No charges are being filed against Napa officers involved in the shooting that killed 23-year-old Noel Aaron Russell last March near South Napa Marketplace.
Napa County District Attorney Allison Haley announced the decision in a press release Thursday afternoon.
The involved officers, Napa Police Sgt. Ryan Cole and Officer Jack Thomson, believed that Russell intended to use deadly force and feared for their lives as well as for the lives of individuals in the area, Haley said.
Beginning at 6:21 p.m. March 13, before officers arrived to the scene, dispatchers received calls reporting that a man was in the area of South Napa Marketplace screaming and going after people with a knife, according to the DA’s report on the investigation.
Sgt. Cole, who has been with Napa Police for 22 years, was handling a call at Queen of the Valley Medical Center when he responded to a report of an armed man chasing someone out front of Home Depot. Officer Thompson, who has been with Napa Police for 17 years, was at the police department in his patrol car when he headed to scene.
Both men were continuously updated with a description of Russell and his behavior while they separately made their way to the rear of Black Bear Diner.
Upon his arrival at 6:27 p.m., Cole identified Russell and noticed a group of men moving away from him in the labor lot behind the diner. Cole put himself between Russell and the day laborers, drew his handgun and told Russell to get on the ground. Russell, who was displaying signs of being under the influence of meth, refused to comply.
Thompson, who arrived at about the same time as Cole, had pulled his patrol car into the labor lot, got out and, with his handgun in a low-ready position, approached Russell. Thompson saw Cole running from the Black Bear Diner yelling for Russell to comply.
Cole continued to give commands as Russell reached into his clothing, pulled out a knife, flicked it open and yelled “shoot me” or “come get me.”
Thompson estimated that Cole was about 10 feet or less away from Russell and that he was between 6 and 8 feet behind and to the left of Cole. With the knife in his hand, Russell moved toward Cole, triggering both officers to shoot.
Thompson shot twice, Cole shot four times and Russell fell to the ground.
Witnesses nearby were told to sit on the ground, Thompson kicked the knife away from Russell’s hand and the officers holstered their weapons. Firefighters arrived and attempted to treat Russell, but he was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the report.
Russell’s body had gunshot wounds to his neck and torso. During his autopsy on March 15, the forensic pathologist did not find signs of stippling or fouling (residue) on Russell’s wounds, which suggests that the guns were not at close range when shots were fired.
Three bullets consistent with the brand fired by Cole, who was using a Kimber 1911 .45 caliber service pistol, were located in Russell’s body. A fourth fragmented round that could not be positively identified was also recovered in his body. No bullets consistent with the brand fired by Thompson, who was using a Glock 22 .40 caliber service pistol, were found in Russell’s body, but two .40 caliber shell casings were recovered at the scene.
A folding knife found at the scene was 7.5 inches long with a 3.25-inch blade and 4.25-inch handle. Blood and DNA found on the knife was identified a Russell’s.
More than 50 people were interviewed during the investigation and, Haley said, several key witness accounts corroborated the officers’ accounts.
Haley said that Russell, who was living in a tent next to the Napa River, had used meth and consumed alcohol with an acquaintance before threatening patrons at South Napa Marketplace with a knife and vandalizing vehicles.
In the time before his encounter with police, Russell had approached a Black Bear Diner employee and offered to sell them a knife and a flashlight, pulled a knife on a man who was with his family at Target and pulled out his own knife in defense, and was seen slashing cars with a knife, Haley said. He also chased a man around some parked vehicles while brandishing his knife and attempted to stab a man over at the labor lot, she said.
“Some patrons fled from him, one retrieved a knife in self-defense and one pulled out a golf club in self-defense,” Haley says in the report. “Russell had a demonstrated and escalating history of methamphetamine use, as well as failing to obey lawful orders, threatening, battering and resisting police officers.”
At the time of the incident, Russell was wanted on two $10,000 bench warrants for failing to appear in court. Months earlier, Russell had been convicted of obstructing an executive officer, battery against a peace officer, felony vandalism, and possession of a controlled substance, and had spent time in the Napa County jail.
Following Russell’s death, family and friends described him as “funny” and “caring.” Russell, who spent time in foster care, was an actor and a star basketball player in his Contra Costa County high school. For at least a short time, he attended Pacific Union College in Angwin where he continued to play basketball.
Russell’s family knew that he was struggling with drug abuse, and reported having lost track of him in the months prior to his death.
Haley said that, due to the circumstances, the officers’ use of deadly force on Russell was reasonable and legally justified. Charges against them are neither warranted nor supported by evidence, she said.
The shooting at South Napa Marketplace was the first of two officer-involved shootings in Napa County this year. Stephen Connard Ferry, 65, was killed during a shootout with police and deputies on Linda Vista Avenue near Roberto Street on April 5.
Two Napa County Sheriff’s deputies and 11 Napa Police officers have been identified as the officers who shot at Ferry.
The DA has not yet made a decision regarding officers involved in that case.
Editor's note: This story has been revised to reflect an accurate description of Thompson's service pistol.