Crime & Justice

Orange County DA clears CHP officers in fatal shooting

Pedro Villanueva's red truck can be seen touching the CHP's unmarked Ford Taurus on a cup de sac in Fullerton on the night of July 3, 2016.
Pedro Villanueva's red truck can be seen touching the CHP's unmarked Ford Taurus on a cup de sac in Fullerton on the night of July 3, 2016.

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The Orange County District Attorney’s office has cleared two CHP officers of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of a teenager in Fullerton last year. The office issued a letter Friday saying both acted with reasonable fear for their lives when they opened fire.

The officers shot at Pedro Villanueva, 19, as he was driving his Chevy Silverado towards them – a tactic that’s coming under increasing scrutiny in law enforcement.

The LAPD essentially banned the practice 11 years ago after an officer fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown, who backed toward officers while he was joy riding in South LA. The killing sparked angry protests from community activists who wondered why police needed to use deadly force.

Police officials at the time of the shooting said they believed Brown was an adult and that he was trying to hit officers with the car.

Then-chief Bill Bratton recommended a change in policy, which the police commission later adopted. He said it made no sense to disable the driver of a car and send it careening uncontrolled into who knows what. He also noted it would take time for an officer to draw his weapon – time that could be spent getting out of the way. He ordered his officers to step aside if possible, and continue the pursuit.

LAPD policy states that officers may shoot at a car if a driver has a gun or presents some other threat that needs to be immediately stopped. It also states that officers should not consider a car coming at them as justification for using deadly force. The policy leaves some wiggle room if officers have no other means of escape.

Last year, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department also tightened its policy on shooting at moving vehicles. The change followed a report by KPCC detailing the dangers of firing on cars and why the sheriff continued the policy.

But many departments still allow the practice, including the CHP. And that’s what happened in July when Villanueva was shot.

According to the district attorney’s letter clearing them, CHP Sgt. John Cleveland and Officer Rich Henderson were in plainclothes in an unmarked car observing a meeting of several car and truck clubs at the Santa Fe Springs Swamp Meet around 10 p.m. on June 3, 2016.

When the officers saw Villanueva doing donuts with his truck in the parking lot – a vehicle code violation – they decided to pull him over. 

The CHP officers initially activated their flashing lights and siren on their unmarked car, then turned them off almost immediately. Cleveland said he did not feel comfortable engaging in a such a pursuit in an unmarked car.

Villanueva drove out of the lot and reached speeds “in excess of 90 mph” on surface streets, according to the officers. They followed him at a distance for five miles to a cul de sac in Fullerton, he said.

Villanueva had a passenger – Francisco Orozco, 18. He is quoted in the DA’s report as saying Villanueva was “super scared,” and knew a police car was chasing him. He said he asked Villanueva to stop but he refused.

Later, when they were caught on a dead end street in Fullerton and turned around facing the officers, Orozco said he saw the word “police” on the front of their vests, according to the DA report. The officers also had turned their flashing lights back on.

That stands in stark contrast to a statement by Orozco posted on the website of Villanueva’s attorney, Paul Kiesal.

 “We were followed from the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet by a black car and chased,” Orozco is quoted saying. “They never once used a siren, a loud speaker or provided any warning whatsoever before they started shooting. They never identified themselves as law enforcement until after they stopped shooting.”

Villanueva’s family has filed a wrongful death claim against the CHP and state of California.

The officers identified themselves and ordered Villanueva to stop as he drove at about 10 m.p.h. toward them, according to one of the officers quoted in the report. When he didn’t, Officer Henderson fired 12 shots and Sgt. Cleveland fired two shots into the truck, killing Villanueva and wounding Orozco.

The DA report notes Villanueva was driving on a suspended license because he’d been arrested and convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol in San Jose earlier in the year. He also was in possession of a cocaine at the time. The officers did not know about his previous convictions when they shot him.

A toxicology report on Villanueva found trace amounts of marijuana in his system.