Peter Houlahan


Reap the Whirlwind

Violence, Race, Justice, and the Story of Sagon Penn

The bestselling author of Norco ’80 returns with a riveting story of mid-1980s San Diego that placed one young Black man at the center of a whirlwind of crime and punishment that profoundly altered Southern California

March 31, 1985. Two white patrol officers in search of a gang member followed a pickup truck carrying seven young Black men up a dirt driveway in the Encanto neighborhood of Southeastern San Diego. Minutes later, gunshots rang out, and the truck’s driver, Sagon Penn, fled the scene in an officer’s patrol car. The incident stunned the city. What followed would change it forever.

Penn was an idealist who believed in the power of Buddhist chants to bring about the oneness of humanity. The two police officers were rising stars in one of the most progressive police departments in the country, yet one that had suffered more officers killed in the line of duty than any other. While the facts of the case were never in dispute, what remained unresolved was what, if anything, could justify such a violent confrontation? For over two years, a determined prosecutor and a charismatic defense attorney engaged in a sensational courtroom drama that revolved around matters of mental health, racial biases, and the self-image of a once-sleepy beach town grappling with its transformation into a major metropolitan area. The Sagon Penn incident forever altered how San Diego would respond to incidents involving police and communities of color.

Based on court transcripts, personal interviews, and archival police reports, Reap the Whirlwind is a gripping true-crime narrative set against the evocative backdrop of Southern California.

Norco ’80

The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in American History

5 young men. 32 destroyed police vehicles. 1 spectacular bank robbery. This “cinematic” true crime story transports readers to the scene of one of the most shocking bank heists in U.S. history—a crime that’s almost too wild to be real (The New York Times Book Review).

Norco ’80 tells the story of how five heavily armed young men—led by an apocalyptic born–again Christian—attempted a bank robbery that turned into one of the most violent criminal events in U.S. history, forever changing the face of American law enforcement. Part action thriller and part courtroom drama, this Edgar Award finalist for Best Fact Crime transports the reader back to the Southern California of the 1970s, an era of predatory evangelical gurus, doomsday predictions, megachurches, and soaring crime rates, with the threat of nuclear obliteration looming over it all.

In this riveting true story, a group of landscapers transforms into a murderous gang of bank robbers armed to the teeth with military–grade weapons. Their desperate getaway turns the surrounding towns into war zones. And when it’s over, three are dead and close to twenty wounded; a police helicopter has been forced down from the sky, and thirty–two police vehicles have been completely demolished by thousands of rounds of ammo. The resulting trial shakes the community to the core, raising many issues that continue to plague society today: from the epidemic of post–traumatic stress disorder within law enforcement to religious extremism and the militarization of local police forces.