Fresno County Sheriff’s deputy Jared Mullis will stand trial for involuntary manslaughter in the death of Sgt. Rod Lucas following a ruling against him by Judge Jonathan Conklin Thursday afternoon.
Mullis showed no obvious reaction at the defense table, but defense attorney Roger Wilson said his client was upset by the ruling.
The decision follows three days of testimony at a preliminary hearing about the Oct. 31, 2016 incident at a low-profile office used by narcotics officers and others near Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
According to witnesses, Lucas, 46, and Mullis had been horsing around doing mixed martial arts moves when a gun Lucas had in his waistband fell to the ground, causing another person to comment that he had told Lucas to get a holster.
Mullis, 34, went to his desk and got a holster and a gun, removed the gun and held up the holster for Lucas to see, Sgt. John Tilley told investigators in a videotaped interview at the office that was shown in court Thursday.
What happened next is not fully clear, but the gun went off and a bullet hit Lucas in the chest. He was rushed to a hospital but died. Other officers testified they heard the gun go off but did not see what happened.
Mullis has professed his innocence.
Ruling from the bench immediately after the prosecutor and defense attorney made closing statements, Conklin said that while Lucas was not shot intentionally there is enough evidence of criminal negligence to proceed with a trial.
“He (Mullis) directed a fully loaded firearm at Mr. Lucas,” Conklin said.
Conklin rejected speculation that Lucas somehow shot himself. The coroner testified the gun was 24 to 32 inches or more away when Lucas was hit, the judge said. “To say he held it away from him and accidentally fired it, I do not find that’s a reasonable interpretation.”
After the verbal ruling, Conklin offered this aside: “You never point a loaded gun at anyone.”
It was just an accident.
Roger Wilson, defense attorney
Some testimony at the preliminary hearing left the impression that casual handling of loaded guns was routine at the office.
“We talk about guns all the time,” Deputy Isidro Ruelas said.
Deputies often show each other their undercover guns so fellow officers get a sense of their weight and feel, especially when loaded, he said.
“Any weapon should be rendered safe” by unloading it, for instance, but handing off loaded weapons to each other is common, he said.
“We’re all guilty of it,” he said.
Wilson said the evidence isn’t strong enough to warrant a trial for his client.
“The evidence suggests that he did not point that firearm at Mr. Lucas,” Wilson said. Nor is there evidence that Mullis fired the gun, he said.
The gun could not have fired when Mullis was putting the gun into its plastic holster because tests showed that holsters blew up when the Smith & Wessen M&P 45 Shield gun was put inside them and fired, he said.
It is possible that Lucas dropped the gun and it went off, he said.
“It was just an accident,” he said.
You never point a loaded gun at anyone.
Judge Jonathan Conklin, Fresno County Superior Court
Prosecutor Noelle Pebet said the evidence shows Mullis fired the gun.
“He manipulated that gun in a fashion that allowed it to fire,” she said. “There’s no physical evidence to suggest he didn’t fire the gun.” Initial reports that Lucas had touched the gun, dropped it and it went off are not true, she said.
Although he is facing trial for involuntary manslaughter, Mullis did get a break when the prosecutor asked the judge for a ruling only on the involuntary manslaughter charge. As a result, Mullis will no longer be charged with the special allegation of using a gun in a crime, which adds time to any prison sentence.
If found guilty, Mullis could be sentenced to four years in prison, the District Attorney’s Office said. As originally filed, the charges could have resulted in a 14-year sentence.
Mullis was ordered to appear for arraignment Nov. 27
The shooting rocked the Sheriff’s Office because Lucas, a father of four, was a beloved figure who mentored younger deputies.
He grew up in Tranquillity and played football at Kings River, now Reedley College, and won a gold medal in boxing at the 1997 California Police Summer Games.
Mullis is still an employee of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and is on paid leave.