Panel finds shooting of Chico man justified — (ChicoER News)

SSRI Ed note: Man on 5 antidepressants, neuroleptics stabs himself, attempts suicide, standoff with police, shot, survives. Mental illness blamed. Shooting deemed justified.

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ChicoER News

By GREG WELTER – Staff Writer

Article Launched: 04/13/2007 12:00:00 AM PDT

A 31-year-old Chico man who reportedly tried to kill himself last month, then survived a shot to the lower torso earlier this month in a confrontation with police, may finally believe he was meant to live.

According to a multiagency law enforcement team investigating the shooting, suspect Dwaine Earl Cowart lived through a textbook attempt at “suicide by cop.”

Scott Zuschin, a veteran officer — but with the Chico department less than two years — was found to be justified in using lethal force against Cowart, who was coming at him with two large knives, and ignored commands to drop them.

Cowart’s wife called 9-1-1 shortly before midnight on April 1 to tell Chico police her husband had a knife and was cutting his upper arm, in an admitted attempt to commit suicide.

In a dramatic 9-1-1 tape played Thursday by Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, Cowart’s wife told dispatcher Fred Holman her husband had tried to take his life by slicing his wrists about two weeks before, but wasn’t successful.

Police were summoned in that incident, and Cowart was referred to Butte County Behavioral Health, which held him for three days for observation.

Cowart’s wife said her husband was now cutting himself in the upper arm on the advice of his mother, whom she claimed was psychotic, and told him he hadn’t done it right the last time.

In the background of the call, Cowart could be heard saying he was trying to cut an artery.

As Zuschin raced toward the apartment house, near the corner of Eaton Road and Floral Avenue, Cowart’s wife is heard pleading with him repeatedly to drop the knife.

The woman said her husband was on a number of antidepressant and anti-psychotic drugs, and named off five of them.

In the call, she begs him to put down a second, larger knife — a butcher knife — which he apparently retrieved just before he went outside to confront the officer.

On several occasions, Cowart is heard in the background saying “They better shoot me,” and “They are going to have to shoot me. I’m going to rush them.”

At the advice of Holman, the woman stepped outside the apartment, but Cowart followed her, a knife in each hand.

Despite receiving a minor wound while trying to reason with her husband, the woman said she didn’t feel threatened.

She told Holman her husband had threatened to rush officers during his last suicide attempt, but didn’t.

As Zuschin arrived, Cowart advanced toward him, the knives raised in the air. The officer commanded Cowart, at least twice, to drop the knives and get on the ground.

Cowart moved to within 20 feet of the officer.

Fearing the worst, Cowart’s wife asked Holman “Are they going to have to shoot him if he doesn’t deliver the knives?” Holman responded with “Hopefully not.”

“Will they shoot him in the leg or something,” she then asked.

Just as the dispatcher explained “No, they have Tasers, too,” a shot rang out.

Breaking into tears, she asked “They didn’t shoot him in the chest or anything, did they?”

Holman said he didn’t know.

The shot, which struck the man in the upper groin, stopped his advance and sent him to the ground.

Zuschin, still the only officer on the scene, ran toward Cowart and kicked the knives away. In the background of the 9-1-1 call, Zuschin was heard telling the suspect, “Stay with me buddy. Stay with me.”

Several people reportedly “heard” the confrontation, but Ramsey said Cowart’s wife placed the only 9-1-1 call about the incident.

Cowart was treated for his wounds, and released from Enloe Medical Center eight days later.

Doctors decided to leave the bullet in his body, and, incredibly, noted that it hadn’t touched any bones, arteries or organs, and hadn’t event nicked a bowel.

He was booked into the Butte County Jail in Oroville, arraigned Tuesday, and is expected to enter a plea next Tuesday on charges of assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer. He is being held in lieu of $50,000 bail.

Zuschin, who wasn’t armed with a Taser stun gun, told an investigating panel he had considered backing away from the man and waiting until help arrived, but said he considered Cowart’s wife to be in immediate danger.

Zuschin was placed on paid administrative leave, but has since returned to regular patrol duty. Police Chief Bruce Hagerty said both Zuschin and Holman were highly professional in dealing with the dramatic incident. He said Zuschin hadn’t been involved in a shooting incident before.

Staff writer Greg Welter can be reached at 896-7768 or

BACKGROUND: A 31-year-old Chico man was shot by a police officer April 1, when he came at the officer with two large knives, outside the suspect’s apartment near the corner of Eaton Road and Floral Avenue.

WHAT’S NEW: The suspect survived the wound and was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. The officer was found to be justified in using lethal force.

WHAT’S NEXT: The suspect will appear in court Tuesday to enter a plea.


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‘Suicide by cop’ subject to be considered for treatment instead of prison – (ChicoER News)

 By TERRY VAU DELL/MediaNews Group

A recent hearing will begin to test the scope of a specialized court program that provides treatment instead of incarceration for some mentally ill criminals in Butte County.

A man who was shot and wounded April 1 as he allegedly tried to attack a Chico police officer with a knife, pleaded no contest on Tuesday to a felony assault charge which could carry up to five years in prison.

The case has been referred for a hearing to evaluate Dwaine Earl Cowart, 31, to determine whether he qualifies for the Mentally Ill Offender Criminal Reduction program.

Begun as a pilot project in 2001, the specialized court essentially provides intensive supervision and treatment instead of incarceration for some nonviolent criminals with serious mental problems.

The initial program ran out of funding in 2004, but was renewed by the state Legislature this year.

The Butte County Behavioral Health Department won a grant for $1 million to treat up to 80 mentally ill criminal offenders over the next 18 months, according to its assistant director of adult services, Lisa Cox.

The grant also pays for a part-time prosecutor and public defender.

So far, about 10 defendants whose crimes ranged from substance abuse to theft, have been admitted into the specialized mentally ill offender program since it started up again in May, Cox said.

If Superior Court Judge Stephen Benson determines based on doctor evaluations that Cowart has a “severe and persistent mental illness,” he could qualify for intensive counseling and be subject to periodic reviews by the local court as a condition of probation.

But because the specialized court program is only for “non-violent offenders with mental problems, who are not viewed as a danger to the public,” there is some question whether Cowart would be eligible.

Cox said she expects the judge will order separate evaluations by behavioral health, probation department and the district attorney, before ruling on Cowart’s eligibility for the court treatment services.

Among factors to be considered, said Cox, is whether the Chico man had a prior history of violence, and whether he was off his medication when he was wounded by police.

At a press conference clearing the officer of any criminal wrongdoing, District Attorney Mike Ramsey said a law enforcement task force investigating the incident determined that Cowart was attempting “suicide by cop” when he was shot once in the abdomen while advancing on Chico police officer Scott Zuschin, while holding two raised knives.

Ramsey played a tape recording for the media of a 9-1-1 call Cowart’s wife had made that day after her husband reportedly started stabbing himself in the arm with a steak knife, while saying police “are going to have to shoot me.”

Just two weeks earlier, Cowart had been placed under a 72-hour mental health hold after allegedly trying to slice his wrists, according to Ramsey.

Following his arrest, a court-appointed doctor determined that Cowart was mentally competent to stand trial on a charge of assault on a peace officer.

He was scheduled to undergo a preliminary hearing in Butte County Superior Court, when Cowart pleaded no contest to the felony charge.

His attorney, Leo Battle, asked Judge William Lamb to refer the case for possible inclusion in the mentally ill offender court program.

Both the prosecution and probation office will conduct its own background checks before submitting separate recommendations to the court in a couple of weeks regarding whether Cowart qualifies for treatment instead of incarceration.