Sagon Penn

Sagon Penn committed suicide with an
overdose of alcohol and Benadryl in his mother's
Spring Valley apartment July 4, 2002. He was 40.

Following his acquittal of the murder and manslaughter
charges after he shot and killed one San Diego police
officer and wounding a second, Penn lived a troubled
life. He arrested several times in the 1990s on charges
such as fighting and domestic violence. Because of his
high-profile trial, each arrest resurrected the incendiary
story that divided the city between those who thought
a cop killer went free and those who believed he stood
up to racist police department that regularly targeted
San Diego's minority communities.

(Buy it here)

The case of Sagon Penn could be best described as
Rodney King turned inside out.

On March 31, 1985, Penn, then 23, was driving a pickup
truck with his brother and some passengers riding in the
truck bed along 65th Street in Encanto. As he passed two
policemen in separate cars, Officer Donovan Jacobs flipped
a U-turn while radioing the other officer, Tom Riggs saying,
"I'm going to stop that truckload of Crips."

The two officers pulled Penn over, and Jacobs approached
the driver's side as Riggs stood near the passenger door.

"What's up, blood?" Jacobs said before asking Penn for his
license. Penn handed him his entire wallet. Jacobs then
demanded he take his license out of the wallet. Penn handed
it back, asking what the problem was. A struggle ensued with
Jacob grabbing Penn, who tried to back away, and the two
began to struggle. Jacobs began hitting Penn with his baton,
but Penn was able to block most of the blows with his arms.
Riggs joined in the struggle, hitting and kicking Penn while
trying to keep the crowd from closing in. Jacobs ended up on
Penn's chest, hitting him with closed fists while Riggs kicked
and hit him with his baton.

Somehow Penn was able to grab Jacob's .38, firing a shot into
his neck. The gathering crowd scattered thinking the officer
had killed Penn.

In a taped 9-1-1 call, Penn's brother could be heard screaming,
"They're shootin' my brother!"

The second shot ripped through the sole of one of Riggs' boots.
The third his thigh and the fourth hit him in the abdomen,
severing his abdominal aorta.

Penn jumped up and fired two more shots into Riggs' patrol car,
wounding Sarah Pina-Ruiz, a civilian participating in a police
ride-along. (It would come out later that Pina-Ruiz was a "police
groupie," with hints of her having an affair with Riggs. Both
were married at the time.)

Penn jumped in Riggs' patrol car to escape as police sirens began
screaming through the Encanto neighborhood, running over
Riggs' body in his escape.

Thirty minutes later after the shooting, Penn surrendered. One
cop was dead, another wounded. The case instantly polarized
San Diego: Was he a vicious cop killer or a victim of racist police

Before the upcoming trial, the police played hardball. A mini
martial law was set up in the neighborhood where the shooting
occurred. Notes were destroyed from witness interviews,
paraphrasing quotes that supposedly were never said. Evidence
about Jacobs' attitude toward minorities was withheld until it
was too late to present it to the jury, which included a transcript
from his 1979 police academy training, documenting a counseling
session after a class titled "Protecting Rights and Dignity," where
it was reported that Jacobs felt it okay to use "professional
profanity" and derogatory slurs toward minorities.

An academic supervisor warned Jacobs "Unless you show some
considerable change or at least some more consideration for others
and can change your behavior...we don't want you because you
are going to do nothing but create problems for yourself, for the
public and for the department."

During his first trial, the jury acquitted Penn of the murder and
voluntary manslaughter of Riggs and the assaults on Jacobs and
Pina-Ruiz. The district attorney had other plans and filed different
charges against him.

On June 10, 1987, a jury found Sagon Penn not guilty again.
After a month of deliberations, Penn was found not guilty of the
attempted voluntary manslaughter for the shooting of Jacobs,
but deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal of involuntary
manslaughter in the death of Riggs.

District Attorney Ed Miller, who lost his job several years later
trying to convict Dale Akiki on charges of Satanic ritual abuse at
a Lemon Grove church (see GD #14), dropped the rest of the
charges, making Penn a free man.

The case didn't appear with the not guilty verdict. Judge J. Morgan
Lester blasted the police department, saying it was obvious excessive
force was used and officers lied on the stand, along with tampered
with evidence. Supporters of Penn also claimed that police were
harassing them.

Michael Riggs, brother of slain officer Tom Riggs, spoke out, blaming
his brother's death of Jacobs. The Riggs family supported Penn's
prosecution in both trials, but Michael was angry that, in his opinion,
Jacobs created the situation where his brother was killed and then
used him as a scapegoat since Jacob first claimed Riggs started the
fight when the opposite was true.

After the trial, Penn changed his name, but officers still knew who
they were dealing with his later run-ins with the law.

Back to Story Updates

Back to Online Extras