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Air Force Sgt. Steven Carrillo who killed cop suffered from traumatic brain injury, defense lawyer says

Steven Carrillo, the suspect in the June 6, 2020 killing of Northern California sheriff's deputy Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller. (Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office/TNS)

Air Force Sgt. Steven Carrillo suffered from a traumatic brain injury and “extreme personal family loss,” his lawyer said Friday in an early indication of a possible defense for the man charged with killing a deputy and seriously injuring another in a shocking ambush that shook the Santa Cruz mountains community last weekend.

The revelation came outside the Santa Cruz County courthouse after Carrillo’s first court appearance by video to face 19 felonies connected to Saturday’s rampage. The 32-year-old Ben Lomond man was in jail in Monterey County — instead of Santa Cruz — for his protection.

“I’m simply pointing out there are more colors to Mr. Carrillo and what his possible motivation and what his involvement is beyond what you might hear and see from the complaint,” Jeffrey Stotter, a private lawyer, told reporters. Although Carrillo is not admitting responsibility, “he’s very sorry for what has happened,”

Any apologies rang hollow to Santa Cruz sheriff’s officials and the family of Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, who left behind a young child and pregnant wife.

Stotter refused to say more about the brain injury other than it wasn’t connected to Carrillo’s military service.

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The attack on law enforcement came with the country on edge after weeks of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Carrillo also has been identified in connection with the fatal shooting late last month of a federal security officer in Oakland, a source close to the investigation told the Bay Area News Group on Thursday. But neither Stotter nor Santa Cruz County District Attorney Jeff Rosell would comment on the May 29 death of Dave Patrick Underwood, who was gunned down blocks from a protest. Both the Oakland and Santa Cruz cases involved a white van.

Rosell added more intrigue to the case when he told reporters Friday that there were actually two white vans connected to Saturday’s ambush. Although he wasn’t completely clear, Rosell explained that someone called police about a suspicious van parked in nearby Boulder Creek that appeared to contain explosives and firearms. The license plate number led deputies to the home of Carrillo in nearby Ben Lomond, who arrived in a second white van as deputies were investigating.

The shootout followed. Sgt. Gutzwiller was killed. Deputy Alex Spencer was seriously wounded.

“The initial ambush of the officers was just that, an ambush,” Rosell said. “This individual then waited, other officers arrived at the scene, ambushed them by shooting at them and literally came up behind their car and ambushed them and tried to murder both of those guys.”

Carrillo went on to steal one vehicle and attempt to steal others before being apprehended, authorities say.

During the news conference outside the courthouse, about a dozen armed deputies in bulletproof vests stood guard. Rosell explained that the extra security came because “we are still in the process of investigating this individual, his background and connections to any groups. We’re talking about literally the murder and attempted murder of many people — and those are the reasons.”

Although Rosell wouldn’t identify any specific groups, Carrillo had shared memes on his Facebook page before it was shut down of an extreme-right, citizen militia-style, anti-government group called “Boogaloo.”

Carrillo, who had been on active duty at Travis Air Force Base, appeared by video Thursday in a red-and white-striped jail shirt, shifting nervously in front of a cinder-block wall.

He grew up in Ben Lomond and lived with his father off a mountain road where the ambush took place Saturday afternoon. Carrillo’s wife killed herself two years ago. Their two school-age children live with his late wife’s mother.

Carrillo, who is facing a possible death sentence for the killing of Sgt. Gutzwiller, did not enter a plea on Friday. His next court date is scheduled for July 17.

Carrillo is also charged with five counts of attempted murder involving four deputies and an unnamed citizen who pinned Carrillo to the ground, wrestling away a firearm and explosive. Spencer, whose bullet proof vest saved him from a shot to the chest, is still recovering from serious wounds caused by explosive shrapnel and injuries from being hit by the stolen getaway car, according to an indictment filed Thursday. Carrillo also faces explosives and carjacking charges.

Authorities declined to discuss any motives for Carrillo’s alleged violent crimes. But his social media posts and interviews with a former friend from the Air Force suggest Carrillo appeared increasingly upset about law enforcement actions lately, including the use of force on protesters.

“Everything he would say or post was all about limiting government overreach,” said Justin Ehrhardt, who served with Carrillo in the Air Force when they were stationed together in Utah in 2013. “He wanted to abolish the ATF, he wanted the government out of a lot of our decision-making process.”

Another friend, Victor Martinez, who hasn’t seen Carrillo in about five years, described himself as “extremely shocked.” They met when they were both selling cell phones when they were 16 and remembers Carrillo had at one time enrolled in a $40,000 real estate class to learn how to flip houses. “I never in my right mind would ever imagine he would do something like this.”

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© 2020 the San Jose Mercury News