Orange County prosecutors have found that an Anaheim police officer who fatally shot a young man in the back was justified. It was the first of two shootings that led to a brief riot last summer that drew worldwide attention to the hometown of Disneyland.
The Orange County District Attorney's office spent months investigating whether to file to charges against Nick Bennallack, the officer who shot Manuel Diaz, 25, as he ran away from officers.
“The evidence does not support a finding of criminal culpability against Officer Bennallack, " Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner told a Santa Ana news conference. "The reason why is there is significant evidence his actions were justified when he shot Manuel Diaz."
Bennallack was justified because he believed he was in imminent danger of being shot by Diaz, said Wagner.
Bennallack told investigators that during a chase, Diaz looked back at him and his partner in a way that suggested he was targeting them.
Bennallack said he saw Diaz remove an item from his waistband he thought was a gun.
“Using the analysis the courts say we must, making an allowance for split-second decisions, we believe Bennallack was reasonable in believing Diaz had a gun,” said Wagner.
If Diaz did have a gun, it was never found. Officer Bennallack and other witnesses described Diaz throwing an object into the air, wrapped in cloth, just before he was shot.
“It’s certainly possible that Diaz threw a bag and in that bag were multiple items, perhaps contraband such as a gun, and that some of those items were later picked up by someone in the crowd,” said Wagner.
That was the crowd that formed near the shooting in the Anna Drive neighborhood, an angry gathering that turned into a full blown riot after another young man was fatally shot by Anaheim officers the next day.
Dana Douglas, the attorney representing the Diaz family in a $50 million dollar civil suit, says she was not surprised by the DA’s report, because officers in Orange County are so rarely prosecuted.
“Frankly this report could not have been any more biased if they were actually the attorneys for Nick Bennallack,” said Douglas.
Douglas says Diaz wasn’t in a gang as prosecutors allege, and that Bennallack should not have been allowed to return to duty so quickly.
“Unfortunately someone like Nick Bennallack with a nervous disposition and a quick trigger finger can get onto the Anaheim Police Department and nothing happens, said Douglas. "He’s out there today ready to shoot a third victim.”
Douglas says a third victim because a few months before shooting Diaz, Bennallack also killed another man, Bernie Villegas.
In December, prosecutors also cleared Bennallack of any wrongdoing in that shooting.