By Royal Calkins
Dr. Werner Spitz was coroner in Detroit while it was known as the nation’s murder capital. One of the world’s best known and oldest pathologists, he has testified at countless trials. He even examined the bodies of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
Spitz testified in the O.J. Simpson civil trial and Phil Spector’s murder trial. His 800-page book, “Medicolegal Investigation of Death,” is the classic in the field, required reading for pathologists, forensics experts and anyone else who wants to know too much about how people die.
Spitz, still working steadily at 95, is expected to be in Monterey in the next several days or weeks to testify in the case of the People v. Ari Gold, the People being the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office and Ari Gold being a young man who was paralyzed during a confrontation with the California Highway Patrol in 2019.
Though Gold survived, the pathologist’s testimony could be pivotal.
After a search for a stolen car that led them to Gold’s grandmother’s Salinas-area house, two CHP officers fired dozens of shots at him, including one that pierced Gold’s spine. He can no longer move his hands or legs. When called to the stand, Spitz will evidently testify that one of the first shots instantly paralyzed the young man, which would mean that the confrontation could not have played out the way the CHP says it did.
Initially the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office said two CHP officers fired more than 70 shots at the young man while he tried to hide in a shower stall at the house. The number was later whittled down to 44 after forensic experts determined that several shots had penetrated more than one wall and had been counted more than once.
Gold was armed at the start of the confrontation but didn’t fire a shot. The prosecution contends he did aim his .45-caliber pistol at the officers, which is why he is charged with assault on veteran CHP officer Christopher Weaver and rookie officer Kristi Cho. He is also charged with brandishing, resisting arrest and auto theft. In some previous cases elsewhere, pointing a gun at police has been found to constitute assault and in other cases courts have ruled otherwise.
The defense will argue that Gold never aimed the handgun at anyone and in fact had dropped or tossed it in another room several feet from where he was standing when the pair of CHP officers opened fire, shooting blindly through a wooden cabinet and a bathroom wall that separated them from Gold.
Gold’s attorney, veteran Salinas defense lawyer Steve Rease, won’t say much about the defense but Spitz, the master pathologist, is expected to testify that after one of the first CHP bullets sheared Gold’s spinal cord, he was unable to do what the CHP officers say he did. They say he was repeatedly peeking around the wall and ducking back into the bathroom while they shot holes in the wall.
Jury selection began Monday in Judge Mark Hood’s Salinas courtroom. Defense and prosecution motions began Wednesday and could continue until this weekend.
Like often happens in police shooting cases, the criminal trial precedes a planned federal civil trial at which another lawyer for Gold will argue that he didn’t deserve what happened to him, that the CHP officers overreacted to a perceived but not actual threat. As they say in legal circles, the civil case is “trailing” the criminal case, with the government hoping that a conviction in trial one will weaken Gold’s case in trial two.
In such situations, it’s not uncommon for a deal to be made. Drop the federal civil suit, the government might say, and we’ll drop the resisting and assault case. It isn’t known whether that has been proposed here.
Rease, Gold’s criminal defense lawyer, spent years with the Monterey County Public Defender’s Office before going out on his own. He is known as a tenacious and no-nonsense litigator. One courthouse observer who followed his career says Rease “would never talk with the media and always seemed to be in a bad mood, which could have been due to the multitude of crappy cases he had before a bench loaded with former prosecutors.”
Hood, the judge in this case, is a former prosecutor but, according to some of Rease’s colleagues, isn’t as hard-nosed as some.
The courtroom battle will be legalistic, emotional, technical and generational. Rease has been practicing law in California for 43 years while prosecutor Christopher Puck has been practicing for 13. Others in the local legal community describe the youngish prosecutor lawyer as an up-and-comer. One defense lawyer who has faced off against him described Puck as a “straight shooter.”
Gold is expected to attend the trial. He lives with his mother now, in the house where the gunfire took place. His grandmother lived there then but she has since passed on. Gold reportedly isn’t expected to ever recover enough to stop requiring full-time care. One of the two CHP bullets that penetrated his back remains fixed in his spine.
With the lawyers involved not saying much outside the courtroom, here’s what we know of the case, mostly from news accounts, court filings and earlier statements by Rease.
Gold, then 24, had grown up in and around Salinas. At San Benancio Middle School, he was known as friendly and mischievous and for getting in trouble. A classmate remembers him selling Tic Tac mints and pretending they were drugs.
He later went to Salinas High School but acquaintances there lost track of him. Some say he received mental health care throughout his schooling. A longtime acquaintance says he was into drugs and seemed to drift in and out of things. She described him as funny and harmless, except sometimes.
On his Facebook page, not updated since the shooting, Gold lists some of his likes as Bob Marley, Harry Potter, Starbucks, Cannabis Now magazine and the Covered California health insurance program.
Well before the shooting, there were several rounds of mental health treatment, inpatient and outpatient. There also were encounters with the law, some serious. He was arrested for allegedly stealing a computer and phone from an acquaintance. An ex-girlfriend obtained a restraining order after accusing him of emotional abuse. There were threats to kill a couple of acquaintances, more arrests, and more therapy.
Eventually, according to court records, Gold was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder 1, which sometimes manifests itself in manic-depressive mood swings made worse by illicit drugs. Court records say a blood sample taken after the shooting tested positive for methamphetamine and marijuana.
On the fateful day, July 23, 2019, Gold for some reason stole a red pickup. The defense acknowledges the truck was stolen. Soon the CHP received calls about a reckless driver.
Gold was driving fast when he got to Toro Park, a middle-class subdivision of stucco ranch houses along Highway 68, the Monterey-Salinas Highway. It sits across the highway from the county park also known as Toro Park. The truck clipped a parked Dodge Durango on Estoque Place as Gold neared his grandmother’s house, which sits where Estoque ends in a cul-de-sac.
Gold parked the truck haphazardly and raced inside the house where he sometimes lived. According to the CHP, he was carrying a gun, a .45-caliber Kahr Arms pistol. Many Kahr Arms models are small and lightweight, designed to be kept in ankle holsters or otherwise concealed.
It was just before 7 p.m. when he ran into the house. A little more than 20 minutes behind him was the CHP. While officers Weaver and Cho were scoping things out, Gold’s grandmother arrived at the house and told them no one should be inside.
The grandmother let the officers into the house. They quickly discovered that a door into a bathroom suite was locked. Weaver used a plastic hotel key to jimmy it open.
The District Attorney’s Office said officer Cho quickly found Gold hiding in a shower stall. She later told investigators that he pointed a gun at her, so she shot him moments before her partner opened fire. At one point, the female officer slipped and fell to the floor but righted herself and kept firing.
The District Attorney’s Office said Gold was struck twice. Forensics experts would spend nine days, an unusually long time, mapping the resting place of each slug and, when possible, the starting points as well. Cho fired 16 times, Weaver 28.
The defense will argue that Gold had dropped or thrown away the gun before entering the room containing the shower and before the officers got there. The prosecution will argue that he pointed the gun at Cho and then dropped it and that Weaver kicked it into the other room. The prosecution says the gun was loaded and cocked.
After the shooting, Weaver said, Gold was talking nonsense about aliens and Satan. According to court records, the officer broke down and cried.
Later at the hospital, another officer listened as Gold called himself Jehovah and said he had seen the devil, according to court records.
Gold’s family retained Rease shortly after the shooting. He said then that the officers had fired into the wall, through a door and through a shower stall and never actually saw Gold in the shower.
“Mr. Gold was gunned down as he sought safety from the hail of gunfire directed at him,” Rease said.
Fragments of the two slugs that wounded Gold were sent to a state lab for analysis, which concluded more than a year later that the bullet that paralyzed Gold had come from Weaver’s gun, not Cho’s as the defense has argued.
The prosecution hopes to greatly limit the testimony of the defense’s forensics and police procedure expert, William Harmening. Harmening, a former police officer, has written books on forensics and police procedures. He testified at Gold’s preliminary hearing but Judge Hood would not allow him to address several areas, mostly related to best practices in law enforcement. The prosecution has argued, successfully for the most part, that the case is principally about whether Gold assaulted Cho by pointing a gun at her and not about whether the officers should have taken a different and less dangerous path to subduing Gold.
Permitting Harmening to testify on the whole range of issues would be to admit “junk science” into the case, Puck argued in a pretrial motion.
The prosecution’s position is that even if the officers acted negligently, that’s an issue for the civil trial, not the criminal case.
Prosecutor Puck also hopes to eliminate animation of the confrontation, saying that it purports to present precisely what happened. Rease’s response has been that the animation is meant to explain a complicated scene to the jurors to help them visualize what the officers and others are testifying about.
CORRECTION: This article originally said the CHP had chased Gold to his grandmother’s house. The CHP found him there but there was no chase.
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