A year ago, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims called the fatal shooting of Sgt. Rod Lucas by a deputy a tragic accident.
But in a Fresno courtroom Tuesday, two homicide detectives described a different scenario that led to the killing of Lucas inside a sheriff’s office in October 2016.
Detective Donna Davis said two witnesses – retired sheriff Sgt. John Tilley and Detective Carl McSwain – told her Deputy Jared Mullis and Lucas were engaging in horseplay minutes before Lucas was fatally shot.
She also said Tilley and McSwain believe Mullis fired the fatal shot, but Mullis has denied shooting Lucas. Mullis contends Lucas accidentally shot himself with Mullis’ gun, Detective Adam Maldonado testified.
Superior Court judge will have to determine, perhaps Wednesday, whether Mullis should stand trial on a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the killing of Lucas.
I did not shoot Rod.
Sheriff deputy Jared Mullis
If convicted, Mullis, 34, faces up to 14 years in prison. Mullis has pleaded not guilty to the charge and has publicly told others: “I did not kill Rod.”
The shooting of 46-year-old Lucas, the married father of four children, was an emotional blow to the sheriff’s office because he was a beloved figure who mentored younger deputies.
Lucas grew up in Tranquillity in western Fresno County, played football at Kings River (now Reedley) College, and won a gold medal in boxing at the 1997 California Police Summer Games in Fresno.
As a member at Riverdale Assembly of God Church, Lucas spoke at chapel services for the church's K-12 school and volunteered with outreach programs in the community's poorer neighborhoods.
Mullis also is an upstanding citizen, said his lawyer, Roger Wilson. Mullis worked for the sheriff's office for 10 years without a blemish on his record, and Lucas and Mullis were good friends, Wilson said.
On Wednesday, about two dozen family and friends of Lucas and Mullis sat on opposite sides of the courtroom.
Acting like MMA fighters
Davis testified Tilley and McSwain told her that on the day of the shooting, Mullis and Lucas pretended to be mixed martial arts fighters, throwing fake punches and kicks. When Lucas did a roundhouse kick, his gun fell out of his holster and onto the ground, according to Tilley’s account.
While Lucas picked up his gun and put it back in his holster, Mullis retrieved his gun – a semi-automatic pistol – out of a drawer in his desk, Davis testified. Mullis then showed the weapon to Lucas, while complaining about how sheriff’s deputies are forced to pay high prices for cheap holsters like the one Lucas wore. Mullis told Lucas the holster he bought for his gun was much cheaper on the internet, Davis testified.
According to Davis, Tilley told her he stood pretty close to Mullis and Lucas, who were less than six feet apart. Tilley recalled Mullis taking the gun out of the holster, then putting it back in, Davis testified.
Tilley said he did not see the gun discharge but heard what sounded like a muffled gunshot, Davis said. Tilley said he looked at the ceiling, then heard Lucas moan and clutch his chest before falling slowly to the ground, Davis testified.
McSwain was sitting at his desk, writing a report. He gave a slightly different account because he was focused on his computer, Davis said.
According to Davis, McSwain said Mullis was sitting at his desk while Lucas stood nearby. McSwain didn’t see the gun discharge, but he recalled Mullis taking the gun out of the holster and putting it back in. McSwain said he heard a shot, but thought it was someone slapping a table, Davis testified.
Then he heard Lucas moan, grab his chest and fall to the floor, Davis said.
If convicted, deputy Jared Mullis, 34, faces up to 14 years in prison.
Mullis has denied shooting Lucas, Davis and Maldonado told Judge Jonathan Conklin.
Hours after the shooting, union president Eric Schmidt introduced Mullis to a clinical psychologist, Maldonado testified. After meeting with the psychologist, Schmidt described Mullis as “running hot,” Maldonado said, because some colleagues had blamed him for killing Lucas.
“I did not shoot Rod,” Mullis told Schmidt, according to Maldonado. Mullis then told Schmidt that he handed his gun to Lucas, and when Mullis turned around, the gun discharged, Maldonado testified.
Mullis later professed his innocence at a gathering at the Fresno County Deputy Sheriff’s Association building in downtown Fresno, Maldonado said.
Sheriff: Accidental shooting
After the shooting, Mims in a news release never mentioned Lucas and Mullis horseplaying, but said Lucas and a colleague, described then only as a detective, were discussing the safety of backup weapons when the detective’s gun – a Smith & Wesson M&P 45 Shield – accidentally went off. The 20-year veteran died later at Community Regional Medical Center.
“So far, we have absolutely no reason to believe this was nothing more than a tragic accidental shooting,” the sheriff said at the time.
Mullis was charged with the felony nine months after the shooting.
On Wednesday, prosecutor Noelle Pebet plans to call sheriff’s crime-scene technicians who gathered evidence, and California Department of Justice specialist who analyzed the evidence.
Sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said on Tuesday that the sheriff “does not wish to comment any further due to this case now being in the judicial phase. However, she does still stand by the comment she made in our original press release.”
Botti also said: “Deputy Mullis is still an employee of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and is currently on paid leave.”