Two sisters of a woman who was fatally shot by a Saugus police officer on Saturday said police knew she had a history of mental illness and should have refrained from using lethal force.
Stephanie Gerardi, 38, was killed Saturday after she allegedly confronted police in her home while brandishing a knife, according to the Essex District Attorney’s office. The officer who shot Gerardi fired his weapon three times.
But her sisters dispute that Gerardi was brandishing a knife. They said she grabbed a knife from the kitchen but did not wave it around or threaten the officers with it.
“There was no reason for them to excessively shoot my sister,” said Stacey Gerardi, 32, in an interview Monday. “We’re so traumatized from this. What they did was so wrong.”
The officer who fired the shots has been placed on administrative leave. The Saugus police department referred questions to the district attorney’s office, which is investigating the shooting.
Stephanie Gerardi was a mother of two young children, ages 7 and 8, and led a normal life until about 15 years ago, when she was diagnosed as having bipolar schizophrenic tendencies, her sisters said.
Stephanie had been committed several times over the years under Section 12, a state law that allows authorities to have people with mental illness hospitalized against their will, according to her sisters. Stacey Gerardi said that’s what she was trying to do when she called the Saugus Police Department on Saturday. Stephanie’s mental health had been declining and it became clear that she needed psychiatric care, she said.
Stacey said she didn’t call 911 because it wasn’t an emergency. Before she called the police, she left the home with Stephanie’s children so they wouldn’t be there when officers arrived.
Stephanie lived with her children in a home she shared with her two sisters, brother, and 13-year-old nephew. Stacey has legal custody of Stephanie’s two children.
Just after 4:30 p.m., police said they sent three officers to the Alfred Road house for “a request for assistance with a female family member in distress.” Stephanie was home and did not know that Stacey had called the police. Their sister, Deanna Gerardi, Deanna’s boyfriend, and Deanna’s 13-year-old son were also in the house when police arrived.
Deanna, 37, said she opened the doors for the officers and gestured toward the hallway and Stephanie’s room. Stephanie came out and spoke to the officers, she said.
“My back was turned for a moment,” Deanna said. “Stephanie had come walking down the hallway and approached the cops. She said, ‘How are you doing?’ and they said, ‘I’m OK. How are you doing, Stephanie?’ She said, ‘I’m great. You’re very nice-looking. Can I give you a hug?’ ”
At that point, the officer told Stephanie to keep her distance and not touch him, Deanna said.
“Right then and there they could have defused the situation,” she said. “But he made her feel threatened.”
Stephanie did not know why the police were there, and after that awkward interaction she ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife, Deanna said.
“Then I heard three shots go off,” she said.
Deanna, who was also in the kitchen, instinctively ducked down. She said she was so close to her sister and the police that she could hear a shell casing hitting the floor. Her 13-year-old son was in the next room.
“After they shot my sister, she face-planted onto the ground. I freaked out and I ran to my room,” she said.
When her boyfriend heard the commotion and saw what happened, he became upset and asked the police why they had shot Stephanie. Deanna said police responded by drawing their weapons and ordering him to the ground.
Deanna said police also told her to get on the ground but she refused. She was frantically trying to find her phone to call Stacey.
“I screamed out loud, ‘Where’s my phone?’ ” she said.
Stephanie was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the Essex District Attorney’s office.
Police then told Deanna, her boyfriend, and her son that they had to leave the house.
“We had to step over my sister’s dead body to get out of our home,” she said.
The sisters have been staying at a hotel, in shock over how a call for help went terribly wrong.
“I keep seeing it replay in my head,” Deanna said. “Me seeing her face down on the ground in a puddle of blood.”
Stacey said her sister did not know why the police were inside their home and grabbed the knife for protection.
“She was our older sister. She was our protector,” she said. “That’s her house.”
Since police knew they were responding to a mental health situation, they should have tried to calm Stephanie down instead of using lethal force, the sisters said.
“Why didn’t they defuse the situation?” Stacey asked. “They knew my sister’s history. They could have maced her. Shot her in the toe. They could have done so many other things. They did not have to kill her.”
A GoFundMe page (gofundme.com/f/mdyaj-help-for-stephanie) has been set up in Stephanie Gerardi’s memory.