- Photo by Kala Minko
- Jonathan Bellusa and Lori Davis became a most unlikely team.
Sergeants Jonathan Bellusa and Barhin Bhatt pulled up behind a car that was parked on Joaquin Miller Road in the Oakland hills on the night of Jan. 22, 2011. Inside the Honda, Raheim Brown and Timesha Stewart were smoking weed and eating fast food. At the time, the two Oakland Unified School District police sergeants were working security for a school dance, and they were unaware that the Honda was stolen. But they thought it was parked in an unusual spot. So, they turned on a spotlight and approached.
Sgt. Bhatt went to the driver's window toward Stewart, who was behind the wheel. And then when Bhatt was about to ask for Stewart's identification, Brown, who was startled, told Stewart to ignore the officer and drive away.
At the same time, Sgt. Bellusa approached the passenger side and opened Brown's door. Almost immediately, he was grappling with Brown, and everything started to go wrong.
Brown was fumbling with a screwdriver in the ignition, trying to help Stewart start the Honda. Bhatt reached through the driver's-side window and struck his flashlight at Brown, but hit Stewart instead. Bellusa, who was halfway in the car now, believed Brown was stabbing toward Bellusa's throat with the screwdriver.
What began as a traffic stop had rapidly escalated into a brawl with two officers trying to detain Brown and Stewart.
Bellusa later told police investigators that he bailed out of the car and shouted to Bhatt: "Shoot!" He said he then looked down and saw a small revolver buried deep in the pocket of the passenger door. He thinks he yelled, "Gun!"
What happened next isn't clear. The stories of the people involved differ. But in all the official accounts — the Oakland Police Department's case file includes about 140 pages of notes, diagrams, and photos from more than a dozen officers — Bhatt drew and fired. Again and again. Seven slugs ripped through Brown's body.
Stewart recalled the 20-year-old Brown saying, "Help me, sis," as he died.
From the start, Lori Davis was convinced that Oakland school police had murdered her son, Raheim Brown, and that the case closely mirrored thousands of other unjustified fatal shootings of young Black men by police in the United States. She led protests against the school district and its police force calling for criminal charges. And after Oakland police, OUSD police, and Alameda County prosecutors declined to bring charges against either Bhatt or Bellusa, she sued the Oakland school district, desperate to uncover the truth about what had happened to her son.
Four years later, long after she settled her lawsuit against the school district and the controversy of her son's killing had quieted in the media, her life changed dramatically. In an unusual turn of events, she learned that Bellusa had also been fighting the school district and other cops, almost from the start, alleging that the shooting was never properly investigated and that the official version of her son's death was wrong.
Davis despised Bellusa. But after an Oakland teacher and activist who had joined Davis in protests connected her with the former sergeant via email, she decided to give him a call.
She and Bellusa eventually met up and started talking. And the two — an African-American mother of a young man killed by police and a white cop who was involved in her son's death — quickly bonded and became a most unlikely team.
The two now describe themselves as being on the same side. "That man has been there for me emotionally," Brown said in a recent interview. "He's been a big support. I'm not gonna hate a man that, from the beginning, tried to come out with the truth."
Once a gung-ho officer from a family of cops, Bellusa left policing after the shooting, but his connection with Davis and his frustration with how the controversial incident was handled by authorities keep him from closing out the law enforcement chapter of his life.
And Davis, over the years, has found herself increasingly at odds with those around here, partly because she has refused to move on. She still believes her son was murdered, and says she won't rest until there's a prosecution — as unlikely as that may be.
And Bellusa won't drop the case because he believes corruption in the Oakland Unified School District prevented a proper investigation.
These days, Brown and Bellusa get together occasionally to talk at a suburban coffee shop in Antioch. But they don't discuss what happened that night on Joaquin Miller Road. The killing isn't something either wants to relive.
Rather, they talk about what happened next — after Raheim Brown was shot to death.
Nobody can definitively prove what happened to Raheim Brown on Joaquin Miller Road. Neither Bellusa nor Bhatt were wearing body cameras that night; their car had no recording system; and there were no other witnesses besides Timesha Stewart. But to this day, Bellusa says the shooting didn't go down the way it was officially recorded. He said the investigations were cut short and steered toward predetermined conclusions.
That's what bothers him most. He doesn't feel the school district was willing to face the truth. And so the district, according to Bellusa, robbed Davis of answers about how and why her son died.
He told all of this to Brown when they first started talking in 2015.
"I was crying," she said about their first conversation. "But it brightened my heart."
To her, Bellusa's account wasn't a revelation, but it reinforced her quest to continue raising questions, even though all the investigations concluded in 2011, and her lawsuit against the school district settled in 2013. Davis said Bellusa was also able to explain to her why the district had been, in his words, so eager to absolve itself.
"They wanted to avoid another Oscar Grant-type situation," Bellusa said in a recent interview, referring to the 2009 fatal shooting of a young unarmed Black man by a white BART cop that sparked massive protests in Oakland. "That's why they didn't do a proper investigation."
The record corroborates some of Bellusa's assertions.
According to Bellusa, it started with OPD's homicide interviews the night of the shooting. According to OPD reports, Bellusa was in one interview room and Bhatt was in another. Per policy, detectives sequestered the two to ensure they didn't influence each other's statements.
But while they were waiting, then-OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith arrived with Peter Sarna, the then-Oakland schools police chief, and with the district's then-general counsel Jacqueline Minor. According to Bellusa, Smith and Sarna walked into his interview room and Smith began asking questions.
In a deposition recorded in 2013, Bellusa said Smith asked him: "Tell me everything you can remember about the gun and what it looked like."
Bellusa said he complied, telling Smith he'd seen a revolver in the passenger door's pocket.
Smith and Sarna left the room, and then, according to Bellusa, they went to talk to Bhatt.
In 2013, then-OUSD spokesman Troy Flint confirmed to the Oakland Tribune that Smith and Sarna had talked to Bellusa and Bhatt that night, but he said the chief and superintendent "in no way tried to influence their statements."
That's not what Bellusa thinks. He maintains that this was the beginning of a cover-up.
Bellusa believes that Smith and Sarna told Bhatt where OPD investigators had found the gun — in the passenger's side door pocket where Bellusa had said he saw it — and what it looked like, before he was interviewed by OPD detectives in order to shore up the officer's justification for using deadly force.
Bhatt told OPD that night that he also saw the butt of the gun in the passenger's side door pocket before he fired, and that it was one of several factors leading to his decision to shoot.
Smith, who left OUSD in 2013 and is now the Illinois State Superintendent of Schools, didn't respond to two interview requests regarding Bellusa's claims.
Bellusa said that just after Smith and Sarna left his interview room that night, he was interviewed by OPD homicide investigators Rachael Van Sloten and Sean Fleming. They went over his version of the shooting — once. To Bellusa, it felt like a preliminary interview. He thought they'd have follow-up questions, especially after talking to Bhatt. He also assumed they would conduct a reenactment.
And of course, he thought, OPD's internal affairs investigators would handle the administrative side of the case, once the criminal probe was completed, to see if he or Bhatt had violated any policies. After all, OUSD's police department had no internal affairs bureau capable of doing an investigation.
But that isn't what happened.
According to Bellusa, at the end of his interview, Sarna intervened and told OPD's investigators that his officers wouldn't participate in any more interviews or a reenactment for a criminal probe.
Sarna, who was forced to leave OUSD not long after the shooting because he made racist slurs, didn't respond to two requests to be interviewed for this report.
Van Sloten and Fleming, who both still work for OPD, didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
OPD records confirm that Van Sloten and Fleming didn't interview Bellusa or Bhatt a second time, and there was no reenactment.
Bellusa thinks that if he had been extensively interviewed that night, it would have been obvious that Bhatt couldn't have seen the gun, because Bellusa said it was deep in the door pocket, visible only if you were right above it.
Furthermore, Bellusa later said during the civil lawsuits that followed that it didn't appear Bhatt heard him when he yelled "gun" a split second before the shooting. According to police reports, after Bhatt killed Brown, he trained his gun on Stewart. Bellusa said he had to tell his partner to continue covering Brown instead because there was a gun in the pocket near him, whereas Stewart wasn't armed. Bellusa said that Bhatt only then appeared to have heard him say there was a gun — all after the shooting.
"My gut feeling is that OPD wasn't trying to cover it up," Bellusa said. "They were taking it very seriously, but they let OUSD convince them not to fully investigate it."
District Attorney Nancy O'Malley closed the case later that year, deciding there was no reason to charge Bhatt with a crime.
Bhatt, who later became OUSD's chief of police but is now a private security guard, declined a request to be interviewed. But he wrote in an email, "There are multiple reports, investigations, and records from various public agencies — all of which are a matter of public record — that accurately depicts my previous statements about that incident."
After OPD's criminal investigation closed, OUSD hired Pete Peterson, a former OPD lieutenant, to conduct the internal affairs investigation that would determine if Bhatt or Bellusa violated policy. Peterson, a licensed private investigator, examined OPD's reports and interviewed Bellusa and Bhatt again.
In his report, Peterson reiterated the story Bhatt told to OPD: "As [Brown] stabbed Jon with the screwdriver, I took my pistol out and instructed him to stop. At that time, I saw in the open front right side door pocket area that there was what appeared to be the butt of a pistol."
He shot Brown twice. His gun jammed. He said he cleared it rapidly. He said Brown continued to lunge at the steering column, so he shot him five more times.
Peterson concluded, "Bhatt was in reasonable fear" and "was justified in shooting Brown."
But forensic evidence examined by OPD showed no signs of strike marks on Bellusa's shirt or his protective vest, contradicting both officers' claims that Brown used the screwdriver as a weapon. And Stewart and Bellusa both said in OPD interviews and later depositions that Brown wasn't lunging for the steering wheel after the first two shots.
There were also other findings in Peterson's report that didn't line up with some of the evidence and witness statements, raising still more questions.
Bellusa found Peterson's role as the internal affairs investigator alarming, because, he said, Peterson is an old friend of the Sarna family. According to OPD records, Sarna's father, Pete Sr., was a captain in OPD until he retired in 1980. Peterson, an OPD lieutenant, retired in 1998.
Bellusa also told attorneys during the civil lawsuits that Sarna reacted jubilantly to the news that Peterson was handling the investigation. "[Sarna] said, 'I'm not worried about anything, everything is taken care of.' He said he 'might as well have a limo pick us up and have drinks in the limo and take us to Mike Rains' office to meet with Peterson.'" (Rains is the longtime attorney for Oakland and OUSD police officers.)
According to Bellusa, Sarna even referred to himself one time as "The Wolf," a reference to the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction who cleans up a homicide scene and disappears the body for two clumsy hitmen.
Peterson declined to discuss his investigation of the shooting, citing legal and professional rules against disclosing personnel information. He also didn't respond to a question about whether he is friends with the Sarna family.
But Howard Jordan, who was OPD chief at the time, wrote in an email to the Express that his department should have conducted the internal affairs investigation — not Peterson.
"Johnathan Bellusa was absolutely correct," wrote Jordan. "I made several attempts to have this case assigned to OPD since it happened in our jurisdiction as this has been the practice in the past. I can only suspect that Sarna was afraid that he would not have been able to control the outcome of this investigation if OPD had been allowed to investigate it."
Setting aside questions about who should have conducted the internal affairs investigation or whether OPD's original criminal investigation was rigorous enough, what it all boiled down to in the end was whether or not Bhatt saw the pistol and whether it was necessary to fire eight shots at Brown. Were the first two shots enough to stop Brown from trying to start the car? Were the following six necessary? And if not, would Brown have survived?
According to forensics reports prepared for OPD and OUSD, Bhatt fired two volleys of shots at Brown. The first was a "double tap" — two quick gunshots, followed by a dud round that jammed his gun. Bhatt had to clear the round from the chamber before firing again.
But how long did that take? Bhatt told Peterson it was a "half-second fluid action" to clear the jam and continue firing.
Bellusa didn't describe two volleys of shots when he was interviewed by OPD on the night of the shooting, according to OPD reports. But later, during the civil lawsuits, Bellusa said the two volleys were separated by anywhere from 10 to 15 seconds, perhaps longer. He recalled falling out of the car as Bhatt fired twice. He stumbled around to the back, looked up, and claimed he saw Bhatt tapping his pistol to clear the jam while Brown lay moaning, nearly motionless in the passenger seat. Then Bhatt fired again.
Bellusa has come to the conclusion that the second round of shots wasn't necessary and that it's possible Raheim Brown could have survived.
But because OPD never interviewed the officers a second time and never did a reenactment of the incident, the time pause between the first and second volley of shots was never conclusively estimated.
The only reenactment took place in March 2011 when two attorneys representing Bhatt, Bellusa, and the school district in the civil suit filed by Davis had the officers do a walk-through in an OUSD parking lot. Bellusa said this reenactment revealed that there was a significant delay of more than 10 seconds between the first and second volley of shots.
The school district's attorneys, Peter Edrington and James Marzan, didn't respond to questions about the reenactment or Bellusa's assertions.
The only other witness account raises still more questions.
Timesha Stewart, who was distraught immediately after the incident, told OPD investigators when she was interviewed that night that both Bhatt and Bellusa shot Brown. However, her claim was disproved by physical evidence.
Reached by phone several weeks ago, Stewart admitted it was a confusing moment, but she said the official police version of what happened is false and that the killing was never properly investigated. She also said Bellusa's version is false.
"There was never a gun in the car," said Stewart. She believes it was planted to justify the shooting. Stewart also questioned why she was never re-interviewed by OPD or by Peterson for OUSD's internal investigation. "We were trying to get away from them," said Stewart, referring to Bhatt and Bellusa on the night of the shooting.
In a 2012 deposition during the civil lawsuits, Stewart told the school district's attorneys, Edrington and Marzan, that she and Brown thought Bhatt and Bellusa were private security guards, not police, and they felt like their rights were being trampled.
"The officer, Bhatt, was whacking me across the face with a flashlight, and I felt like things were only getting worse in that situation," she told the Express. So, they tried to flee.
But Stewart recalls one thing that fits Bellusa's version of events. She said Bhatt took somewhere from 15 to 45 seconds to shoot Brown, from the first two shots to the last.
Similarly, Stewart testified during her 2012 deposition with the school district's attorneys that it could have been as long as 30 seconds after Bhatt's first shots to when he resumed firing at Brown. She said Brown fell back into the passenger seat and wasn't moving after the first bullet struck him.
"But it was a pause, like long enough time for [Brown] to sit back, me to actually look and focus on everything that just happened, see that he was just hit in the face, look at his facial expression," she said. "And then here comes some more shots."
The first-time Lori Davis met Jonathan Bellusa was at a 2011 Oakland school board meeting. Bellusa was assigned as security, despite expectations that Brown would attend with dozens of protesters.
"He was directing traffic outside," Davis recalled. "I got a bad feeling in my bones. It was like I could hear my son saying, 'Mom, that's him.'"
She confronted Bellusa. "I literally walked up to his face and stared at him."
He tried to ignore her.
Davis didn't know at the time that the lawsuit she filed in May of that year, and a separate lawsuit filed by the mother of Brown's child, had thrown the school district into turmoil.
What caused the most internal turbulence was Bellusa's insistence that the official story of how the shooting unfolded was incorrect.
While OUSD's attorneys, Edrington and Marzan, were questioning Bellusa in preparation for the civil lawsuits, Bellusa had begun to recall in greater detail what happened. The attorneys asked Bellusa why he was only now adding new information. He replied that it was because his interview with OPD homicide investigators was cut short, and his interview with Peterson lasted only 33 minutes. There were questions no one had ever asked him, and when they finally did, it resulted in a more detailed account, he said.
Meanwhile, Sarna was swept up in his own scandal and forced to resign in August 2011 after making racist comments to other officers during a golf outing. Bellusa filed the internal affairs complaint about the slurs. Bhatt was then appointed interim chief due to the fact that he was the highest-ranking officer uninvolved in the racist slurs case. He served as chief for just one month, until the district replaced him due to protests against his appointment by Davis and others.
Throughout 2011 and 2012, cops in the small OUSD police department found themselves pitted against each other, and the tensest disagreement was over the killing of Raheim Brown.
In November 2011, the school district actually went so far as to provide Bellusa with a separate attorney due to the conflicts emerging between him and Sarna, Bhatt, and the district. These divisions further threatened to undermine the district's defense that the shooting was justified.
Patrick Robbins, a neutral, court-appointed evaluator who was opining about whether the wrongful death lawsuits had merit, wrote in a 2012 report that it was reasonable to doubt Bhatt saw the gun. "There were three people positioned between him and the gun at the time. It would have to be established what the lighting and positions of those people were at the critical moment. This is a job for a jury," Robbins wrote. He also questioned whether the last six shots were necessary to stop Brown from helping Stewart start the car.
"Dozens of critical facts could possibly tip the case one way or the other," Robbins wrote.
OUSD's attorneys and insurers scrambled to contain the lawsuits, going so far as to warn Bellusa that he should work as a team with everyone else, records show.
Jim Schillinger, a representative of OUSD's insurance company Keenan, wrote to Bellusa's attorney Jeff Olson via email: "I wanted to make it clear that you and Sgt. Bellusa are also members of the 'defense team' in this litigation and that, as such, it is our expectation that you will not pursue any actions that are not essential to the defense of Sgt. Bellusa in the Raheim Brown shooting case." He continued, "What I would like to avoid is unnecessary 'finger-pointing' between the parties if and when such allegations arise."
Later, in April 2012, Bellusa's attorney told him in an email that he and Bhatt had "credibility issues" because Smith and Sarna had spoken to them before their OPD interviews. Furthermore, Olson wrote that Bellusa's recollection of a long delay between the first and second volleys made the case difficult to defend.
"In the end you could be the sole defendant found liable by a jury for use of excessive force with a multimillion-dollar judgment rendered against you," Olson wrote to Bellusa, concluding that the school district might not indemnify him.
Because he was concerned about how the investigation was being handled, Bellusa sought the counsel of his friend, former OPD Lt. Mike Yoell. Yoell told him to go to the FBI. Bellusa did, and he shared emails with the Express showing that he forwarded information to federal agents and told them that he felt the school district was carrying out a cover-up.
The U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into OUSD in 2012 — a probe believed to have been prompted by the controversial shooting and how it was handled — but nothing came of it. Bellusa's emails to the FBI didn't lead to a case against the district or anyone else involved.
In the end, OUSD paid a $497,500 settlement to Davis, but the officers weren't held personally liable, and the school district admitted no wrongdoing.
Bellusa later filed his own lawsuit against the school district alleging retaliation and claiming to be a whistleblower. He settled with the district in late 2014 for $550,000 and also retired. His attorney, Dan Siegel, told news media at the time that the settlement "allows him to close this chapter of his life and go on to the next chapter."
Yet Bellusa hasn't entirely moved on to that next chapter. Today, he lives a seemingly normal life in East Contra Costa County with his wife and two children. He works as a loan officer for a mortgage company and does all the things you'd expect of a suburban dad. He volunteers for schools and even hosts a radio show about real estate. But he says the nagging sense that the shooting and everything afterward was improperly handled tugs at his conscience.
Neither Bellusa nor Davis have any financial incentive to keep questioning what happened. There's no more cause to bring a civil lawsuit. In fact, they probably have more to lose by dredging up the past.
And yet they do. Earlier this year, Bellusa contacted OPD homicide detectives and asked them to re-interview him about what happened that night. They agreed, and the former-sergeant spilled his guts to them once again. Bellusa then wrote a follow-up email to one of the investigators: "I have been doing everything I can to bring this to light because I don't want to be a part of it. I want this off my shoulders so I can move on with my life."
The investigators haven't taken any action, however.
Davis said the civil lawsuits couldn't provide her with what she really needed: a sense that someone was being held accountable for the death of her son. "I'm gonna keep doing this 'til they get it right. My baby's life was worth something," she said in an interview last week.
Everything about their alliance seems unlikely. Bellusa, who stands over six feet tall, still carries himself like a cop: calm, observant, confident. When he talks, he's methodical, as though he's dictating a police report. Davis is more animated and speaks in a quick, spontaneous way. In several interviews conducted in each other's presence for this story, Bellusa would often slowly describe a series of events or recall detailed dates and facts about the case, while Davis would chime in with "yep" and "right."
But Davis does her homework, too. Although a working grandmother with virtually no spare time between taking care of her family and paying the bills, she has poured over thousands of pages of police records and court documents over the last few years — all part of her own investigation.
And when Bellusa talks, Davis focuses intently on him. Even though she's probably heard everything he has to say before, she seems to believe that somewhere in his memory of what happened that night, there's an overlooked thread that will tie everything together.
Apart, they unsuccessfully protested for years for an intervention by outside authorities to reexamine the shooting and how it was handled by OUSD. Together, they hope they can convince someone to reopen the case and that criminal charges could still someday be brought, and those who they allege covered up the shooting and mishandled the internal investigation could be held accountable.
It may not happen.
In the meantime, the mother and the officer meet for coffee and talk.