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Off-duty LAPD cop kills unarmed motorist

August 26, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
An investigation is under way Tuesday after an off-duty Los Angeles police officer opened fire, killing a man involved in a traffic collision. The officer is identified as Antonio Mendez, who has been on the force for two years.

Sheriff's deputies and the California Highway Patrol are both trying to piece together what may have triggered the deadly shooting in a Corona parking lot.

However, the big question is whether or not the shooting was justified.

The incident started on the 1-15, several miles south of crime scene. The off-duty officer says the man in a Toyota Tundra truck side-swiped his Hummer and then took off. The off-duty officer chased the vehicle, going speeds up to 100 mph, until the truck exited the freeway and pulled into a convenience store parking lot on Temescal Canyon Road.

The off-duty officer had a 1-year-old child inside his vehicle when he started his pursuit of the man. The man stopped the truck in front of the store and the officer pulled in behind him. The officer then began yelling commands at the driver.

"I don't know what he was thinking at the time. I don't know what he was thinking before he pulled into the parking lot ... All I know is that I saw a guy coming aggressive at him. And, after the fact, if I had a 1-year-old son in the vehicle, I might have taken the same actions," said Varela.

Authorities were on scene for hours investigating the shooting.

Joseph Varela, who works at 7 Oaks Nursery in the same parking lot, says he saw everything.

"I couldn't hear the words that were exchanged in the beginning," said Varela. "They started coming together. The officer banished his weapon, probably within the first five seconds of the confrontation, telling him to get down on the ground. The guy kept coming forward. [The officer] told him again 'get down on the ground.' The guy wouldn't listen to him, kind of with his arms up, rushed forward towards him in a quick, aggressive manner and the officer shot him."

The officer fired once, hitting the man in the stomach. The victim was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He has not yet been identified.

Several agencies are involved in the investigation. The CHP is looking into what happened on the freeway; the Riverside Sheriff's Department is investigating what happened at the scene; and the LAPD has joined in because the officer involved is part of the department.

"I can tell you that he is an active LAPD officer," said Lt. John Romero from the Los Angeles Police Department. "He has about two years on the job, and that he's assigned to uniform crime suppression duties out of the Office of Operations. And that he was driving a private vehicle at the time of the incident."

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton commented on the incident as well.

"An apparent road rage incident that led to a shooting incident ... in which one individual was deceased and our officer is currently the subject of the criminal and administrative investigation," said Chief Bratton.

It's still unclear whether the off-duty officer identified himself before drawing his weapon. Some eyewitnesses say he did identify himself, others say he didn't.

The officer was free to leave after he was questioned at the scene. He has been placed on paid leave, which is standard operating procedure.

"Everyone is going to have different thoughts running through their minds at a certain time. I mean, ideally, I'd like to give an answer of, you know, please call the police and let us handle it, but, in this situation, the victim of the hit-and-run happens to be the police," said Jerry Franchville, Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

 

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