Man was ‘loading up for war’ before violent SWAT standoff, prosecutor says

SAN DIEGO - A man was "loading up for war" when he assaulted and tried to gun down police during a Clairemont-area SWAT standoff, a prosecutor alleged Friday.

But the man's defense attorney told jurors his client was suffering the night of the standoff from delusions triggered by officers' use of excessive force.

Hayden Abraham Gerson, 35, is accused of firing on two police snipers who were positioned on the roof of a home adjacent to his residence, as well as choking an officer and a police dog and punching another lawman Dec. 12, 2016.

He will face 44 years to life in prison if convicted of attempted murder of a police officer, interfering with an officer and harm to, or interference with, a police dog causing great bodily injury.

Deputy District Attorney Oscar Hagstrom said in his opening statement that a pair of officers responded to Gerson's home due to a number of disturbing the peace calls, some of which indicated domestic violence might be involved. One of the calls was placed by Gerson himself, who told officers he was only joking and there was no emergency.

Around 9:30 p.m., officers found Hayden's ex-girlfriend in front of the home. She told the officers that Gerson was on drugs and believed he was the Hindu god Lord Shiva, according to the prosecutor.

Gerson was eventually contacted and asked the officers several times why they were there, Hagstrom said. The officers tried to detain Gerson, but he refused, and was subsequently zapped with a stun gun, which was ineffective, according to body-worn camera footage played for the jury.

Gerson then choked one of the officers "nearly to unconsciousness" and punched that officer's partner in the face, Hagstrom alleged. He said Gerson only released his grip on the officer's throat when the lawman's partner struck him in the head with a baton.

"I'm going to [expletive] kill you. I'm going to [expletive] murder you," Gerson can be heard saying on the body camera footage.

Gerson then retreated back into his home and emerged with what turned out to be an unloaded gun, which prompted a SWAT team response.

About two hours after the initial response, Gerson allegedly opened fire on officers out of his bedroom window, and the officers returned fire, but no one was struck. A short time later, police fired tear gas into the home and Gerson came out of the residence unarmed, but was able to choke a police dog prior to being arrested, Hagstrom alleged.

Multiple weapons and "hundreds of rounds of ammunition" were discovered inside the home, he said.

Defense attorney Michael Pancer told the jury that Gerson did not fire directly at the officers but rather into the air, just one of a series of irrational actions he engaged in that night. This was illustrative of his delusional thought process, he added.

Pancer said Gerson was "bipolar psychotic," and though he generally functioned well, was prone to bizarre and fantastical thinking, including beliefs that he was God and that he could control events such as volcanoes and earthquakes with his mind.

The attorney said despite those delusions, Gerson was successful both in his work and in raising his daughter, and that he was not a violent person. The standoff escalated because Gerson's ex-girlfriend had had "an agenda to have him committed" and the officers "tried to effectuate an unlawful arrest with an excess of force," he alleged.

Pancer said Gerson's ex-girlfriend unsuccessfully tried to have him involuntarily placed in a mental hospital that night, and when that failed, alleged he'd been violent with her to prompt a police response.

When officers arrived, Gerson asked why they were at the home, but the officers tried to detain him without explaining why they were there, the defense attorney said.

"He just wants answers, and ladies and gentlemen, you're entitled to answers," Pancer said. "We don't have a police state. You're entitled to know what's going on."

Related: Virginia Beach Police charge two men after standoff, traffic stop 

Pancer alleged that in addition to his client's mental health issues, the stun gun zap and blow to the head with the baton only exacerbated Gerson's issues.

Both attorneys acknowledged Gerson had a history of drug use, including the regular ingestion of the psychedelic drug psilocybin and nitrous oxide, though Pancer alleged the prosecution was trying to mitigate Gerson's mental health problems, despite recorded jail calls indicating his delusions persisted even without access to drugs.

Hagstrom denied that mental illness played a large role.

"This is not about a man who's truly mentally ill," he told the jury. "This is an entitled man who made decisions to abuse drugs and wanted to have it his way that night."

Criminal proceedings were briefly suspended for about four months shortly after his arrest, when Gerson's attorney questioned if he was mentally competent to stand trial, but were reinstated in early 2017.

The jury will return Monday to hear the first prosecution witness.

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