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Slaying Sparks Outrage : Police Brutality Alleged in Shooting of Knife-Wielding Man

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While Hawthorne resident Freddy Soza was threatening suicide and cutting his forearms with a knife, family members pleaded with 911 operators to send the police.

Minutes later, Soza, 38, lay dead, shot by the officers summoned to help him, family members say.

Hawthorne police say Soza, still holding the knife, confronted officers outside his Freeman Avenue apartment just after midnight on March 11. The officers ordered Soza to halt, but he advanced toward them with the weapon, and they emptied seven rounds into his chest.

Family members do not dispute the police version of events but say the officers should have used Mace, batons or Tasers to subdue Soza, the father of three and son of a Chilean judicial official.

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“They shot him because they didn’t care,” said Nubia Soza, stressing that her husband was Latino. “They saw him as a nobody.”

Fueled by such allegations, the Chilean media has portrayed Soza as the victim of American police brutality and racism.

The incident is being investigated by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, who routinely look into officer shootings in the small Hawthorne department. But Sheriff’s Detective Joe Holmes, who is investigating the shooting, said Soza is “a suspect, not a victim.”

“When you threaten someone with a knife, you’re a suspect,” Holmes said.

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Hawthorne Police Sgt. Bob Sanders added that when officers’ lives are at stake, department policy allows them to fire their guns.

“It’s not so much a shoot-to-kill policy but shoot-to-stop,” Sanders said. “If (suspects) die from the wounds, they die from the wounds. We’re not going to shoot at the ankles.”

Family members and relatives described Soza as a tranquil person, at least when he wasn’t drinking. Soza last worked as a Taco Bell cashier, but had been on disability for about a month and a half, his wife said. Soza had fallen on his back at work, but he appeared to be able-bodied, she said.

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Trouble began that March night when Soza demanded the keys to the couple’s minivan. Nubia Soza, 40, said her husband wanted to drive to the Wild Goose topless bar in Inglewood to play pool.

Nubia Soza said she refused to hand over the keys because he had been drinking. The couple, who had lived together off and on, began to argue. The children woke up.

Nubia Soza said her husband pushed her in an attempt to get her purse containing the car keys, and their daughter Glenda, 11, called 911.

“Hello, can I please speak to the cops?” Glenda asked the 911 operator. “My dad’s drunk and he’s throwing my mom.”

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Nubia Soza then took the phone to say that her husband was not hitting her, but asked for help from police. She also told the operator that her husband had been smoking crack.

Family members said Soza then grabbed a serrated knife almost a foot long from the kitchen and threatened to kill himself if the police came. He began cutting his forearms.

Nubia Soza said her husband had never tried to commit suicide before, but speculated that he became frightened at the mention of police because she had a restraining order against him. Although the two were patching things up, police probably would have arrested her husband, she said.

But she says she hoped police would disarm him.

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Nubia Soza took Glenda and another daughter, Stephanie, 6, to a neighbor’s apartment. Freddy Jr., 12, would not leave because he wanted to stay with his father.

When police arrived, they knocked on the Sozas’ door, but Freddy Soza reportedly shouted profanities at them, and a brief standoff ensued.

Soza and his son then walked out the front door. Officers told the father and son to freeze.

According to a police report, Soza continued in the direction of the officers, holding the knife as if he was going to attack them. Two officers fired, with Soza’s son standing a few feet away. Freddy Jr. was not harmed.

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Police say Soza was shot because he threatened the officers, not because of his race, and point out that one of the officers who fired was Steve Romero, a Latino.

Romero and the other officer who fired shots, Francis Hardiman, have been with the department about three years, said Sgt. Henry Mashack, an internal affairs investigator. He said this was the first time either officer has fired at a suspect.

He added, “All departments get the complaint of being racist when shootings happen.”

In 1991, the city paid $1 million to the family of Terrence Williams, whose family claimed in a federal civil rights lawsuit that officers shot him because he was black.

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Former Police Sgt. Don Jackson has also leveled charges of racism against the department. *

Amid similar allegations from the Sozas, Hawthorne Police now are making news in Chile.

“They murdered him in cold blood” and “Chilean harassed in Los Angeles,” read headlines about Soza’s death in Las Ultimas Noticias (“the latest news”), a newspaper in the capital city of Santiago. The television show “Aqui, en Vivo,” or “Here, Live,” ran a 20-minute segment that used images of the beating of Rodney King and the story of the Soza shooting as a jumping off point to talk about racism and racist police officers in America.

Because of media attention to the case, the consul general of the Chilean consulate in Los Angeles, Pedro Suckel, said he asked Hawthorne Police for a copy of the report on the shooting, but will await the results of the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation and any trial before taking action.

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Nubia Soza, a native of Honduras, says she will move her family to a more peaceful country, possibly Costa Rica. But first, she said, “We want to see justice. We don’t care about money because that’s not going to bring my husband back.

“But we want to see police stop killing someone just because they feel like it,” she said.


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