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The Mother and the Officer

Years after a fatal police shooting, one of the cops responsible is helping the victim's mom seek answers.



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"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.


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