Just minutes after two Gila County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived at the Beaver Valley home of Jacob Brown, the tormented military veteran suffering from the delusions, paranoia and flares of rage from post traumatic stress disorder lay dead on the ground.
The tragic confrontation in June between Brown, 35, and Deputy Cole LaBonte, 33, and Sgt. John France, 60, lay rooted in the demons that had stalked Brown for years. He emerged from a home full of his own surveillance cameras with a drawn shotgun to confront the deputies who shouted at him repeatedly to put down the weapons before firing a total of 10 shots, killing Brown on his front porch. Brown did not fire, with the safety still engaged on the shotgun.
The Roundup obtained the Department of Public Safety’s investigation of the shooting, which cleared the two officers of any wrongdoing.
Nonetheless, the report also shows the officers responded to a plea to check on the welfare of the troubled veteran with little backup or the kind of hostage or crisis negotiation team found in Payson.
Although the sheriff’s office had a prior contact with the angry, confrontational Brown, the two officers, told he was suicidal, crept up to the door with their guns drawn — leaving them little choice when the raging veteran emerged from the house with his shotgun leveled in their faces.
Surveillance cameras Brown had installed captured hours of footage before the shooting, providing a unique look inside Brown’s deteriorating mind. They also captured the fatal shooting.
Afterward, officers took their own pictures, including a gray shotgun lying at Brown’s side, the same gun that Brown hours earlier threatened family he would use to shoot himself. The problem: he couldn’t reach the trigger.
When the officers arrived to check on Brown, they walked up to the two-story rental on the banks of the Verde River and Brown charged out.
There is no way to know if Brown was trying to get away or if he wanted the officers to kill him — fulfilling his suicide wish.
Brown’s wife says her husband had been out of his mind days leading up to the shooting and she had fled the area after he got a strange look in his eyes.
She knew he was back there. Back in the war. Fighting a battle she could not see or help him overcome.
While he had left the war, it had not left him.
His struggle to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder ended tragically. It left a family without a father, stamped the start of a young deputy’s career with a tragic shooting and apparently ended the law-enforcement career of a 36-year veteran.
The following is a summary of the shooting compiled by DPS in a lengthy report.
Two days before the fatal confrontation
June 16 marked Brown’s birthday. His wife told investigators her husband had been drinking that afternoon with his cousin. The family gathered at the home to celebrate, including Brown’s infant daughter and his wife’s son from another relationship.
The couple, which had known each other for 12 years and were married in October of 2016, had lived in the rental home for three months.
Brown’s wife told the Roundup Brown hoped to start over in the quiet, rural community, to get his head straight.
She said Brown and his cousin went down to the creek near their home to celebrate, drinking heavily.
Later in the afternoon, the cousin’s girlfriend came running back to the home saying Brown was having an attack.
“At that point, I didn’t know if it was an anxiety attack, a PTSD attack or what was going on,” Brown’s wife said.
She jumped in a car. She found Brown lying on his back in a ditch, screaming and holding his bloody foot.
She tried to help her husband, but realized he was having a PTSD attack.
“He had calmed slightly when he realized I was there, but I still couldn’t really reason with him. And I was trying to get him out of the ditch (when) a thorn bush came past me and hit him in the back of the head. And it was just like a switch flipped and (he) jumped outta the ditch and looked at me and I could tell that he was not looking at me. It was as if he was looking through me almost. And so then I knew that it was a bad attack and I followed him up the hill trying to get to the car before him because I knew he was going to try to take off or something and he would hurt himself.”
Brown got into the car and drove away.
His wife meanwhile ran back to their home, gathered up her children and took off in their truck, fearful he would become violent. “He can be violent and, you know, I (had) taken the brunt of that before,” she said.
It is unclear where Brown went next, but at 7 p.m. the sheriff’s office received a call to come to Beaver Valley Estates. Deputies found a silver vehicle stuck in a ditch and Brown lying on the ground. Brown said someone had tried to hit him with a vehicle and he had jumped out of the way. Brown changed his story several times, first saying it was a white SUV then a black truck.
Brown was “very disruptive” and refused to listen to several off-duty medical personnel who had stopped to help. He refused to answer basic questions, according to deputy’s report.
Brown grew more disruptive when officers asked him what had happened. So they put him into a patrol vehicle. On the way to the jail, Brown kicked the back window of the patrol car and refused medical treatment.
His combative behavior prevented officers from taking him to the hospital for treatment of his injuries.
Waiting for Brown to calm down, officers put him in a cell. Brown urinated on the door and bed and flipped off the surveillance camera. Deputies eventually put Brown in shackles and brought him to the hospital.
While in the hospital, staff reported to Brown’s wife that her husband remained combative and incoherent. She explained he had PTSD. When she finally spoke to him on the phone, he wept and asked why he was being held when he’d done nothing. She told him he’d been arguing with officers.
Sheriff’s office issues a warning
Deputies released Brown on June 17 at 8:35 a.m.
The GCSO later put out a notice warning deputies to exercise caution in dealing with Brown due to his combative and aggressive behavior and past charges for assault. One assault involved a knife, “which in part resulted in his discharge from military service.”
Brown had joined the military after high school. Brown’s wife said the military changed him.
“I mean, he was not a violent person until he was in the war,” she said.
He was put on full disability and had visited a Veterans Affairs office in Arizona just a few days before the incident.
When she left June 16, she resolved not to return until he got help from the VA for his PTSD.
“I wasn’t divorcing him. He had gotten violent with me a few days prior” and she wanted to protect her children.
Besides his wife and children, Brown had only an aunt and uncle. He never knew his father and no longer spoke to his mother, the report states.
Desperation sets in
Back at home on June 17, Brown was alone.
Several cameras tracked his movements through the two-story, sparsely furnished home.
At nearly 2 a.m., June 18, Brown walked around the home with a large knife strapped to his hip. He talked to an unidentified female on the phone.
By 4 a.m., video footage showed Brown pacing around the home carrying a large shotgun, on which he’d scribbled profanities. He checked the west door.
A few minutes later, he moved a camera from the downstairs living room outside the home on a south wall facing the backyard. He then moved the camera on the nightstand next to his bed in the master bedroom and another camera to the second-floor landing facing the staircase.
Just before 9 a.m., the cameras picked up Brown talking to his uncle on the phone. Brown sobbed and lay down on the floor; crying “uncontrollably.”
“I’m losing my ... I want my little girl back.”
After he hung up the phone, cameras picked up Brown shouting, “Where’s my little girl at?” presumably referring to his months-old daughter.
Brown called an unknown male and says “I’m losing my (word redacted). I want my little girl back.”
Then he picked up a large bottle of alcohol and started slamming it down on the table. He told the person on the phone he knows where “she” is headed and he is going to catch up with her, “I will not stop until I get my daughter,” he said.
At 9:05 a.m., a neighbor came to Brown’s door to let him know his chickens were in the road. Brown did not answer the door.
Brown continued to have phone conversations. At one point he screamed into the phone that he would cut “her” throat and “bury her,” and that “I ain’t worried about that at all. I’ll blow a cop’s face off before I talk to a cop! Trust and believe that!”
He hung up the phone and screamed, “Bring it on!”
He looked for his shotgun and muttered that someone must have stolen his gun.
At 9:26 a.m., Brown’s uncle called police to report his nephew was suicidal and would have shot himself if he could have reached the trigger with the barrel pressed against his head. Brown’s uncle warned dispatchers his nephew had PTSD.
Around 9:30 a.m., cameras picked up Brown walking upstairs with the shotgun.
Several other neighbors spotted Brown’s chickens in the road around this time. One male neighbor later reported that he got out of his vehicle to look for the owner and knocked on the front door, finding the screen security door ajar and all of the lights on in the home. No one answered.
Inside, at 9:35 a.m., cameras showed Brown holding the shotgun under his chin. He then started to walk around again, his behavior growing more erratic.
Later, investigators would find evidence on Brown’s computer that he feared the government was watching him.
Deputies respond to call for a ‘welfare check’
On June 18, LaBonte, an officer with three years of experience, came on duty at 6 a.m. after working a 10-hour shift the day prior.
LaBonte joined the GCSO after putting himself through the law enforcement academy. While he had gone through basic training, he did not have any special training, including how to deal with people with mental illness.
He carried his department issued handgun and a body camera that he had purchased to record DUI stops. He was wearing the camera on this morning, but did not have it on.
LaBonte worked alone until 8 a.m. when Sgt. France checked in along with another deputy.
France was not LaBonte’s normal sergeant and the two had never worked together before. France had transferred from the Globe district to Payson just two months prior.
France joined the GCSO in 2004 after retiring from the Pinetop-Lakeside Police Department.
While in Pinetop, he trained as a hostage negotiator and a police sniper. Later, when he worked with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, he became a member of the SWAT team. At the GCSO, he was one of the weapons instructors.
France had been involved in a previous deadly force incident.
In August 2012, France participated in a chase near Roosevelt Lake where he fired on a murder suspect. He reportedly used spike strips to disarm the suspect’s vehicle. France then fired upward of 25 rounds at the man’s vehicle. No one was killed.
On June 18, France was starting his third day of overtime.
Days earlier, France told officers to create a safety bulletin about Brown due to Brown’s erratic behavior on the previous call.
“I was concerned for the safety of any officer that had to deal with him,” France told investigators.
‘This guy’s not cop friendly, we don’t wanna alert him
that we’re on our way’
At 9:25 a.m., dispatch notified the officers of a suicidal man in Beaver Valley. France immediately recognized Brown’s address. LaBonte, however, told investigators he did not recognize the address.
Both men jumped into their patrol vehicles and headed to the scene, turning down Houston Mesa Road.
“I got a couple miles further and then Sgt. France said, “Hey, turn off your siren. This guy’s not cop friendly, we don’t wanna alert him that we’re on our way,” LaBonte told investigators. “So that kind of gave me a little bit of an inclination he kind of knew who we were dealing with.”
When dispatch reported the man had PTSD, LaBonte said that didn’t mean “a whole lot to me.”
Because France’s mapping program was not working in his patrol vehicle, LaBonte took the lead.
They parked a few houses down and walked up together, listening and checking out the environment before going to the home and possibly confronting Brown.
Undersheriff Mike Johnson told the Roundup officers normally assess the scene before contacting homeowners, giving them a potential tactical advantage. “You don’t know exactly what you are walking into,” he said.
Asked why the GCSO did not send more officers when it initially got the call, Johnson said it is lucky they had two officers to send at all.
The GCSO has 51 deputies to cover over 5,500 miles. The GCSO does not have a SWAT team and relies on the Payson Police Department and Department of Public Safety for special response teams.
The men briefly conferred on how to approach the home.
“I’ve never worked with (France). I don’t know how he operates, but I know what I had planned to do and since it was pretty much part my call, ah, I was gonna do what I would typically do on a call like that, which I’ll, we’ll get to, I guess,” LaBonte said.
France said they went over what they were carrying. France said he went with “long lethal” and LaBonte said he had his pistol and Taser.
“We had no idea where he was, other than at the residence,” France said.
As the men walked up to the home, they could hear a man yelling angrily, but could not make out what he was saying.
They walked around the home and found a security door ajar. France moved to the southwest corner of the home while LaBonte stayed on the northwest corner.
Inside, security cameras show Brown running from the master bedroom onto the second-floor landing and saying “All right mother (word redacted).”
Brown picked up extra shotgun shells from a table near a computer. He put on his sandals and placed an envelope containing important personal documents in a backpack before running down the stairs, shotgun in hand.
‘He’s coming. He’s got a gun!’
France spotted Brown walking down the stairs through a bay window and told LaBonte, “He’s coming,” and then, “He’s got a gun!”
LaBonte heard the door open and Brown emerged, turning to face France.
LaBonte shouted, “Show me your hands!”
Instead, Brown raised the shotgun, pointing it at France.
Both deputies yelled, “Drop the gun!”
“He comes out the door and immediately starts coming towards me. At that point, I didn’t feel, I couldn’t shoot, cause (Cole’s) right by him,” France says.
France backed away. Brown continued to advance.
Brown can be heard yelling, “Stop, stop!”
France yelled, “You stop!”
Brown yelled back, “You stop!” pointing the gun at France’s face.
France wondered if his bulletproof vest would stop a blast from a 12-gauge.
“Scared to death he’s gonna take my head off my shoulders. I screamed one last time, ‘Drop the gun,’ as I come up (to his) center mass,” France said.
Brown’s eyes were huge during the encounter, which lasted just seconds, said France. “I likened it later to the cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil in full rage,” he said.
LaBonte and France both shot five times and Brown fell to the ground.
LaBonte kicked the shotgun away, but both officer realized Brown was dead.
When questioned later, LaBonte said he did not consider using non-lethal force because he believed they were in a deadly encounter.
France said he believed Brown was going to kill him.
“I had no choice but to fire. I didn’t want to fire. I wanted him to drop the damn gun. But I wanted to go home, too,” France said.
LaBonte said he would not have fired if Brown had dropped his shotgun.
Brown did not fire.
An autopsy later found Brown’s blood had traces of the anti-anxiety medication Ativan, marijuana and a blood alcohol content of .246.
The Gila County Attorney’s Office concluded LaBonte and France had acted with undue restraint and were “unequivocally justified in using deadly force against Jacob Brown on June 18, 2017.”
Both men went on paid administrative leave during the investigation. LaBonte has since returned to duty while France remains on medical leave.
Undersheriff Johnson said they would eventually use the incident and video as a training tool as they rarely have video of an incident, especially from inside a home.
While the flashbacks have finally ended for Brown, the deputies will likely battle their own PTSD for years. While the shooting is over, the memory of Brown pointing a gun in France’s face will never leave their memory.
Next in the series: After reading about the shooting, two Vietnam veterans, Jim Muhr and Bud Huffman, have offered to speak with GCSO supervisors about dealing with veterans, especially those with PTSD. Read more about their efforts to help veterans and officers in an upcoming story.
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