Reap the Whirlwind

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

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Book Description

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.

About the Author

Praise For This Book

Amazon, A Best Book of the Month

"In meticulous yet utterly spellbinding detail, Houlahan lays out all aspects of the case, from the backstories of the principal figures to the tragic shootings that evening and in particular, the intriguing courtroom battle between prosecution and defense." —Booklist (starred review)

"In a colorful narrative populated with well-drawn characters, Houlahan explains how the case laid bare the city’s long-simmering tensions over policing and how the verdict served to turn down the heat, opening meaningful dialogue between police and the Black community. The result is a propulsive legal thriller with deep insight into Southern California policing history." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"[A] fast-paced narrative . . . An assumption-shaking true-crime narrative that transports readers onto the street and into the courtroom." —Kirkus Reviews