The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on Tuesday publicly acknowledged for the first time that it was a deputy's bullet that killed an innocent bystander inside a South Los Angeles liquor store two months ago and not a round fired by a fleeing suspect.
Lt. Bill Christiansen, a department spokesman, said ballistics tests showed that a single bullet probably passed through the suspect's arm and fatally wounded Gianna Marie Blue in the back.
Blue, a mother of four who had turned 30 on May 15--the day of the shooting-- was in the store buying items for her in-progress birthday celebration.
Christiansen said that deputies, who believed that the suspect, Hernandez Vincson, 24, was armed, followed him when he ran into the E & W Liquor store at Century Boulevard and Central Avenue. The deputies opened fire when Vincson pulled a gun from his pocket and pointed it at them, Christiansen said.
Witnesses said the deputies fired at least 30 shots into the store. Christiansen put the figure at 13.
Sheriff's officials, in the days after the shooting, had suggested that Blue may have been struck by a bullet from the suspect's gun. One bullet was missing from that gun, they said.
But Christiansen said the tests, which were completed several weeks ago, show that scenario to be inaccurate.
"It was a tragic situation," he said.
Christiansen said the conduct of the officers is under investigation by the Sheriff's Department and by the district attorney.
Christiansen revealed the ballistics information while responding to criticisms about the handling of the case made earlier in the day by a lawyer representing Blue's family.
At a news conference Tuesday morning outside the store where Blue was shot, the lawyer, Geraldine Green, accused the Sheriff's Department and the coroner's office of trying to cover up the deputies' roles in the incident.
Green said she had asked the Justice Department to conduct an independent investigation of the case.
"We have great reason not to trust the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department," Green said. "We feel much more comfortable with an independent investigation."
Green pointed to a number of incidents since the shooting that made the family question whether the case was being handled properly.
For example, Green said, her plans to have an independent pathologist present during the autopsy on Blue's body was thwarted when the coroner's office conducted the autopsy a day earlier than scheduled. Since then, she said, the Sheriff's Department has refused to release to her any information about the case, including the names of the deputies and their current assignments. The coroner's office, she said, will not turn over to her pictures from the autopsy and the clothing Blue was wearing when she was killed.
Green said she needs the reports and the other items to complete her investigation of the shooting for Blue's family. The dead woman's parents, three of her children and several other family members attended the news conference.
Blue's mother, Martha Cox, said in a later interview that she believes the shooting was racially motivated.
"There is no way that (deputies) would have shot into a store like that in a white neighborhood," said Cox. "But with colored people--Mexicans and blacks--we just don't count."
Green contended that the deputies fired 30 shots into the store as they stood just outside, hitting Vincson 10 to 12 times and Blue at least four times. The information on Blue's wounds, said Green, was in a report from Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.
Witnesses to the shooting, she said, maintain that Vincson was unarmed when he entered the store, having dropped the gun outside. After the shooting, Vincson, wounded and handcuffed, was kicked by the deputies, Green said.
Christiansen disputed that account, saying Vincson pulled the gun from his pocket and pointed it at the deputies, who then fired 13 shots. Vincson, he said, was hit six times--four times in the upper torso and once in each arm--and Blue was hit once. He denied that Vincson was brutalized.
Christiansen denied that the names of the deputies were being withheld from Green and identified them to a reporter as Thomas Drake and Shannon Laren, both five-year veterans.
He confirmed, however, that Green's request for department reports on the shooting were being withheld, saying that such information, in cases involving shootings by deputies, can only be obtained by court order.
Bob Dambacher, a spokesman for the coroner's office, also said a court order is necessary to obtain autopsy pictures and the clothing of homicide victims.