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What's changed at Yountville's Vets Home between 2018 tragedy and this week's false alarm?
Public safety

What's changed at Yountville's Vets Home between 2018 tragedy and this week's false alarm?

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Veterans Home of California, Yountville security

The entrance to the Holderman building at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville. Early the morning of Tuesday March 23, dispatchers received a 911 call describing a woman with a possible shotgun on the home's grounds. The call, which ultimately proved a false alarm, prompted a massive law enforcement response. 

Outside the Yountville Veterans Home campus last Tuesday morning, all almost everyone could talk about was “last time.”

When the 911 dispatch crackled over the police scanner at 7:30 a.m., the dispatcher spoke of a possible “active shooter”: a woman with red hair donning maroon scrubs at the Holderman building with what looked like a shotgun sticking out of her backpack.

In March of 2018 – three years ago this month – a U.S. Army veteran who had served in Afghanistan had entered the same campus, where he’d previously been a patient of The Pathway Home, a residential treatment program for post-9/11 veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.

Armed with several weapons and magazines of ammo, the gunman entered the building leased by the Pathway program and sought out its staff members. In a tragedy that drew the attention of Americans nationwide, he took the lives of three female Pathway clinicians and that of an unborn child before taking his own.

Amid the uncertainty of last Tuesday morning, Bay Area media and the law enforcement officers tasked with diverting traffic away from the Veterans Home spoke in undertones about the shooting in 2018.

Tuesday’s call, to the relief of the community, turned out to be a false alarm. But the multiple law enforcement agencies that responded would not learn that fact until some four hours later after they had completed an exhaustive search of the area.

Stationed a half mile away, an officer wondered aloud whether some kind of security gate should have been put in place at the campus. There’d been discussion following the shooting in 2018 about whether that might make the campus safer, the officer said, but in the end, no such gate had been put in.

In a 2010 report obtained by the Sacramento Bee, the California Highway Patrol identified the lack of security at the Veterans Home’s front gate as one of several potential shortfalls. It also listed “few security cameras” (CalVet asked that the newspaper “not disclose the actual number,” the Bee wrote) and “a small staff of 10 unarmed officers patrolling the grounds, with two officers on duty most of the time.”

It’s unclear, the Bee noted in 2018, whether acting upon any of these recommendations might have stopped the gunman before he killed the three Pathway Home staffers.

Following the 2018 shooting, the adequacy of security at the Veterans Home was at the forefront of the minds of many. The family of Jennifer Golick, one of the women killed, filed a lawsuit against the Napa County Sherriff’s Office, Napa County and the California Department of Veteran’s Affairs (CalVet) and the individual sheriff’s deputy first on the scene in response to the active shooter call, the Register reported at the time.

In the lawsuit, Golick’s family alleged CalVet knew of and subsequently chose not to act upon a separate report authored for the Yountville Veterans Home by a security consultant underlining “risk factors” related to the Pathway Home where the gunman was a patient.

CalVet and CHP conducted an additional security assessment after the shooting in 2018 to determine what changes might be necessary going forward, State Senator Bill Dodd, whose district encompasses the home, told the Bee in 2018.

Asked to talk about changes to security at the Yountville Veterans Home since the 2018 shooting, Lindsey Sin, a spokesperson for CalVet, declined to give an interview, saying in a written statement that CalVet could not “provide specific details regarding our security measures at the Yountville Home” as a matter of security.

“We can say that all of our eight Veterans Homes have thorough emergency plans and procedures in place,” Sin said in the written statement. Speaking of Tuesday’s events, Sin said “home staff reacted appropriately by contacting law enforcement and implementing the established emergency procedures.”

CalVet previously declined to specify to the Bee which if any of the recommendations included in the 2010 CHP report it had chosen to implement.

The CHP, one of the agencies that responded to the active shooter call Tuesday, took over security for the home from the Napa County Sheriff’s Office following the 2018 shooting. (CHP typically oversees state buildings because it is a state agency.) The home also has its own small security force, though guards do not carry firearms, the Register previously reported.

Ryan Navarre, an attorney for the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, told the Register in 2019 that the union had long encouraged the home to bolster its security staffing levels and to hire a different kind of security guard. The Yountville home employs firefighter security officers, a position which requires a year of experience or education as a firefighter. The union suggested in 2019 the campus hire hospital police offers, a type of security guard “regularly required to perform law enforcement duties in close proximity to mentally ill patients,” according to the California Department of Human Resources, instead.

CalVet initially moved forward with a request to hire hospital police officers but withdrew the request in December of 2018.

That’s likely because the Pathway Home program on the Vets Home grounds was dismantled after the shooting in 2018. Pathway served patients facing significant trauma and working through “mental challenges” spawned from their service, according to Senator Dodd.

“If you were going to continue to have a Pathway program … certainly there would need to be other protocols put in place,” he said. In its absence, the Veterans Home is similar to other large facilities like its other hospitals or Napa Valley College, Dodd added.

“I’ve spoken to numerous residents of the home, and I think what I have heard from them is that they really feel safe on the campus,” he said in an interview. “What we’re trying to do is make it more of a community place where we have the Lincoln Theater and Borman Field – so I just don’t think (additional security) is probably warranted.”

Tuesday’s trajectory likely escalated after someone believed they saw a nurse enter the Holderman building with a gun that was actually “something else,” Dodd said. It is important that stakeholders be able to call 911 in a situation like that, and he believed “the person (who called) had the best intentions,” he said.

Relevant agencies – he cited the Sheriff’s Office and the Napa Police Department – have repetitively trained for “these types of events” and have learned lessons from the shooting in 2018.

“If there is any silver lining to this whole incident, it’s that those agencies had a live training session, and they’re all pleased with the coordination, how their training has paid off and how effective it was – getting to the scene, setting up command and surrounding the perimeter,” Dodd said. “Those are all the different things law enforcement wants to do in a situation like this.”

WATCH NOW: LAW ENFORCEMENT LEAVES YOUNTVILLE VETERANS HOME CAMPUS

Law enforcement vehicles leave Yountville Vets Home after campus was cleared of reports of woman with shotgun.

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You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.

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Wine Industry Reporter

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