Four East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputies who fatally shot 48-year-old Travis Stevenson in his car during a February confrontation in Old South Baton Rouge were justified in opening fire and acted in self-defense, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III announced Thursday.
Stevenson was struck seven times in the head, neck and shoulders after repeatedly reversing his Cadillac sedan into a Sheriff's Office SUV, which had blocked him in at a gravel parking spot off Scott Street just before 10 p.m. on Feb. 23.
“The actions of the sheriff’s deputies were warranted and justified,” Moore said of the decision of four of the six deputies present to open fire. The deputies fired more than 20 rounds during the incident, including several aimed at Stevenson's rear tires in an unsuccessful bid to disable the car.
Moore, announcing the conclusion of his review of a Louisiana State Police investigation into the killing, said Stevenson appeared to have been suffering from mental illness and that an autopsy found he was drunk and under the influence of cocaine and marijuana at the time of his death.
Stevenson threatened to kill himself several times during his frantic final hours, according to the State Police report released Thursday.
The string of events leading to Stevenson's death began around 8:30 p.m., when he allegedly burst into his girlfriend's apartment in the Gardere area, attacking her and her daughter with pepper spray and smashing an empty beer bottle into the wall before fleeing. Deputies responding to the woman's apartment spoke briefly by phone with Stevenson, who said he planned to jump off the Mississippi River bridge because he didn't want to go back to jail.
Those threats set off a search of several bridges for any sign of Stevenson.
Four of the six East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies present at the Feb. 23 fatal conf…
According to the State Police report, Lt. Michael Birdwell managed to locate Stevenson parked in a gravel parking lot next to a small apartment building at the corner of Terrace Avenue and Scott Street after a detective obtained GPS coordinates of Stevenson's phone from his cellular carrier.
Stevenson sent a text message at 9:50 p.m. to his girlfriend saying he planned to kill himself, the report says. Screenshots of the text message and other evidence in the case were included in the report.
Moments after Stevenson sent that text message, Birdwell spotted Stevenson's Cadillac.
Birdwell used his Sheriff's Office SUV to block Stevenson's Cadillac in the parking spot and then ordered him out of the vehicle, Moore said. After Stevenson refused, Birdwell used the butt of a knife to smash the driver's window and unsuccessfully tried to pull Stevenson out of the car.
Stevenson then threw his car into reverse, smashing into Birdwell's vehicle before driving forward into a metal pole situated between the parking spot and the apartment building, Moore said.
Stevenson rammed his car back and forth at least four times, Moore said, leaving large dents on both vehicles and driving Birdwell's 6,700-pound vehicle back some 4 to 5 feet.
Other deputies arriving shortly after Birdwell told State Police investigators they quickly realized the deputy was in a potentially dangerous situation: A Mercedes SUV parked next to Stevenson's car and the wall of the apartment building left little room for the lieutenant to escape, according to Moore and the State Police report. Birdwell later told investigators he'd successfully pulled suspects from vehicles in similar circumstances and was unaware of the dangerous situation he'd apparently placed himself in.
Detective Shannon Broussard, who fired at least two rounds into Stevenson's rear tires in an attempt to disable the car, told investigators Birdwell was "in a bad spot" and that, after Stevenson rammed into the Sheriff's Office SUV one final time, the Cadillac appeared to be pointed directly at Birdwell.
Even though the rear tires deflated, Stevenson was still able to operate the Cadillac, which had front-wheel drive, Moore said.
Detective Scott Henning shouted for Stevenson to get out of the car, to which Stevenson repeatedly responded by saying, "Kill me," according to the report.
The State Police report says it appeared Stevenson was preparing to shift back into drive when four of the deputies — Broussard, Henning, Detective Charles Montgomery and Sgt. Verner Budd III — opened fire. Neither Birdwell nor Detective Christopher Masters fired their weapons during the encounter.
"None of the deputies involved expected this situation to escalate as quickly as it did," Moore said.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office has released the identifies of the six deputies…
No parts of the fatal confrontation were captured on video, Moore said. East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputies don't wear body cameras and, though Birdwell's marked unit was equipped with a dashboard camera, it didn't record the encounter because Birdwell never triggered the system by switching on his emergency lights.
Investigators had hoped to find security camera footage or cell phone video of the shooting, Moore said, but after canvassing the area they were unable to locate any.
Deputies found one can of pepper spray on the passenger seat of Stevenson's car, Moore said, and a second, smaller can on Stevenson's key chain. No firearms or other weapons were found in the car or on Stevenson, though Moore was quick to emphasize he believes Stevenson was using his car as a potentially deadly weapon.
Moore said Stevenson had a "hard life" and suggested that mental illness likely played a role in the events leading up to his death. Moore said Stevenson’s mother was killed in 1973 just blocks from the location of the shooting, when Stevenson was 6 years old, and that Stevenson's father — with whom he was particularly close — recently died after a protracted illness.
That death appeared to exacerbate what family members described as a years-long battle with depression, Moore said. An EMS report released Thursday also indicates Stevenson had a prior history of bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.
Paramedics treated Stevenson for psychiatric problems in May 2015 after he reported feeling suicidal, according to another of the EMS reports.
Stevenson served two years in prison after stabbing his then-girlfriend with a kitchen knife before turning the blade on himself. According to court records, the victim of the attack — a different woman than the one attacked with pepper spray — told police Stevenson said he was going to kill her, then himself "because he thought she didn’t want him anymore."
But an attorney for Stevenson's family, Michael Bell, told the Associated Press on Thursday that Stevenson's family doesn't believe his mental history was a "real issue" in the case.
Bell said the family is disappointed the officers won't face criminal charges in the shooting and added that the family will likely file a wrongful death lawsuit. Attempts by The Advocate to reach Bell on Thursday afternoon were not successful.
"We believe it was excessive, the number of shots, the number of participants," Bell told the AP.
An internal investigation of the shooting by a Sheriff's Office shooting review board will begin now that the State Police and District Attorney's Office have closed their investigations, said Casey Rayborn Hicks, a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.
All six deputies involved in the incident were placed on paid administrative leave immediately after the shooting, Hicks said, which is standard practice for the department.
Birdwell and Masters, the two deputies who didn't fire their weapons, returned to duty three days later, Hicks said. The other four deputies returned to work on March 11 after the State Police released their preliminary findings, she said.
Moore said he discussed the investigation and his decision to clear the officers with a number of Stevenson's relatives Thursday, prior to the public release of the report and the District Attorney's Office's findings.
Shortly after the shooting, East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux turned the investigation over to State Police because Sheriff's Office homicide detectives — who at the time were normally tasked with investigating shootings involving deputies — were among the deputies who opened fire on Stevenson during the confrontation.
The Sheriff's Office has since signed an agreement with State Police automatically turning over investigations of all fatal shootings involving deputies to the state agency.
Moore said Thursday the Baton Rouge Police Department, which has temporarily agreed to turn over the investigation of police shootings to State Police in the wake of protests over the July 5 shooting death of Alton Sterling, are in the process of reaching a permanent arrangement with State Police to handle all future officer-involved fatal shootings.