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$10-Million Claim in Bandit Slaying : Family Seeks Damages From City, Claims Robber’s Death Was Execution

Times Staff Writer

An attorney for the family of a Mexican border bandit killed in a shoot-out with San Diego police and Border Patrol agents filed a $10-million claim Friday against the City of San Diego.

Daniel Gallardo of National City filed the claim on behalf of Julio Arroyo Zaragoza’s wife, four children and mother. The claim alleges that Arroyo, 33, “was summarily executed while in the custody or under the control of members of San Diego Police Department, Border Crime Prevention Task Force and/or U.S. Border Patrol.”

According to the claim, “execution was by a firearm held on or near Mr. Arroyo Zaragoza’s forehead. The bullet therefrom causing brain damage and subsequent death.”

San Diego city officials could not be reached for comment late Friday. Gallardo said he expects to file a claim against the Border Patrol later this month.

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Police said that Arroyo; his brother, Jaime Arroyo Zaragoza, 23, and an unidentified third man exchanged gunfire on the night of May 4 with members of the Border Crimes Prevention Unit, composed of San Diego police officers and Border Patrol agents. Arroyo was killed when a 9-millimeter bullet struck him in the middle of the forehead. Police said the fatal shot was fired from a distance of 30 to 40 feet by Officer Cesar Solis.

Agent Fred Stevens was shot five times in the gun battle but was saved by an armored vest. He is back on duty. Jaime Arroyo, who was not injured, was charged with robbery and attempted murder in the incident and is awaiting trial. The third suspect escaped.

Tijuana coroner Dr. Gustavo Salazar conducted an autopsy after Arroyo’s body was exhumed from a Tijuana cemetery three weeks ago and reported that Arroyo died from a shot fired at point-blank range. Salazar’s finding and subsequent laboratory tests performed in San Diego, which showed that Arroyo died from a shot fired at close range, have resulted in claims that the man was executed by police.

County Coroner David J. Stark and Police Chief Bill Kolender maintain that an autopsy performed by county pathologists on May 6 supports the police report, which says that Arroyo was killed by from a distance.

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The claim filed by Gallardo charges that “the autopsy done by the San Diego coroner’s office was not thorough or complete and serious doubts are now raised about the integrity of the autopsy and the whole homicide investigation.”

On Friday a team of defense investigators led by attorney Jose Tafolla, who is representing Jaime Arroyo, visited the scene of the shooting for the first time, accompanied by San Diego homicide detectives.

Tafolla and his investigators spent about four hours videotaping, photographing and combing the steep canyon wall where the gun battle occurred. Afterward Tafolla said he found it difficult to believe that Solis could have fired the fatal shot from where police said he was kneeling.

Solis testified at Jaime Arroyo’s preliminary hearing that he had his right knee on the handcuffed suspect’s back while he returned Julio Arroyo’s gunfire. However, Tafolla said that the fatal bullet entered Arroyo’s skull at a sharp downward angle, suggesting that the dead man was on his knees when he was shot.

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Homicide Lt. Paul Ybarrondo declined to comment on Tafolla’s charges. He complained that The Times’ coverage of the incident was “making the department look bad,” adding that the reporter would have to talk to him in person for a comment but that he would not be available until Monday.

Police criminalists are now conducting a second round of ballistics tests on the pistols fired by Solis and two agents on May 4.

Initially, within a few days of the shooting, Ybarrondo said that Stevens fired the fatal shot that killed Arroyo from six feet away. Later, Ybarrondo said that police would have to conduct ballistics tests to determine who killed Arroyo because both Stevens and agent John Crocitto were armed with .357 magnum pistols loaded with .38-caliber bullets. Crocitto fired three rounds; Stevens fired six times.

After the first ballistics tests were completed, Ybarrondo said that it was Solis who actually fired the fatal shot. Solis fired 11 rounds from his 9-millimeter pistol.

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