An autopsy found Cameron Ely (right) was suffering from the early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death | Credit: Courtesy

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office has ruled the fatal 2019 shooting of Cameron Ely by four Sheriff’s deputies a justifiable homicide. Ely, the 30-year-old son of Tarzan actor Ron Ely, was unarmed when he was shot 22 times outside his family’s Hope Ranch estate, where earlier in the evening authorities say he had stabbed and killed his mother, Valerie.

A large portion of the 12-page report published Tuesday by the District Attorney’s Office focuses on the few brief moments leading up to the shooting. It states that after deputies found Valerie and were searching the property, they spotted Ely walking up the driveway toward them. They saw he had blood on him and “yelled multiple times to get down on the ground and to keep his hands up,” states the report, which based many of its findings on deputy interviews conducted internally by the Sheriff’s Office.

Ely appeared to initially comply, but then “sprang upward” and yelled “I have a gun!” while reaching for his waistband, the report continues. All four deputies opened fire, striking Ely in the torso, neck, and arms. They provided investigators with vivid descriptions of how Ely had purportedly moved, saying he was “like a runner out of the gate … lunging up and forward, but more forward than upward … like a lineman in a football game.” A search of his pockets turned up an iPhone, car key fob, small baggie of cocaine, and other items, but no gun.

“When Ely disobeyed verbal commands by deputies, sprang to his feet and moved his hands to his waistband as if grabbing a weapon while saying, “I have a gun!” shortly after killing his mother, his actions created a reasonable fear of death or great bodily injury in the minds of Deputies Gruttadaurio and Farley, Sergeant Thome, and Senior Deputy Rogers,” the report concludes. “Therefore, the shooting of Cameron Pierce Ely is a justifiable homicide.” 

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The Sheriff’s audio recording of the shooting, however, does not reflect two of the report’s key findings ― that multiple deputies loudly ordered Ely to drop to the ground, or that Ely yelled at them that he had a gun. Ely’s voice cannot be heard in the recording at all, and the only audible direction given to him comes from a single deputy who gently tells him to keep his hands up.

This discrepancy between the Sheriff’s narrative and the audio recording is a major component of a wrongful death lawsuit filed this summer by Ron Ely and his family against the Sheriff’s Office. The lawsuit claims Cameron was actually trying to surrender to the deputies when he was killed and had approached them with his hands already in the air, hence the initial order in the recording to “keep” his hands up. The lawsuit alleges the deputies opened fire without warning or justification then conspired to lie to investigators. The complaint notes none of the deputies’ body cameras were activated at the time of the shooting. 

Ely’s attorney, DeWitt M. Lacy, said it was “disappointing but not surprising” that the District Attorney’s Office is standing by what he called the deputies’ “self-serving” and “dishonest” statements. Lacy, who is based in Los Angeles and specializes in police misconduct cases, said the report wouldn’t impede the Ely family’s civil litigation. “If anything,” he explained, “it strengthens our resolve. It helps us understand that we are once again having to battle the attitude of backing the blue no matter what.”

District Attorney Joyce Dudley said technical issues were to blame for the omissions in the recording. “This has been a long time frustration for me and the other Deputy District Attorneys ― law enforcement agencies throughout our county can’t afford the recording systems our jury and community expect,” she said in an email Tuesday evening. “In this case I believe it has to do with the distance the recorders were from the vehicles. The recording was very scratchy at other times as well. It is very unfortunate the statement was not captured but their mindset of him being armed is apparent from their statements immediately after the shooting.”

Dudley said the department’s Coban recording system captures audio from a microphone on a deputy’s person and saves it to a hard drive in the deputy’s patrol car. “The microphone is most likely to pick up what the deputy says (especially if it’s said loudly) because the microphone is usually on his/her uniform or in a pocket,” she said. “As the source of sound is further away from the microphone, the Coban is less likely to pick it up. All four of the deputies said they heard Ely say clearly, ‘I have a gun,’ but all were at varying distances from Ely when he said it.” The report states the deputies had moved to within 10 feet of Ely when they opened fire.

“The quality of the recording also depends on the proximity of the deputy’s patrol car to the deputy at the time the sound is made,” Dudley continued. “So, if a deputy is right next to her car, the saved audio is better/clearer than if she is far away from her car. At the time of the shooting, the deputies were on the driveway on the east side of the house and their patrol cars were parked at various distances down the street to the west side.”

Dudley’s office’s report noted that Ely, who was 6’5”, weighed 236 pounds, and played football in high school and college, was suffering from the early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death. His two sisters told detectives his behavior had become increasingly “erratic” and “unstable” in the days leading up to October 15, 2019. Valerie Ely was stabbed seven times in the chest, back, and right forearm, an autopsy found. No motive for the killing was provided.

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