As soon as the family and friends of 34-year-old Tempe resident Sean Mould learned that he had been fatally shot in the abdomen by a police officer for allegedly wielding a pocket knife, they were skeptical of the officer's story.
Multiple family members told New Times in the days after Mould’s death that though he suffered from mental illness and had an alcohol addiction, he had no history of physical violence, rarely carried a knife, and simply wasn’t the type of the guy to threaten a cop — some who knew him wondered if the alleged knife was part of a fabricated story and even hired a private investigator to look into the matter.
Lieutenant Michael Pooley, Tempe Police Department spokesman, says that while neither the officer who shot Mould nor the one who witnessed the action had a body camera, which means there is no actual recording of Mould holding a knife, the department stands by its version of events.
Now, less than three weeks after the shooting incident, the TPD has released videos and other evidence that both illuminate what happened in the chaotic few minutes before and after Mould was shot. They also bring up new questions about how officers should respond to people they know to be mentally ill.
On Sunday, December 27, police documents show that several officers were dispatched to the house on West Freemont Drive that Mould shared with his girlfriend of about 10 years, Sitharath Sam, after Sam called the non-emergency police line to ask for assistance in removing an intoxicated Mould from the property.
Officer Adam Shipley was one of the men dispatched to the scene. He says he arrived at the house at 9:54 p.m., not long after the first officer — whose name has not been released — got there.
According to the police report, Shipley says he parked his vehicle about 20 feet from the first officer’s car, and as he stepped out of the patrol car, he “saw a male subject walking in the driveway of the listed address toward the street.”
He writes that he saw the officer standing in the street “giving the male subject commands” so he “began to run” from his car to the scene.
“I saw the male subject walking toward [the officer] as [the officer] walked backward into the street. [The officer] was telling the male subject to ‘drop the knife, drop the knife.’ The male subject yelled, ‘Shoot me, just shoot me,’ multiple times as he continuously walked toward [the officer].
“As I was running,” Shipley continues, “I saw a black knife in the male subject’s right hand. While approaching the subject and [the officer], I unholstered my duty firearm. As I was drawing my firearm, I realized [the officer] already had his firearm pointed at the subject and I reholstered my firearm. I then reached for my Tazer and as I was in the process of drawing my Tazer, [the officer] fired two shots at the male subject.”
Shipley says the first thing he did was call in “shots fired, shots fired” over the radio. Next, he approached Mould’s body, which “was now on the ground in the middle of Fremont Drive,” and “kicked a black folding knife away from the male subject’s right hand as he was laying on the street.”
Shipley then “grabbed the subject’s arm and rolled him over in the street to apply handcuffs.” It was at about that time that a third officer, Sara Soldo, got to the scene and began administering first aid to Mould. “Mould was breathing at this time, although rather shallowly,” she writes in an incident report.
As this was happening, “a female came out of the front door of the listed address asking ‘what was going on and did we just shoot him?’ I instructed the female” — later identified as Mould’s girlfriend, Sam — “to sit on the sidewalk and not move until an officer came to speak with her.”
Officer Gabriel Rojel was one of the next responding officers to arrive at the scene:
“Upon my arrival, I observed officers providing CPR to Sean Mould in the street [and] Sitharath Sam and Sitharath’s mother seated in the front yard. Sitharath was screaming and crying.”
She can be heard in the footage from a responding officer’s body worn camera sobbing and saying she "just wanted [Mould] to go home."
Rojel brought Sam inside the house and began asking her questions. According to his incident report, she said she called the police because “[Mould] was drinking and irate, and [she] couldn’t handle him . . . He was drinking a lot and was yelling [and] he wasn’t in his right frame of mind.”
She added that Mould was not physically violent.
In another interview conducted later that night with Officer Dujhan Brown, Sam relayed more details about what happened earlier that evening.
“Sam told me that she and Sean were ex-boyfriend and girlfriend and that they had been together for 10 years,” Brown writes in his incident report. “Sam advised me that Mould had a drinking problem and he ‘needed to get help.’”
About 4:30 p.m. that day, Mould came home from getting an oil change and had “alcohol on his breath,” Brown writes. “Sam said things escalated around [9 p.m.] due to Mould’s alcoholic mood.
“Mould began to yell racial slurs such as ‘Fuck Cambodia’ and ‘Fuck your mom. You are all the same.’” Sam and her mother are of Cambodian descent.
Sam’s niece, whose name has not been released because she’s a minor, also was in the house at the time.
The girl told Officer Jessica Foth during an interview that she lives with Sam and Sam’s mother on the weekends and that she got home from her job at Taco Bell that Sunday evening at 6:30 and learned Mould had been drinking.
About 15 minutes later, she says she heard Mould vomiting in the bathroom but added that the yelling began closer to 8:30 p.m.
“She said she was scared so she called her father to ask his advice. Her father told her to stay in [her] bedroom and call back if things at the house got worse.”
Multiple family members told New Times that Mould, who is bipolar and depressed, has had a drinking problem for years but never has been violent or physically abusive. According to Mould’s aunt, Kai Bresnehan, with whom he was very close, he and Sam had an understanding that when he’s drunk, he’s not welcome in the house.
Sam’s niece told police that she heard her aunt tell Mould to “Get out, get out!” As far as she could tell, Mould did leave, though he came back a few minutes later yelling about needing his cell phone, which is when Sam called the police.
In a copy of the 911 tape obtained by New Times, Sam can be heard asking the female police dispatcher: “What do I need to do to have someone escorted out of my front yard?” She then calmly explains that Mould "is being irate, and I asked him to leave, to calm down, and he’s not doing it.”
Toward the end of the tape, a male voice can be heard asking the location of his cell phone and then responding to Sam’s answer that “it’s right over there” with racist or otherwise derogatory statements about Cambodians.
Parts of the tape are redacted, but at the end, the dispatcher tells Sam “the officers are on their way.”
So according to the TPD, what began as a response to a non-violent domestic dispute escalated quickly into a fatal “code 998” – an officer-involved shooting – because Mould refused to put down his knife. But many of Mould’s family members New Times spoke with question the department’s narrative and response to the incident.
“He was not a violent person,” says Bresnehan, his aunt.
Mould’s mother, Kris Servidio, says Sam told her she checked Mould’s pockets before he left the house to make sure he didn’t have money to purchase more alcohol and that he didn’t have a knife on him.
Sam did not respond to multiple requests for comment but according to the police report, she told police that Mould owned a knife and sometimes carried it with him.
“Sitharath said that she didn’t know if he had been carrying it or not,” writes Officer Rojel in his incident report.
But perhaps more importantly, Mould’s family is furious about the way police responded to the situation in the first place.
“They knew he was drunk and that he had a history of drinking,” Bresnehan says. “They were completely apprised of what the situation was, and instead of bringing a support group along, they dispatched two officers in two separate cars and made the decision to shoot to kill.”
Lieutenant Michael Pooley of the TPD confirms that the department was familiar with Mould and his drinking problem and had been involved in a handful of non-violent encounters with him in the past.
Servidio tells New Times that in her opinion, the police and news media have only added insult to injury. “They are portraying him as a crazed, horrible man, and that is so far from the truth,” she says.
In a written statement provided to New Times, Servidio says her son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in college and that it “caused him to experience periods of extreme depression and anxiety and periods where he was so stimulated that he could not sleep.”
She says Mould took medication for the disorder, which runs in their family but that the holidays always were a particularly difficult time for him.
“Sean sought relief by drinking alcohol on the day of his death,” she writes, and when Sam called the police, she “told them [Mould] was neither violent nor threatening.”
Toward the end of her statement, Servidio writes: “Allegedly Sean said, ‘Just shoot me.’ One of the officers shot Sean in the abdomen . . . This senseless shooting happened because a sick man was crying for help.”
Servidio says the family is having an independent investigator look into the situation but adds that at this point, she just hopes her son’s death “might change the way that police look at, handle, and approach . . . people who are depressed or have a mental illness.”