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Car Theft Suspect, 15, Slain by Deputy : Crime: Unarmed youth is shot in Artesia after a high-speed chase. Accounts of witness, officers differ.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An unarmed teen-age car theft suspect was shot and killed early Wednesday by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy after a high-speed auto chase in Artesia.

Authorities said the youth had earlier rammed a patrol car and the deputy feared he was reaching for a weapon after the pursuit ended.

The mother of a passenger in the fleeing car said she saw the shooting from less than half a block away and that the dead youth, identified as Angel Ortiz, 15, of Montebello, was shot in the back without provocation.

It was the third incident this month in which deputies have shot people and offered versions of events that differed markedly from those of onlookers.

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Sheriff Sherman Block told a news conference Wednesday morning that Ortiz had no weapon and had been shot three times. Block said a shell casing or a bullet from a 9-millimeter gun that was “not one of ours” was found in Ortiz’s vehicle. He did not indicate where the bullets entered and would not comment on other details of the case.

“I won’t pass judgment,” Block said. “That’s why we have investigations.”

The shooting occurred at 1:30 a.m. in a cul-de-sac near Pioneer Boulevard and the Artesia Freeway. It drew an angry crowd of about 50 residents who cursed the deputies and shouted at them, neighbors said.

The crowd was similar to one that gathered Aug. 3 in the Ramona Gardens housing project in East Los Angeles after a deputy shot Arturo Jimenez, 19. In that incident, witnesses disputed deputies’ contentions that Jimenez had taken a deputy’s flashlight and attacked him before he was shot by the deputy’s partner. The coroner’s office later determined Jimenez was legally drunk and under the influence of PCP when the shooting occurred.

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Ten days later, two deputies shot and killed Keith Hamilton, a 33-year-old mentally ill man in Ladera Heights. The incident prompted Hamilton’s family to demand a Christopher Commission-type investigation into the Sheriff’s Department’s treatment of African-Americans and Latinos. Arturo and the youth killed Wednesday were Latino. Hamilton was black.

A witness to the Ladera Heights incident said Hamilton did nothing to provoke the shooting. Authorities said the deputies opened fire on him after they saw him reaching for a knife that allegedly was sheathed at his waist. A knife was taken into evidence, but a lawyer for his family has raised questions about whether it was planted. The Sheriff’s Department dismisses that notion, but acknowledges that Hamilton never removed the knife from its sheath.

The chase in Artesia on Wednesday began outside a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant on Pioneer Boulevard at 183rd Street. Deputy Gabe Ramirez, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, gave the following account:

Deputies Robert Orona, 35, and Jose Belmares, 29, were on patrol when they noticed a red compact Pontiac they suspected had been stolen. As they approached, the car sped off and the deputies gave chase. The high-speed pursuit ended briefly at Rendova Street and Horst Avenue, where the Pontiac sped out of control and slammed into a curb.

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The deputies got out and, standing behind the doors of their patrol car, ordered the two occupants out of the fleeing car to get out. But instead, the vehicle suddenly backed up, rammed the front of the patrol car and sped off again. Both deputies fired at the vehicle and resumed the chase.

When the cars reached East 168th Street, Ortiz, the driver of the stolen Pontiac, rolled it to a stop. He then got out and, for a few seconds, sat down in the street before suddenly sprinting away. The passenger remained in the car as the deputies crouched behind the doors of their patrol car.

Deputy Belmares shot the fleeing Ortiz when it appeared he was “reaching for his waistband,” Ramirez said.

Sandra Martinez, mother of the passenger in the stolen car, gave a different account. She said she was on her way home when the speeding cars came to a halt. She said she saw Ortiz running toward a gate to a driveway two doors away from her house.

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“The deputy yelled something at him and he stopped right there and didn’t move,” Martinez said. “He didn’t turn around. Then they just shot him.”

Although some neighbors said they had heard gunfire during the chase, the Sheriff’s Department said shots were fired only at the scene of the ramming and when Ortiz was killed.

Martinez’s son, also 15, was taken into custody and held on suspicion of grand theft auto.

Orona, a four-year veteran, and Belmares, who has been on the force six years, have been reassigned to desk jobs for at least five days, an action that is routine in such cases.

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Block told a news conference Wednesday that the department considered the deputies fine officers and noted that one had recently been given a commendation for disarming a man wielding an ax. He also pointed out that both deputies are Latino, as was Wednesday’s shooting victim.

Times staff writer Jesse Katz contributed to this story


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