Undue Force, Racism Charged in Shootings by Deputies
The fast-food restaurants and strip malls around the “Welcome to Lancaster” sign at the Avenue K exit of the Antelope Valley Freeway present an image of safe, homogenized suburbia.
But last month, the Carl’s Jr. restaurant at that intersection was the scene of a fatal shooting that has sparked allegations against Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies of excessive force and racial bias.
To many, the incident and three other recent shootings by law enforcement officers reflect the Antelope Valley’s transformation from a cluster of sleepy desert communities into an urban area with urban problems.
“It was shocking,” Lancaster Mayor Lynn Harrison said of the Carl’s Jr. shooting. “We’re not used to things like that here. Residents are feeling the pressures of change, and I’m sure law enforcement officers are feeling the pressures as well.”
Harrison said she thinks that the deputies saw a “life-threatening situation” and acted accordingly.
On April 11, deputies confronted Betty Jean Aborn, a 50-year-old black transient armed with a butcher knife, at the Carl’s Jr. after responding to an armed robbery call at a nearby business. When Aborn lunged at them, three deputies opened fire, authorities said. She was hit 18 times.
Ensuing protests by the Antelope Valley chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People included a march last month by black residents around the sheriff’s station. And a federal mediator from San Francisco has met with authorities and about 35 black residents to discuss Aborn’s death and the fatal shooting by a deputy six months ago of Robert Moriya, an Asian student. State NAACP President Jose De Sosa helped set up the mediator’s visit and attended the meeting.
Like all deputy-involved shootings, Aborn’s death is being investigated by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office in conjunction with Sheriff’s Department homicide investigators.
In January, the district attorney’s office cleared Deputy Terry Rice in the Nov. 4 shooting of Moriya, a 19-year-old Lancaster resident who had crashed his car into a freeway underpass after a night of drinking. Rice shot and killed Moriya after he charged Rice and attempted to wrestle away his gun, investigators concluded.
But NAACP member Mike Kirkland said: “I don’t think either of those two people could have mustered enough force to seriously threaten the officers, especially with the expertise, backup and guns they have available to them.”
Capt. Gary Vance, commander of the Antelope Valley sheriff’s station, predicts that the investigation of the Aborn shooting will conclude that deputies acted properly. He said he is willing to work with black leaders but sees no need for outside intervention and rejects the racial allegations about the two shootings.
“I can understand why that jumps to their minds,” Vance said of the black leaders. “But no way is that a connection. I don’t see any racial tensions at all.”
As further evidence that race had nothing to do with the Aborn shooting, Vance said, one of the deputies involved is Latino and another is white and married to a black woman.
But Harrison said she thinks that, regardless of whether the Aborn shooting was justified, the involvement of an outside mediator may be a good idea. “If the members of the minority community feel there is a problem, then for them there is a problem,” she said.
The federal mediator, Ada Montare, said she can recommend--but cannot require--police-community forums or human relations training for officers. But Montare said it is unlikely that she will suggest such action since the Sheriff’s Department has made itself accessible to NAACP leaders.
Montare works for the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has no investigative powers.
“It seems the area is in an era of change with people moving from the Los Angeles area,” she said of the Antelope Valley. “It could be that tensions are beginning to take place.”
Palmdale’s population grew 17% last year, and Lancaster’s grew 10%. But there were grim accompanying numbers: Overall crime went up 33% in the Antelope Valley in the first quarter of this year, with the crime rate per 1,000 people increasing 8%.
The three shootings this year contrast with only one deputy-involved shooting in each of the previous two years in the Antelope Valley. All three occurred within the past six weeks; the most recent was Wednesday when deputies shot and killed a man who charged a deputy with a rake after a two-hour car chase in which the suspect rammed a police car.
The Rev. Samuel Hooker, president of the Antelope Valley’s NAACP chapter, said his group requested outside help because the Aborn and Moriya shootings show that deputies are quick to use deadly force against minorities. The NAACP chapter has located Aborn’s daughter, 19-year-old Mona Aborn, and are consulting with lawyers about filing a wrongful death suit on her behalf, Hooker said.
Los Angeles County officials estimated the Antelope Valley’s population at 135,000 in 1985, up from 107,000 in 1980. But a continuing influx of residents, which includes a significant number of minorities, has pushed the valleywide population to more than 200,000, officials said.
The most recent available data on ethnic makeup dates from 1985 and showed a population of 81% white, 10% Latino, 5% Asian and 4% black, with a longtime concentration of blacks in the Littlerock and Sun Village communities east of Palmdale.
The Aborn incident began at 4:45 on a Tuesday afternoon. Investigators say Aborn, a transient whose last known address was in Inglewood, stole several ice cream bars from a convenience store across the street from the Carl’s Jr. A clerk challenged her, then called police after she threatened him with a 10-inch butcher knife.
Account of Events
Investigators give this account of the events that followed:
Seven deputies responding to the call found Aborn sitting behind a table in the back of the restaurant, where she was a familiar face.
Aborn held the deputies at bay with a knife. Several deputies moved customers and employees out of the dining area while four deputies and a sergeant tried to calm the woman. She screamed that they would have to kill her. The sergeant shot her with a Taser stun-gun. It had no apparent effect. An autopsy report said one Taser dart was embedded in Aborn’s forehead, but other darts may have been blocked by several layers of clothing.
Seconds later, Aborn lunged over the table at a deputy with the knife above her head. Three deputies--William Phelton, Tony Ortiz and James Vetrovec--opened fire. Twenty-eight shots were fired; the autopsy showed that Aborn was hit 18 times, mainly in the torso and legs.
Hooker and others question whether it was necessary for the deputies to fire that many times. They also ask why deputies did not attempt to subdue Aborn by other means, or back off and negotiate as police do in barricade situations.
“There is no way I believe those men had to shoot that woman,” Hooker said.
Vance responded: “People who aren’t in law enforcement may see more significance in the number of rounds fired. Unlike in the movies where people fly back after they’re shot, in real life they tend to keep going. I think each deputy fired until he perceived the threat had been eliminated. I can’t remember a shooting where the deputies counted how many times they fired. Either you’re justified in shooting or you’re not.”
Vance noted that deputies first used the Taser gun.
“The Taser gun usually works,” Vance said. “Before they have time to make other plans, she attacks, and they have their guns drawn. . . . A barricade suspect is different because you contain the area.”
In the Aborn case, the deputies were pursuing an armed robbery suspect into a public place, Vance said. “They were intent on arrest,” Vance said. “We don’t negotiate with armed robbers.”
Aborn was arrested in Pasadena in 1983 on charges of assaulting a police officer with a pair of scissors, court records show. The charges were dropped when Aborn agreed to undergo mental health treatment, a Pasadena court official said.
In the Moriya shooting, the district attorney’s inquiry found that Rice was justified in shooting Moriya five times because the unarmed youth charged him repeatedly, even after being wounded. Moriya’s blood-alcohol level was determined to be 0.17%. The legal limit for drivers in California is 0.1%.
Rice remains on leave for psychological stress suffered since the shooting. The county rejected a $5-million claim filed by Moriya’s family, and Los Angeles attorney Albert DeBlanc said he is preparing a lawsuit.
DeBlanc says he has witnesses to refute the official findings.
“I have no reason to believe it was necessary for him to shoot an unarmed boy,” DeBlanc said.
Hooker said the fact that Aborn and Moriya were members of minority groups cannot be overlooked in an area that is populated mostly by conservative whites. Hooker acknowledged that the two incidents have come at a time when the Antelope Valley NAACP chapter is trying to become more visible.
“We have to have some kind of voice,” he said.