Orange County Deputies Cleared in Laguna Niguel Shooting

March 3, 2021 Updated: March 3, 2021

The Orange County District Attorney’s office (OCDA) has vindicated two police officers who were under investigation for a fatal Laguna Niguel shooting.

In a letter to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, OCDA Todd Spitzer said the deputies’ use of force was consistent with the law.

The letter included a report prepared by Senior Deputy District Attorney Janine Madera, stating that the officer’s actions were justified under the circumstances.

Officer-Involved Shooting

Stephan Curtis McCulloch, 32, was shot by police last May as he was about to strike his girlfriend with a hammer, the OCDA report said.

On May 11, 2020, Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) deputies Craig Sanders and Mark Dent responded to reports of a couple screaming and smashing objects inside a 50 Coral Sea apartment.

Sanders brought an AR-15 rifle, and Dent brought a less-than-lethal super sock 12-gauge shotgun.

Sanders and Dent reportedly heard muffled sounds of a struggle emanating from inside the location.

“Somebody was in danger and it didn’t matter what type of call it was … that somebody needed help and that I had to do something,” the report said.

The deputies pounded on McCulloch’s door demanding he open it.

McCulloch’s reportedly walked to the door yelling, “I’m coming for you.”

One neighbor saw McCulloch walk to the front door and strike the door repeatedly with a hammer, Madera said in her report.

Sanders immediately thought, “Somebody’s gonna come through this door and try to kill me or seriously, seriously hurt me or my partners.”

According to the report, when McCulloch opened the door, he began screaming at the deputies: “Come on, come on, shoot, shoot!” and “Shoot me, I have a hammer, shoot me!”

Deputies saw that he was wielding a “heavy construction-type hammer,” with a “white-knuckle grip … very tightly,” the report said.

After repeated demands to drop the hammer, according to the report, Dent fired one super-sock 12-gauge round, which struck McCulloch in the waist, causing him to flee into the apartment.

Deputies entered the apartment upon hearing McCulloch’s girlfriend “screaming bloody murder,” the report said.

McCulloch was standing with the hammer in his left hand near the dining room, said the report.

Deputies recalled McCulloch with his right arm wrapped around his girlfriend, holding the hammer in a ready striking position at mid-torso height.

His girlfriend was repeatedly screaming “help me” trying to escape McCulloch’s hold. A Ring camera audio captured screams of “help me” as deputies entered the apartment, Madera said.

Sanders fired three shots of the AR-15 at McCulloch, two in the back and one in the chest.

Dent fired one round of the super-sock at McCulloch’s head at a lethal distance, but couldn’t tell whether the gun discharged because Sanders had fired at the same time.

McCulloch fell to the ground, still holding the woman and hammer. He was pronounced dead by paramedics about 12:50 p.m.

Investigators from the OCDA special assignment unit gathered information from the scene and interviewed 18 individuals, including several neighbors.

A toxicology report found methamphetamine and amphetamine in his system, the report to the OCDA stated.

He had been arrested for two felonies since January 2020 with charges including robbery; obstructing, resisting, or delaying a police officer; evading a peace officer in a vehicle; possession of unlawful drug paraphernalia; and petty theft.

“Deputy Sanders and Deputy Dent were justified when they shot at McCulloch,” Madera said. “Simply stated, Deputy Sanders and Deputy Dent did not commit a crime. To the contrary, they carried out their duties as peace officers in a reasonable and justifiable manner.”