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3 Eyewitnesses Say Victim Didn’t Point Toy Gun at Officers

Times Staff Writer

Three eyewitnesses to a police shooting of a Garden Grove man said Monday that they are certain the victim was not pointing a toy gun at officers when he was killed in a fusillade of bullets early Sunday. But a law enforcement official said Monday that a preliminary investigation casts doubt on their accounts.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Goethals said Monday that his preliminary investigation has produced a scenario different from the eyewitnesses’ account given to the news media over the weekend and again on Monday.

“The initial investigation we have done suggests to me that what I’ve read in the papers (about the shooting) is not really what happened,” Goethals said.

He declined to elaborate, however. “I don’t want to go into specifics because the investigation is still in progress and we haven’t talked to all the witnesses yet,” Goethals said.

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The victim, Dennis Paul Gonzales, 20, died after being shot numerous times at about 12:15 a.m. Sunday at the Garden Grove home of a friend. Two unidentified Garden Grove police officers, who had come to the residence in the 9700 block of 11th Street responding to a disturbance call, shot and killed Gonzales as he entered the house.

“It will be at least a few days before we really know what happened,” Goethals said. “For one thing, we want to get the toxicological results of the autopsy. That will probably take a couple of weeks.”

A key difference between the police version of the shooting and the account of the eyewitnesses is whether Gonzales was threatening officers with a toy gun when he was shot. Police have said the officers opened fire only after seeing Gonzales point a weapon at them. The three eyewitnesses on Monday repeatedly said Gonzales did not point his toy gun or threaten anyone with it.

Garden Grove Police Sgt. Douglas Morrill on Sunday said Gonzales “entered the residence and pointed a replica of a .45-caliber semiautomatic at the officers. At that time, the officers shot him.”

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But two eyewitnesses to the shooting both said Monday that Gonzales “had his hands by his side” when he entered and at no point threatened the two officers with a toy gun that he had with him. A third eyewitness said she wasn’t sure if Gonzales had the toy gun in his hands when he entered, but she said she was certain Gonzales was not aiming the toy at the officers.

Jerry Joseph Wilson, 20, in whose home the shooting took place, said he was standing only 2 feet behind his friend, Gonzales, when shots erupted.

“I am positive he (Gonzales) did not have a gun in his hands,” Wilson said. Wilson added that he believes that Gonzales was carrying the toy gun tucked in the front of his pants.

Another eyewitness, Gonzales’ stepsister, Julie Harris, 20, said she was seated on a couch in the house and saw Gonzales as he entered. “His hands were by his side,” she said, adding:

“Nothing was said. Police didn’t give any warning. They didn’t even know who he was. They just started shooting.”

The third eyewitness to the shooting, Gonzales’ girlfriend, Paige Richelieu, 20, said she is not sure where Gonzales had the toy gun. “It all happened so fast, I can’t remember,” she said, weeping during a telephone interview from San Diego on Monday.

Girlfriend’s Version

But Richelieu, who made the original call to authorities because she and Gonzales had gotten into a fight, said she is certain that Gonzales was not aiming the toy gun or threatening police with it when he came back into the house.

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“I would remember that,” she said. “Why would he be doing that? Dennis didn’t even know the police were there. Their cars weren’t in front of the house. He had no way of knowing police were in the house. But one police officer inside the house had his gun pointed and ready to fire even before Dennis walked in.

“That police officer didn’t even know it was Dennis coming back into the house. We thought Dennis had gone home, and we told the two officers that it was Jerry, who lived in the house, who was coming back in.”

Police came to Wilson’s home because Richelieu had made a 911 emergency call earlier in the evening after being in a dispute with Gonzales, Harris and Wilson said.

After Richelieu made the call, Wilson and Gonzales left the house briefly and went walking for “a cooling-off period,” Wilson said. “We went to the store and bought some cigarettes,” he added.

While the two young men were gone, two Garden Grove officers arrived at the Wilson home, entered and began questioning Richelieu and Harris. Harris said she and Richelieu heard someone coming up the sidewalk a short time later.

“I told the police that is was Jerry who was coming in,” Harris said.

Richelieu, in a separate interview, had a similar account. She said she and Harris didn’t expect Gonzales to return. She added that the officers had no way of knowing who was the first man to enter.

“They never identified themselves (to Gonzales),” she said. “I heard one of them say, ‘Hold it, put your hands up.’ ” She said the shots followed. “The shooting kept going and going, even though I screamed for them to stop. I told them it was just a toy gun, but they kept shooting.”

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Witnesses Differ

Richelieu’s and Harris’ recollections differ in that Harris said she could not remember police saying anything before the shooting broke out. Richelieu said she remembered an officer saying, “Hold it, put your hands up.” Richelieu, however, said the officers never warned Gonzales that they were police officers.

The Wilson family found 19 bullet holes--some possibly from ricochets--in the house after the shooting. On Monday afternoon, Jerry R. Wilson, Wilson’s father, found another bullet hole that the family had not seen previously. This one was near the entrance to the front door.

“That was probably the first shot,” the senior Wilson said. Standing near him, looking at the bullet hole, was Gonzales’ father, Dennis E. Gonzales.

The elder Gonzales examined the bullet holes in the house and paused as he studied blood on a glass-covered display case. His son had been standing by the display case when the shooting started, according to the witnesses.

“This is wrong,” the elder Gonzales said. “My son had no warning. He was killed for no reason and without a warning. Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m pro-law enforcement. I was an MP (military police) when I was in the service for 3 years. But this sort of thing is wrong.”

Harris began weeping as she sat on a couch nearby to reenact the events from early Sunday morning, when she sat in the same spot and saw her stepbrother shot to death.

‘Nothing to Hide’

“I want the truth to be told on this,” Harris said. “We have nothing to hide, and we’re telling the truth. The police have a reason not to tell the truth.”

Garden Grove police officials on Monday referred most questions about the investigation to the Orange County district attorney’s office. However, Lt. Stu Finkelstein in response to one question, said it was not unusual for the officers to be carrying .45-caliber semiautomatics on Sunday night.


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