A death by cop that
seems as inevitable
as it is inexplicable.
Brian Tacadena waited for a bus while the midday sun assaulted the turquoise facade of the San Jose Greyhound station. The station’s Googie-style blue-and-white sign, featuring the eponymous leaping canine, presented an iconic image from an optimistic, mid-century America.
The 46-year-old Tacadena was probably a less comforting sight to other Labor Day weekend travelers. Almost 6 feet tall with a shaved head, goatee and tattoos covering his body like a histogram of a hard life, Tacadena designed himself to look intimidating. His appearance was his first line of defense.
He was heading to Santa Maria where his aunt was excited to pick him up and take him back to her place in Lompoc for the night.
“Auntie Katie, I’m on my way,” was the first of three messages he left that Sunday, September 1 for Kathryn Tacadena, one of the few remaining connections he had to the family in Santa Barbara County he’d grown increasingly alienated from over the years. He told his aunt he was looking forward to a hot shower.
“He said he looked like a hobo,” she recalls.
A week prior, Brian had left a message for his cousin, Frank Tacadena, the family patriarch, a former gangbanger-turned-born-again Christian. Brian told Frank that he loved him and asked for his prayers. “He was excited to make the trip and reconnect with family,” recalls Frank, 49, father of two and grandfather of five.
Brian folded his long frame into the bus seat and settled in for the six-hour ride. He traveled with just a backpack. The passing late-summer landscape offered reminders of a dark past: Salinas, King City, Paso Robles—just 80 miles from Wasco State Prison where he’d done time after being convicted in 1995 for weapons possession and selling drugs—and then San Luis Obispo. Years compressed into flashes of memory as the miles blew by.
Tacadena was going home to Santa Barbara, with good intentions this time. At least, that’s what he told Kathryn and his friends in San Jose.
The trip back to Santa Barbara was not an easy one to make. Tacadena left in a hurry eight years ago after decades of family tragedy, addiction, drug dealing and numerous run-ins with police. What was left of his mental stability was fraying. By all accounts, he had been growing increasingly paranoid when he left town and hadn’t exactly turned his life around in the meantime.
Still, he thought he might have one last play: an ace in the hole that he hoped might repair at least some of the past. His late father, Richard Tacadena, had invested in real estate, including a banana farm in Costa Rica. According to Kathryn, Brian was interested in laying claim to what remained, if anything, of his father’s estate. Maybe he could salvage something to give to his daughter—something that is more tangible than memories of an absentee father.
Good memories were certainly at a premium in the Tacadena family. Brian’s mother died in a car accident when he was a child and his father died at the age of 58. His uncle Pancho, Richard’s brother and Frank’s father, was murdered in September 2006. A month later, Brian’s sister died addicted and houseless on the streets of Santa Barbara. She was 43. His ex-wife Robin died in 2011 of an overdose.
Brian joined this grim family history of untimely deaths when on September 1, as the clock approached Labor Day, a police officer spotted him walking aimlessly on the streets of Santa Barbara with a knife in hand. The policeman shot him dead in the ensuing encounter. Whether or not Brian deserved the opportunity to reconnect with his remaining family, to play his last card, to make amends with his daughter or to die in a volley of police-issued gunfire is, apparently, not a question with a simple answer.
The Santa Barbara District Attorney’s office and Police Department have denied numerous public records requests by Mission and State to learn more about the fatal shooting, the officer involved and the internal investigation (the only kind there is here) that might shed light on the incident.
Into the information gap comes terse official statements, witness accounts, speculation and a rash of officer-involved shootings making headlines and raising alarms across the state and country.
What is clear, through interviews with friends, family, officials and others acquainted with Brian Tacadena’s story, is that the man who died that night had been on a long, rough ride long before he boarded that southbound bus. What is less clear is whether that life can explain this death.
Brian Tacadena grew up on Mountain Avenue on the Westside of Santa Barbara. Being a quarter Mexican, a quarter Filipino and half German, he fell between the color lines that sometimes define and divide the city.
“He was Tack. That’s what we called him,” remembers Dianna Harman, who fell for Tacadena when they were in junior high school in Santa Barbara. “I was in seventh grade, he was in eighth grade. He was cute and he was a bad boy, and I was this little homie.”
Harman, in her 40s, blond and worn, is surrounded by Tacadena’s surviving family members and friends during a memorial for Tacadena at Hilda Ray Park on September 21. She says she reconnected with Tacadena in 1994 after they ran into each other in a Santa Barbara bar. They were both in their mid-20s.
“That was the beginning of the City of Dope. That’s what I called it. The beginning of a very dark era,” says Harman. “We were slanging hard. We were running hard. Motels, motels, motels, cars. Many, many drugs… unfortunately.”
Harman and Tacadena had a daughter in 1995.
“My idea for him was to have this little being who was gonna love him no matter what,” she says. “Unconditional love no matter what. Something that he didn’t understand really… but I know he got it.”
Tacadena didn’t exactly establish a model nuclear family. He was sentenced to the California Men’s Colony near San Luis Obispo in 1997 for drug and weapons possession charges.
Harman remembers a larger-than-life presence looming over Tacadena’s youth: Richard Tacadena. Harman says Brian was constantly trying to measure up to his high-rolling dad. “That’s where he learned everything. He always had to impress his dad. He was his only son. Living up to what his dad’s image of what he should be.”
Richard worked as a real estate agent in the ’70s. Later, he worked as a stonecutter in Carpinteria, saved his money and invested in property in Santa Barbara, Goleta and San Francisco. He prospered, bought a banana farm in Costa Rica and lived large for a while. Then, the early ’80s recession started to level his burgeoning empire. First American Title initiated foreclosure proceedings on the Mountain Avenue house in ’82, when Brian was 14.
His father’s erratic history apparently gave Tacadena a taste of the good life, before it went bad. “He was definitely middle-to-upper-middle class in the ’80s,” says a friend who asked to remain anonymous. The friend grew up with Tacadena and spent time with him in a jail diversion program in the ’90s. “His dad had the 1980s Mercedes Benz 600, interest in various properties as well as a lot of liquid cash.
Richard Tacadena apparently never recovered from his business failures. Instead, he began a descent into cocaine addiction that ultimately did him in. He died on Aug. 25, 2000. Kathryn Tacadena says her brother died of “alcoholism, staph and pneumonia.”
“It was tough going from having everything given to him, to living in poverty with alcohol and drugs,” says Brian’s friend. “Cocaine hit the scene and his father was dead within 20 years, and died penniless. Brian went from having brunch at the Four Seasons to food stamps.”
Brian’s friend says they were products of Santa Barbara’s widespread but hush-hush, drug-fueled underbelly. “When we were away from our parents, we were good, but we were doing blow a lot and drinking and [sexually active] by the time we 12, 13, 14 years old,” he says. “No one taught us shit…. we mimicked our parents.”
Tacadena lost touch with his friend during the ’80s drug haze, only to reconnect at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, Calif. when they were both sent there in 1991. The stint was supposed to be a diversion program for substance abusers to avoid prison. But, according to the friend, there was very little in the way of substance-abuse treatment or mental-health counseling available.
“When I was there, there were more drugs and violent offenders than you could imagine,” he says. “The real criminals had a heyday preying on the people with the drug problems. They gave you no counseling whatsoever and just warehouse you.”
While he couldn’t speak to specific programs offered at CRC back then, California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa did say that substance-abuse programs there and throughout the system have received much more attention, funding and focus in the past six or seven years.
“Rehabilitation is different than it was in the ’90s. We have all kinds of rehabilitation programs, anger management, cognitive behavior treatment,” says Sessa. “The biggest rehabilitation program is for substance abuse. Typically it is a program with counselors in the prison who take inmates step by step. The vast majority of inmates have substance-abuse issues.”
Perhaps things would have been different had Brian received such attention. Instead, court records and documents read like mile markers along the rough road that Brian traveled with local law enforcement, criminal justice and mental-health services. The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department released a statement on Brian’s booking history shortly after his death:
Brian Phillip Tacadena has an extensive booking history at the Santa Barbara County Jail dating from 1986 to 2005. Most of the charges involve being in possession of or under the influence of narcotics or alcohol. His most recent booking was in 2005 for possession of a controlled substance without a prescription. In the early nineties he was booked several times for corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant. He also was sentenced in 1996 for being a felon or addict in possession of a dangerous weapon.
A voluminous file at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse labeled The People of the State of California v. Brian Phillip Tacadena sheds even more light on a life made unmanageable by a relentless drug addiction that put Tacadena in a cycle of parole violations and subsequent incarcerations. His experience with lockup began in 1986 when he was 18. Between then and a stint in county jail that ended in October 2013, Tacadena had been in prison or jail as much as he’d been free.
During one of his many brushes with the Santa Barbara County Jail, Tacadena filed a Petition For a Writ of Habeas Corpus (Brian Tacadena v. Santa Barbara County Jail Mental Health) in March of 2003. He had been incarcerated after being arrested for an 11550 (A)—being under the influence of a controlled substance—a parole violation. In his petition, he wrote in pencil: Need my meds for triple [collaborative chronic care models].
Among the medications he requested were Ativan, lithium, Soma and Vicodin (the last two are narcotic muscle relaxants). A few pages later his handwriting is shakier as he writes, “I am on meds for my mental health – Bipolar, Anxiety, Paranoid. I need my meds. I am freaking out. They deny me, parole stipulates by law I take it.”
In another section of the same petition, Tacadena writes, “Please help me,” and scribbles a desperate prayer. “God bless, this in Jesus (sic) name, work you (sic) miracles Lord. This in Jesus (sic) name. Amen.”
The sheriff department’s then-Administrative Lieutenant of Custody Operations Diana G. Stetson wrote in response, “This is Mr. Tackadena’s (sic) 69th encounter with this facility.” She acknowledges his complaints of “anxiety and panic attacks” and his belief that he will be attacked. But she states that Tacadena admitted of his condition: “I think it is from all the speed I’ve used.” As Tacadena was due to be transferred to Wasco State Prison on the following Monday, his petition was denied, though he was prescribed 20mg per day of Prozac.
Before Brian Tacadena left town in 2005, he spent his last day in Santa Barbara in a familiar place: the Santa Barbara Courthouse. According to a Tacadena friend, police picked him up after his scheduled appearance and strongly suggested he get out of Dodge. “They said they were done with him. They said they’d kill him,” the friend remembers.
True or not, family and friends say Tacadena had been growing increasingly paranoid and believed it enough to move to San Jose, where he could connect with his half-brother, Ronald Soares.
Denise Davey befriended Tacadena while he was doing a year at San Jose County Jail for a parole violation. Davey was a friend of Soares, whose own criminal record prohibited him from visiting his half-brother. He asked Davey to go in his stead. Davey, who lives in San Jose and works as a store clerk, says she visited Tacadena twice a week starting in March 2012 until his release in October of that year.
“At that time, Brian had been locked up for seven months with no contact from anybody outside the jail,” says Davey. “No letters, no calls or visits from anybody.”
Davey insists that while Tacadena looked intimidating with his large stature and numerous tattoos, he had a generous, if fractured, spirit. “If you were able to not judge the book by its cover, he was like a scared little kid.”
She also describes picking a beat-up Tacadena from jail. According to Davey, Tacadena went off his meds in jail and became increasingly paranoid, believing guards were handing out shanks to other prisoners so they could kill him. He said he got violent and was shackled to the chair by the ankles and wrists. “He kind of wigged out,” says Davey. “He was physically strong. He broke out of the shackles.”
Tacadena told Davey he was tackled by seven or eight cops. “He had a black eye and busted lip,” says Davey.
The bright spot in Tacadena’s world, according to Davey, was an old photograph of his daughter that she printed out for him to keep in jail. She says he was focused on getting some help and reconnecting with his daughter when he was released.
“He wanted to go see his kid,” she says. “We were gonna go and it just never happened when he got out.”
Instead, Tacadena spent the next year bouncing out of a sober-living facility in San Jose. According to Davey, Tacadena got into a beef with another resident and left to avoid conflict.
Speculation among friends and acquaintances has it that around this time, Tacadena was diagnosed with any number of illnesses ranging from liver cancer to hepatitis C to HIV. The medical facility to which Tacadena was supposedly referred following his discharge from jail declined to comment, citing doctor-patient confidentiality. Though numerous sources say Tacadena suffered from bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression, or any combination thereof, Mission and State could not find a professional diagnosis.
Tacadena was soon houseless and self-medicating on the streets of San Jose.
“When he wasn’t on his meds he was highly paranoid; he thought that everybody was after him,” says Davey. “Everybody that died or was killed in his family… he felt that it was supposed to be him. Especially Frank’s father, Pancho.”
In a tragic twist, Tacadena’s uncle, Frank Sr., whose nickname was “Pancho,” was shot point-blank while sitting in his car with his wife just blocks away from where Tacadena would die. A Ventura Avenue gang member was convicted of the murder, but justice was a long time coming: The Tacadena family waited more than two years after suspects were charged for the case to go trial.
It was back into this milieu that Tacadena headed the day before Labor Day. He had convinced a friend to buy him a $64 bus ticket to Santa Maria. He’d visit with his aunt, and then he would attempt to reconnect with other family members.
Most of all, he was hoping for some sort of reconciliation with his daughter, weeks away from turning 18. Ever since she was 13, she had been living in Goleta with friends of Harman’s, who eventually became her legal guardians.
Tacadena called his daughter from the road at about 4 p.m. on that Sunday. He told her he loved her. Apparently, the conversation didn’t go as he had hoped. “He was very upset that she didn’t tell him she loved him back,” says Kathryn Tacadena.
Maybe it was that. Or maybe it was the miles rolling by and the clock turning back. It could have been a number of things real or imagined. But Brian Tacadena didn’t get off the bus in Santa Maria for that hot shower at his aunt’s house.
Instead, he stayed on the bus until it reached the Greyhound terminus adjacent to the train station on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara. Sometime between 7 and 8 p.m. that Sunday evening, he made another call to his aunt.
“Auntie Katie, come and pick me up right away,” was the message, his voice urgent. It was his last attempt to contact anyone he knew.
Kathryn missed the call. By the time she heard the voicemail, it was too late to pick up Brian. She wasn’t too worried, though; her nephew had spent more than a few nights on the streets and could fend for himself. He’d call again in the morning, she was sure.
“It didn’t work out,” she says now. “I wasn’t able to get there in time for any of this.”
By the end of Labor Day Weekend, the Santa Barbara Police Department had responded to 1,023 calls. Nothing excessive, but almost 20 more calls per day than it would get on a typical weekend.
At 11:28 p.m. on Sunday, September 1, an officer driving south on De La Vina Street, probably near the end of a 10-hour shift, possibly on the last day of a three-day work week, spotted Tacadena walking on De La Vina Street approaching the corner of Victoria Street. He reportedly had a knife in his hand.
The official statement on what happened next is as follows:
On September 1, 2013, at 2328 hours, a Santa Barbara Police Department Officer attempted to conduct a pedestrian contact of a suspect who was walking in the area of Victoria Street and De La Vina Street. The suspect was in possession of a large fixed blade knife. The suspect advanced on the Officer while brandishing the knife and failed to comply with multiple orders to stop and drop the weapon. A shooting incident involving the officer occurred. The suspect died at the scene as a result of his injuries. The Officer was uninjured. The incident is currently under investigation and no further details are being released at this time.
Sound artist G.M. Slater witnessed the shooting and has his own version of events.
The introspective fiftysomething had been hunched over a computer in his small apartment on De La Vina Street, just north of West Victoria Street, working long into the night. He was creating the next installment of “Aural Histories of the Jovian Survey” a series of album-length soundscapes.
Slater finally powered down his computer and climbed into bed at 11:20 p.m. Slater was fine-tuned to the aural ecology of his neighborhood—generally the din of foot traffic from the bars a few blocks away and the racket of rowdy party guests at houses around the corner. The crackle of a police radio from the street below was foreign enough to send Slater to the window.
Looking down on the street below, Slater remembers watching Tacadena walking south and seeing the officer’s squad car pulled to the curb on the east side of De La Vina Street in front of his building. He says the officer got out and ordered Tacadena to stop and walk back toward him. Tacadena did.
“The officer ordered him to stop and drop his weapon three or four times,” says Slater.
Tacadena continued his slow approach back toward the officer, according to Slater. When he was about 20 feet away, Slater says the officer yelled, “Drop the fucking weapon or I’ll shoot.” Slater says Tacadena responded with a quiet, disaffected, “I know you will.”
Slater counted five shots. One of them tore into Tacadena’s neck, dropping him to the sidewalk. Weapon trained on Tacadena, the officer cautiously moved closer, closing the distance until he stood over Tacadena’s body. “Don’t move!” Slater heard the officer command. Tacadena quivered and let go his final breath.
“Suicide by cop,” is Slater’s assessment.
Across the street from Slater’s apartment, 21-year-old Bruno Sosa watched the same sequence of events, but as is often the case with eyewitnesses, he saw things somewhat differently.
Sosa, works at his father’s business, Brasil Stone, on the corner of West Victoria and De La Vina streets. He had decided to spend that night at the shop with his girlfriend. Moments before the shooting, he walked outside to get some air.
Talking outside the shop on a hot afternoon a few days after the shooting, Sosa calmly recounts what he saw.
“[The police officer] told him to drop the weapon. [Tacadena] wasn’t moving. Basically, the cop was 10, 15 feet away from the victim and then [he] shot him five times,” recalls Sosa. “He was just standing on the sidewalk. The cop said, ‘Put [the weapon] down, put it down.’ The victim didn’t even walk toward the cop and the cop just shot him,” he says. “He didn’t need to go that far. Should have just tazed him.”
According to the Santa Barbara Police Department’s official manual on use of force: “An officer may use deadly force to protect himself/herself or others from what he/she reasonably believe would be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.”
Santa Barbara Police Department spokesperson Sergeant Riley Harwood elaborates.
“If an officer was presented by a threat of the non-lethal variety, then utilizing [taser, pepper spray, baton] instruments or his hands or feet would be the appropriate response,” he says. “When someone’s coming at you with a knife, we don’t train to use a taser. We don’t train to shoot people in the legs or shoot the weapon out of their hand. All of that is the stuff of television. It’s just not reasonable.”
While we know something about Tacadena and how he arrived at this fateful place, next to nothing is known about the officer involved in the shooting or the details of the encounter. Santa Barbara City Attorney Stephen Wiley will only say that the officer was “relatively experienced” with no records of discipline or public complaints “of any sort.”
The officer’s background, resume, record, where he came from, how long he’s been on the force or what sort of training he’s had remains privileged information. We don’t know if he was responding to a call or if he just happened upon Tacadena. We don’t know if or when he called for backup—only that backup arrived just a few minutes after Tacadena was already dead. We don’t have transcripts of 911 calls or the incident report.
Authorities have denied Mission and State’s numerous requests for further information, citing a legally disputed exception to the California Public Records Act that enables officials to withhold information when they believe an officer’s safety might be jeopardized by such disclosures. The district attorney and police department’s review of the shooting will almost certainly result in a justified shooting. What it won’t tell us is whether it was necessary.
Tacadena was nobody’s all-American. But, for his extensive rap sheet and frightening appearance, he had never been convicted of a violent crime. His life was a cautionary tale of bad choices, mistreated mental illness and institutional neglect. In death, he becomes a statistic of the sort that’s crowded headlines of late, most recently with the shooting and killing of a dean’s list college student in Texas by a campus policeman.
sparking an FBI investigation. Lopez was playing with a replica AK-47 when he was shot seven times. Gelhaus has returned to active duty.
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports keep statistics on “justifiable homicides” by law enforcement, defined as “the killing of a felon by a law-enforcement officer in the line of duty.” The annual figure has been holding steady at around 400. In 2010, the most recent year for statistics, it was 387, down from 414 in 2009.
These numbers, however, are subject to the buy-in and data submitted by participating municipal departments. They don’t account for officer-involved homicides occurring within non-participating agencies or those that fall into areas that are not “justifiable.”
Phillip Atiba Goff, a social psychologist at University of California Los Angeles and cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity, which recently got funding to create the nation’s first standardized police database, says the number of police shootings likely has not increased, but awareness of them has.
“It’s not that the numbers are going up, it’s that we are waking up,” says Goff. “We’re also paying attention to issues of disparity across the board and things that increase incidents of violence.”
The reason there has been no official national database tracking fatal police shootings, Goff says, falls somewhere between dysfunction and resistance. “It’s not quite sinister but not just disorganization. It’s in between.”
Goff says part of the problem with standardizing and aggregating such data is that holding police accountable for that type of information has typically been left to those whose job is to say, I don’t like the police. “If your enemy is responsible for organizing your accountability,” says Goff, “it’s natural to want to push back on that.”
In California, law enforcement shot and killed six men between August 31 and September 7. Half of these deaths occurred inside a 50-mile radius spanning Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
There were no fatal police shootings in Santa Barbara County in 2010, two in 2011 and six in 2012. Tacadena was the second so far in 2013. There were two recent non-fatal officer-involved shooting within two days of each other in Santa Barbara County—one on December 4 in Goleta and the other on December 6 in Santa Barbara.
Bright-orange, pink, yellow and green flowers in cheap glass vases, and candles with paper labels depicting Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin mark an impromptu memorial where Brian Tacadena died. A black-and-white photocopy of a photograph of Tacadena in better days is stapled to a nearby telephone pole, a rosary hanging from it. Another photocopied picture shows Tacadena with a bandana pulled across his forehead. The words “Didn’t have to die” are written in black marker above his eyes.
Nearly a month after Tacadena was killed, Kathryn Tacadena shades her eyes while she and her sister Marty Ridgell stare blankly at the memorial. They seem perplexed by the whole thing. A police patrol car passes by at a crawl, then two more in the next three minutes. Kathryn, sitting in her motorized wheelchair, takes a long, deep breath, and then sighs as she leans back on the low cement wall below G.M. Slater’s apartment.
“He liked this tough exterior,” Kathryn says. But she quickly adds that “he had a very happy spirit. He always asked how I was and ended a conversation with ‘I love you.’”
Death and dark passages are part of the Tacadena legacy, but they are not explanations. In the end, Frank, Kathryn and the surviving Tacadenas want what anybody wants when someone departs unexpectedly.
“If Brian was wrong, he was wrong,” she says. “But we still want answers.”
Erin Lennon contributed to this story.
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