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S.D. Tests on Brain Tissue at Odds With Family Claim

Times Staff Writer

Laboratory tests conducted by county pathologists on the brain of a Mexican border bandit killed in a May 4 shoot-out with police show no traces of gunpowder, San Diego County Coroner David J. Stark said Wednesday. The findings contradict those of the Tijuana coroner’s office, which suggest the man died from a bullet fired at close range.

But the attorney representing the family of the victim said Wednesday that results of additional tests performed in San Diego last week on a skull sample taken from Julio Arroyo Zaragoza’s body reveal traces of carbon particles, which could only have come from gunpowder. “And the gunpowder could only have come from a shot fired at point-blank range,” attorney Jose Tafolla said. “I’m convinced that he was executed.”

Stark said three pathologists from his office studied the preserved brain tissue and found no traces of gunpowder. He said the results of the new tests, released Wednesday, confirm the findings of the autopsy performed by his office May 6, which supported a police report of the shooting that said the fatal shot was fired from a distance of 30 to 40 feet.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re still where we were before, when we did the first autopsy. There is no evidence that this man died from a contact wound,” Stark said.

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San Diego police reported that Zaragoza died when he exchanged gunfire with members of the Border Crimes Prevention Unit, comprised of San Diego police and Border Patrol agents. Arroyo, 33, died in the nighttime shooting from a 9-millimeter bullet that struck him in the middle of the forehead, at the hairline. It was fired by Officer Cesar Solis, police said.

Arroyo’s brother, Jaime Arroyo Zarago za, 23, who is charged with robbery and attempted murder in the incident, has told family members and his attorney that police killed his brother after he was wounded and disarmed. Jaime Arroyo was not wounded.

“Three pathologists looked at the brain tissue and picked out what was representative of the track of the wound. As far as the evidence we have available now, there is no reason to believe that this man died from a shot fired at close range,” Stark said.

Arroyo’s body was exhumed Aug. 26 from a Tijuana cemetery. Tijuana coroner Dr. Gustavo Salazar performed an autopsy the next day and reported finding traces of gunpowder under the skin around the wound. Salazar said in an autopsy report that Arroyo died from a bullet fired by a pistol that was placed on his forehead.

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Salazar’s findings were corroborated by laboratory tests done in a San Diego forensic laboratory the next day. Dr. Hormez Guard, a former county pathologist hired by Tafolla, said the tests showed traces of gunpowder in the skin around the wound. Tafolla is representing Jaime Arroyo and the family of Julio Arroyo.

Before the coroner’s office announced the results of the tests on the brain tissue, Tafolla said that he expected Stark to announce that the examination showed no traces of gunpowder.

“I think they’re going to come up with positive results for themselves simply because they’re in control of the evidence,” Tafolla said.

Stark said that his office could make the same argument about the results of the tests done by the Tijuana corner’s office and Guard.

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“How do we know that the skin and skull samples came from the decedent in question?” Stark asked.

Meanwhile, both sides said they expect to meet before the end of the week to exchange slides and examine each other’s tissue samples.

“If we’re still at odds, and I suspect we will be, I will propose that an independent third party, like the FBI, examine both sets of slides,” Stark said.

Tafolla said that he expects to present his evidence to the district attorney by Friday and ask him to investigate the shooting.

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Meanwhile, Tafolla raised a new controversy in the shooting and asked the coroner’s office and police to explain a calf wound suffered by Arroyo. The wound went through the back of Arroyo’s left calf at a downward angle.

The county coroner’s autopsy report describes the wound as “pointing downward” and located “13 to 14 1/2 inches from the tip of the heel” and exiting “between 9 1/2 and 8 1/2 inches from the heel.”

“How do they explain the angle of the calf wound? The wound’s angle is not consistent with their (police) testimony at the preliminary hearing. The wound suggests that whoever fired the shot had to be standing next to the victim, shooting downward,” Tafolla said.

Homicide Lt. Paul Ybarrondo, police spokesman, said he could not explain how Arroyo suffered the calf wound except to say that “our officers fired 20 shots . . . that bullet was not recovered so it’s difficult to say.”

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