A coroner’s jury ruled Monday that the death of a 22-year-old Walnut Creek hairdresser, fatally shot in a brief confrontation with four police officers in late December, was an accident. But many present, including the officers involved, have questions about that night that may never be answered.
The ruling came after the Walnut Creek officers publicly explained, for the first time, how they saw Anthony Banta, Jr. as agitated, “wild-eyed“ and even asking to be shot after they found him, armed with a knife, in his Creekside Drive apartment in the early morning hours of December 27.
The 11-member jury also heard evidence that Banta was shot six times by police, once in the left eye, and that he had in his system a small amount of THC, the main, mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.
The officers, a pathologist and investigators with the Contra Costa district attorney’s office were testifying as part of a Contra Costa County coroner’s inquest, which was held to determine the “manner” of Banta’s death. That is, whether it was the result of an accident, suicide, natural causes or at the “hands of another.”
Monday’s inquiry was not about determining whether anyone was civilly or criminally liable for Banta’s death. The District Attorney’s office has already decided to not file charges against the officers, saying they acted in self-defense, said Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove.
But Banta’s family questions whether his death was necessary or justified. Describing Banta as non-violent, polite and hardworking, the family has filed a federal lawsuit, which alleges that officers panicked during their encounter with him. They also said Banta had no previous history of mental illness or of the kind of psychotic behavior described by police or his roommates just prior to the fatal shooting.
Even for police and other authorities, the source of Banta’s reported behavior that night is perplexing. The shooting occurred after the girlfriend of Banta’s roommate and longtime friend called police shortly after 3 a.m. to say that Banta had suddenly come into their bedroom and started choking her boyfriend. “I think maybe he’s sleepwalking,” the woman could be heard saying on a 911 tape played for the jurors.
In the course of other calls between the girlfriend and dispatchers, officers said they learned that Banta was armed with a knife and that he was trying to break down a bedroom door, behind which the roommate and the girlfriend had barricaded themselves.
When the officers pulled up to Creekside Drive, they described hearing a woman screaming from an apartment at the back of the complex. Sgt. Michael Sugrue described the screams as “blood-curdling” and appeared unsettled by the memory.
When he and other officers entered the apartment, they found Banta at the top of a staircase, and all said he was sweating profusely, his eyes wide as he paced, a large knife with a 10-inch blue metal blade in his hand.
“He was looking through me,” said Officer Holly Connors. “It was just straight right through you as if he wasn’t recognizing what the situation was.”
The officers said they repeatedly identified themselves as police, and both Sugrue and Connors said they repeatedly told Banta to drop the knife. Connors remembers telling Banta, “I don’t want to shoot you.” His response, she said, was to yell back “Just shoot me.”
Some of the officers said Banta leapt down the stairs, others said he charged down the stairs, but all agreed he had the knife raised and poised to strike. “In my combined years in the military and being a police officer, I’ve never seen a person look like this,” Sugrue said. “I have to tell you, and say as a grown man, I was scared for my life.”
The officers opened fire a first time, either while Banta was at the top of the stairs or charging down. Then after Banta reached the bottom, crouching, he started to rise up, and the officers fired again.
It wasn’t clear how many total times officers discharged their weapons. Connors said she had to open fire with her Glock 22 in an attempt to stop Banta.
“He would have injured or killed me or my fellow officers,” she said.
During the volley, one of the bullets snapped the blade of the knife. The handle was found clutched in Banta’s right hand, according to Senior Inspector John Conaty of the District Attorney’s office.
After Banta was shot, Connors said she ran up the stairs and found Banta’s roommate and the roommate’s girlfriend in the bedroom. They later told investigators that Banta had returned home the previous evening at about 6 p.m. after visiting his family in Yuba City for the Christmas holidays.
Banta’s roommate said Banta made everyone dinner, and they all exchanged Christmas presents, then watched a movie. The roommate’s girlfriend said Banta went out at about 9 p.m. for a short walk. She said she and her boyfriend were upstairs in their room at about 10 p.m. She went to sleep while her boyfriend stayed up and played video games.
Then about 3 a.m., the girlfriend said, Banta suddenly appeared in their bedroom, looking “like a zombie.” After Banta tried to choke the roommate, the roommate was able to fight Banta off and get him outside the apartment and lock the front door. Banta re-entered the apartment by crashing through a 6-foot-high window in the downstairs kitchen. The roommate and his girlfriend tried to barricade themselves in their bedroom. While the two were hiding in the closet, they heard police enter the apartment downstairs.
The roommate later told investigators that Banta, with whom he had grown up in Yuba City, was “not violent” and that he had never seen him have any kind of breakdown. The roommate also said there was “moderate marijuana usage” in the apartment.
Forensic pathologist Andy Josselson agreed that investigators found no indication that Banta had previous psychotic episodes. Extensive toxicology tests showed that Banta had low levels of alcohol and marijuana in his system. The 0.013 blood-alcohol level was not enough to cause any change in behavior, and it was difficult from tests to determine when Banta had ingested marijuana—anywhere from within five hours of death to 30 days.
Josselson, who testified Banta suffered two fatal gunshot wounds, offered three possible explanations for Banta’s behavior that morning: He took a designer drug that isn’t detectable on even the most sophisticated toxicology tests, he had an undiagnosed mental illness, or he suffered from a form of marijuana-produced psychosis that has been noted in medical literature over the past decade.
Larry Peluso, the Banta family attorney, agreed that questions remain. The jury’s instruction gave them leeway to rule the death an accident, with a definition that says an accident also involves the “unintended or unexpected results of human conduct.”
Peluso added that he was struck “not by the evidence presented” at Monday’s hearing, but “by the evidence not presented.” He said the family plans to proceed with their lawsuit.