Friday, July 10, 2009 | After San Diego County sheriff’s Deputy Lowell “Sam” Bruce shot his wife in the face in front of their 4-year-old son, Kristin Marie Maxwell-Bruce was able to walk to the kitchen phone and dial 911.
As she waited for medical help on that December evening in 2006, Kristin was alert and talking — but it was with some difficulty because the bullet had destroyed half her tongue and the left side of her jaw.
She told her mother she was worried about her teeth; her mother assured her they could be fixed. Upon arrival at the Alpine home, medics found that Kristin’s vital signs — pulse, body temperature, blood pressure and respiratory rate — were within normal range.
But Kristin’s family claims a shocking series of blunders and delays by Sheriff’s investigators and medics resulted in a lonely and unnecessary death an hour later for the 38-year-old mother of two.
The evening was capped by a violent encounter between deputies and Kristin’s distraught father — a sequestered witness who was pepper-sprayed, clubbed and handcuffed when he tried to leave sheriff’s custody to tell his wife that their only child was dead, according to the wrongful-death lawsuit filed in December 2007 by Kristin’s parents, Jim and Kay Maxwell.
“During the last hour of Kristin’s life, defendants refused to let her parents see her, refused to let them speak to her or comfort her, and refused to let Jim and Kay Maxwell see, speak to or comfort each other,” the lawsuit said. The sheriff’s officials “prevented Kristin from receiving proper medical treatment, falsely imprisoned Kristin and the Maxwells, and prevented the Maxwells from association with their daughter in the last hour of her life.”
Meanwhile, the shooter, Lowell Bruce, a corrections deputy at Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee, was never handcuffed, and was permitted to make a phone call on another deputy’s cell phone, the lawsuit contends.
Adding to the family’s outrage were two discoveries soon after the shooting: Friends sifting through Lowell Bruce’s belongings discovered documents indicating the deputy had twice failed psychological examinations when applying to work for the Sheriff’s Department in 1993. But despite that initial rejection by the department, and at least eight other agencies, five years later the Sheriff’s Department did ultimately hire and arm a man they’d deemed too violent for the job.
Also, at a debriefing about the incident attended by Sheriff’s officials, one of the deputies got into a heated exchange with a sergeant, telling the sergeant he “fucked the crime scene up” because he “didn’t want to let the ambulance leave.”
The county has a very different perspective of that night. Because the Maxwells were witnesses to a crime, they were separated — a common practice at crime scenes — so detectives could obtain untainted statements and ultimately win a conviction in court, which they did, said senior deputy county counsel Morris G. Hill. Deputies tried to explain this to the grieving father, but he defied their orders and a confrontation ensued, Hill said.
Deputies in no way hampered the life-saving efforts of emergency medical personnel, Hill said. To the contrary — they tried to save her and make sure her attacker was convicted. Bruce was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 2007.
“What our friends the plaintiffs have done is they’ve taken all the things that normally happen in normal homicide investigations and painted them with an evil brush,” Hill said, “like separating the witnesses, (as if) that was designed to keep parents from sharing grief about their daughter’s death. There was only one opportunity to get the facts they needed to make sure if this guy was guilty, he didn’t get away with it. And he didn’t. That’s largely due to fact that proper procedures were taken.”
Hill continued: “There was only one person responsible for this and that’s the guy who pulled the trigger. The only people who are being sued here are the people who were trying to help. They’re the ones being accused of all this misconduct and that’s not right. Who’s going to save us if every time someone tries to save us, they get sued?”
U.S. District Judge John Houston has yet to set a trial date, but lawyers expect to pick a jury and get started within a few months. Key depositions and reports from medical experts have recently been completed.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and alleges wrongful death, gross negligence, battery, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The suit names the county of San Diego, the Alpine Fire Protection District, Lowell Bruce, Sheriff’s Capt. Gregory Reynolds, Sgt. Michael Knobbe, Lt. Anthony Salazar, deputies Jeffrey Jackson, Warren Voth, Gary Kneeshaw, William Reilly and L. Rodriguez; Alpine Fire District employees Brian Boggeln, Colby Ross, Chip Howell, Michael Mead; and Viejas Fire Department employees Bradley Avi and Jeremy Felber.
The Crime Scene
Kristin and Lowell Bruce reportedly had a typical marriage with occasional fights but no official reports of violence, Hill said. Lowell Bruce had a good relationship with his in-laws; he and Jim Maxwell occasionally hunted together, according to both Hill and plaintiff’s attorney Charles La Bella.
The entire family lived together at the Maxwells’ home on Camino Scarpitta, which has an eight-car garage and a 3,000-square-foot master bedroom. Kay Maxwell’s father also lived at the home, and the extended family regularly dined together.
On December 14, 2006, the family had done just that after Lowell Bruce had returned home from work at the Las Colinas Detention Facility. Later, during an argument over household chores in their bedroom, Lowell Bruce fired the shot at Kristin at point-blank range in front of their youngest son Kelten, who was lying on the couple’s bed trying to fall asleep, Hill said.
It was 10:48 p.m. Kristin was officially pronounced dead at 11:48 p.m., precisely an hour after the shooting, according to a timeline created by lawyers for both sides at the judge’s request.
What happened during that hour is in dispute. The timeline indicates it was 48 minutes from the time of the shooting to the time the ambulance managed to get Kristin to the waiting Mercy Air chopper for transport to a trauma center, and the family said sheriff’s officials and medics are to blame for the delay; sheriff’s officials said they preserved the integrity of the crime scene but never interfered with medical treatment.
Phillip C. Samouris, lawyer for the Viejas Fire Department, declined to comment on pending litigation. The lawyer for the Alpine Fire District could not be reached for comment.
When Lowell Bruce’s colleagues at the Sheriff’s Department arrived at the home — already aware that one of their own was the shooter — they “locked down the scene” and “refused to allow (Kristin) to be taken to the hospital,” said the lawsuit filed by Kristin’s parents on behalf of themselves and their grandchildren, boys now 7 and 9.
The emergency medical technicians and sheriff’s deputies “allowed her to suffocate and drown in her own blood,” the lawsuit said. “Kristin died nearly an hour after dialing 911.”
The first Sheriff’s deputy, Jackson, arrived eight minutes after the shooting, at 10:56 p.m. He went into the house and found Bruce, who was distraught but cooperative and unarmed. Jackson did not handcuff him. He walked him to a patrol car and locked him inside. Jackson gave Bruce his cell phone so Bruce could call his supervisor to say he wouldn’t be able to come to work the next day.
The Alpine Fire District did not have an ambulance available so medics were sent on a fire truck. They arrived soon after Jackson, who directed them down the driveway. They began treating Kristin but couldn’t transport her in a truck, Hill said.
The Viejas Department, which has a mutual aid agreement to help Alpine in such situations, dispatched an ambulance that didn’t arrive until 11 minutes later, at 11:08 p.m. That ambulance did not leave the house with Kristin until 21 minutes later – about 41 minutes after the shooting.
By the time the ambulance left the house, Kristin wasn’t breathing, the timeline said. The medics immediately tried to resuscitate her, and kept trying throughout the seven-minute trip to the local school, Boulder Oaks Elementary, where the Mercy Air chopper was waiting, according to the timeline.
Hill said the departure delay was because Kristin needed to be stabilized before she took the ambulance ride. The Alpine medics (Viejas ambulance medics hadn’t arrived yet) instigated “full spinal precautions,” meaning they placed Kristin on a backboard, lying flat, to prevent spinal and neck injuries.
Kristin arrived at the local school for air transport 48 minutes after the shooting, but she was never loaded onto the waiting helicopter because she was pronounced dead in the Viejas ambulance at 11:48, the timeline said.
Back at the house, the deputies had sequestered Kristin’s parents, who were at home at the time but had not witnessed the shooting, and kept them apart. They were prevented from comforting their daughter during her last hour of life, the lawsuit said.
Kristin’s grandfather said in his deposition that he saw Kristin sitting alone in the dining room between 11:10 and 11:15 p.m., “all by herself,” holding a towel to her jaw.
Who’s wearing handcuffs?
Kristin’s parents were not immediately told their daughter had died. Usually first responders do not make such notifications, leaving them up to the medical examiner’s office. But Jim Maxwell kept asking about his daughter and Sgt. Knobbe finally relented, Hill said. However, Knobbe would not let Maxwell deliver the news to his wife because it is standard procedure to keep witnesses apart at crime scenes.
Maxwell defied the deputies watching him and started to walk down his driveway to where deputies were holding his wife, in the family motor home, Hill said. Deputy Kneeshaw tried to stop him, and when Maxwell did not comply, Kneeshaw pepper-sprayed and clubbed him with a baton, and other deputies handcuffed him, the lawsuit said. He was placed in a squad car within view of the news media, the lawsuit said.
“There was footage from KUSI showing Jim Maxwell handcuffed by the car saying there is a suspect in custody for the death. It’s remarkable. The only guy who gets handcuffed that night is the victim’s father,” said La Bella, one of the Maxwells’ attorneys.
Hill disputes that Kneeshaw clubbed Maxwell. Hill said Maxwell was aggressive, and that account was corroborated by others sheriff’s officials at the scene.
According to his deposition, taken June 18, Lt. Reynolds said Sgt. Knobbe told him “that Mr. Maxwell had been charging Deputy Kneeshaw time and time again and wouldn’t listen to him, and whatever number of times it was he charged him, he pepper sprayed him … He was detained in that area to keep him separate from his wife, the other witness.”
Reynolds said that after Maxwell was treated for the pepper spray incident, he “apologized profusely for his actions against the deputies.”
At the same time, Lowell Bruce was never handcuffed. The county’s lawyer, Hill, said Bruce was cooperative, and that deputy Jackson did not cuff him in the interest of time. He was trying to quickly move Bruce to the patrol car so the medics could get to Kristin, Hill said.
Homicide detectives started assembling around midnight, Hill said. They interviewed the Maxwells, separately, around 3 or 3:30 a.m. The couple was released about 5 a.m., and that’s when Jim Maxwell told his wife about their daughter’s death, according to Hill.
Hill said deputies did everything they could for Kristin. “This was a very effective and optimal response. It’s just very unfortunate she died. It’s hard to find what could have been done better that would have made a difference in this case. She got shot in the face, what can you say.”
Jim Maxwell should have obeyed the deputy, Hill said. “A police officer has authority to tell you to do something. If they give you a lawful order and you disregard, they can take the next step which is to stop you,” Hill said. “Pepper spraying is the least harmful thing they can do to stop you.”
After the shooting, at a routine meeting of Sheriff’s investigators to review their handling of the incident, there was a heated exchange between the first deputy to arrive — Jackson — and the sergeant in charge, Knobbe, according to depositions and lawyers for both sides.
In his deposition, Knobbe acknowledged that Jackson criticized him by saying “that I had fucked the crime scene up. And I yelled back at him that he had fucked this up. And it was heated. There was tension between me and him.”
In answer to a follow up question from plaintiff’s lawyers, Knobbe said: “He yelled that I’d f’d the crime scene up. He had yelled at me that, you know, I was so concerned with the crime scene I didn’t want to let the ambulance leave.”
“In response to that I told him that was a fucking lie and that he was lying.”
Hill, the county’s lawyer, said there was tension between Jackson and Knobbe because they had disagreed initially — before Kristin died — on how the crime scene should be handled. Essentially they argued about whether the case amounted to a less serious domestic violence case, which Jackson believed, or whether a homicide squad should be called to the scene, Hill said. Knobbe summoned homicide and wanted everything done by the book, Hill said.
In his deposition, Jackson said he could not recall the heated exchange with Knobbe at the debriefing. Hill said Jackson’s criticism was referring to Knobbe’s concerns that every person at the crime scene be identified and documented, including paramedics.
In depositions, multiple deputies said they remember the exchange between those two, but said they could not recall what was said.
Hill was adamant that Jackson “didn’t say (the ambulance) was delayed, and he didn’t say Knobbe delayed it.” He added: “I would characterize it as both of them were being oversensitive and overcritical of each other because the bottom line was it didn’t make any difference.
“The crime scene, to use their vernacular was not fucked up, it was actually done very well. No evidence was messed up. Everything was done with the witnesses that should have been, search warrants were obtained. Everything was by the book,” Hill said.
La Bella, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, had a different take.
“There were fundamental mistakes at the scene. Nobody investigated them after. When you have a deputy telling a sergeant at a post-incident meeting, ‘You fucked up the crime scene, you were so concerned about the crime scene you wouldn’t let the ambulance leave,’ you’ve got to investigate,” La Bella said.
The criminal case
Lowell Bruce was sentenced to 15 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed for voluntary manslaughter, after pleading guilty in August 2007. The Superior Court judge who handed down the sentence was Michael D. Wellington.
That was Bruce’s third judge. Bruce was originally charged with murder — which could carry a life sentence — but prosecutors and defense lawyers negotiated a plea deal for voluntary manslaughter, to the great outrage of Kristin’s family. Superior Court Judge Herbert J. Exarhos rejected the deal in July 2007, saying it raised the specter of special treatment for a law enforcement official.
Another judge, Allan J. Preckel, at first said he would probably accept the 15-year deal, but ultimately rejected it in November 2007, saying he wanted to retain discretion to sentence Bruce to prison for up to 21 years.
Both the District Attorney and the defense sought to remove Preckel from the case, and an Orange County judge agreed that Preckel might appear to be biased against Bruce because of the flip-flop on the plea deal. Preckel denied any bias but he was nevertheless removed from the case.
The case then went to Wellington, who accepted the plea deal, saying the case was a “classic” voluntary manslaughter because there was no evidence that Bruce intended to kill his wife.
Status of the civil case
Since the civil case was filed, Judge Houston dismissed Viejas Fire Department as a defendant on grounds that the tribe has sovereign immunity and cannot be sued unless it waives that right. The plaintiffs had argued unsuccessfully that Viejas Fire had entered into a mutual aid agreement with Alpine Fire which they said amounted to a waiver of its sovereign immunity.
A case like this rarely makes it to trial. Both sides usually settle, even if the defendants feel they are not liable, in part to avoid the publicity, hassle and expense of trial. But this case appears to be headed for trial in about five months. Depositions are almost completed and expert witnesses have finished their reports.
The Maxwells have been deposed by county attorneys; numerous Sheriff’s officials have been deposed by plaintiffs’ attorneys. The county plans to depose Lowell Bruce on August 7.
One thing is clear, Hill said. There will be no settlement.
“It almost rules out any possibility of considering a settlement when the allegations are being put in terms of, you deliberately let this person die to help out a former officer,” Hill said. “That really cuts to the core, it’s such a deep wound that type of accusation causes.”
Correction: The original version of this story contained a photo caption that misidentified the person who shot Kristin Maxwell. We regret the error.
Kelly Thornton is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at email@example.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.