said, until her brother's case is over. She said she doesn't want the police to feel like they won.

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