Drawn just 16 years after his birth certificate, misspells his first name. Logged just 16 years after the government officially noted his arrival, this document drily details his departure at the hands of public servants.
In 16 years, Jeremiah had grown to be 5 feet 9 inches tall, and to weigh 127 pounds. He had reached adulthood’s first rung and secured a driver’s license. He had no mustache yet, had started no beard. His person contained no disease, harbored not one single sign of ill health; he was a perfect physical example of a young man on the cusp.
The autopsy is just an ordinary-looking document, one signed and stamped and initialed. But it tells its own story of March 12, 2007, the day Jeremiah died.
When Jeremiah Williams Chass was shot to death in the driveway of his family’s Sebastopol home by Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies, he was wearing a blue sweatshirt, a brown T-shirt, blue jeans, brown plaid boxer shorts and white socks. After he endured 11 gunshot wounds, had been pepper-sprayed and repeatedly beaten about the face and legs and buttocks, the clothing his family had provided for him was removed. Jeremiah Williams Chass was transported nude to the Sonoma County Morgue with an emergency breathing apparatus still lodged in his throat, heart pads still attached to his chest and a single white handcuff still dangling from his left wrist.
In a tragedy widely reported in these pages and in other media, Jeremiah suffered an episode of mental decompensation on Monday, March 12, 2007. The autopsy states that he had been acting strangely the day before and that his parents, Yvette and Mark Chass, had determined to take him to the hospital for evaluation. They got him up around 6am Monday morning and tried to jolly him into the car. He balked. The Chass’ did something so reasonable, so smartly old-fashioned, that one gasps to consider it.
They called the fire department. Surely a ruddy-faced, good-natured firefighter could help cajole their fragile child into the family’s minivan so that they could get the boy some help. Except that you can’t really call the fire department and get a ruddy-faced, good-natured firefighter to come help you get your kid in the car, not even in the family-positive environs of Sebastopol.
That call was instead routed to Sebastopol police, who routed it to the Sheriff’s Department. And then the nightmare blandly detailed in public records but still hotly disputed in private circles began. Jeremiah had a 2.5-inch knifeblade, and at one point, all parties agree that he had custody of his six-year-old brother, who soon escaped with no physical harm. Deputy John Misita arrived at 8:43am. Deputy James Ryan arrived to assist at 8:48am. Jeremiah Williams Chass died at 8:50am.
Documents beget documents. The official report released by Sonoma County District Attorney Stephen Passalacqua on March 6, 2008, angered the community when it cleared both officers of any criminal charges and assessed their actions as lawful. The report notes that the two men grew “weaker” as their less-than-five-minute struggle with the 127-pound youth continued. They began, it states, to fear that their lives and those of others were in danger. And indeed, since Jeremiah’s homicide, five others have died at officer’s hands. Others are in danger.
An autopsy reverses what a mother creates. Just as she grows a child within, his parts miraculously knitting together as they did with such perfection in Jeremiah, so an autopsy unravels that miracle. But even an autopsy is not immune to perfection. Jeremiah’s organs are noted to be “smooth,” “glistening,” “intact.” The tissues covering his brain and spinal cord are described as being “thin and delicate.” Faced with the stunning symmetry of youth, even medical terms prompt poetry.
Jeremiah had one-quarter of an inch of subcutaneous fat around his abdomen. There were no tablets, capsules or pill fragments within. Alcohol and drug toxicity reports were negative. His stomach held not a speck of food and just 10 ml of fluid; his bladder, 20 ml. Office supply stores sell an item in the 20 ml size; it’s called Wite-Out.
And so it was that on March 12, 2007, Jeremiah Williams Chass had the amount of sustenance in his 127-pound frame equal to half a bottle of Wite-Out, and the officers who wrestled him for less than five minutes were so exhausted in engaging his resistance that they feared for their lives.
An autopsy is just a record. A death certificate codifies fact. Both contain heartbreak. In the 13 months since Jeremiah Williams Chass endured a terrifying, violent death in his family’s driveway at 8:50am on a Monday morning, five other Sonoma County residents have also been killed by officers.
Their autopsies, too, unraveled what a mother created. Our outrage has not simmered, such documents hasten bile.
These must be the last.
Jeremiah Chass’ autopsy report is available online in PDF form accompanying this article’s posting at www.bohemian.com.