Police and the grieving residents of an east Santa Ana neighborhood offered conflicting accounts Friday of what led to the death of a 17-year-old youth, but both agreed he was shot from behind as he ran from officers during a routine stop.
Police say Joseph Pulido was a gang member fleeing with a stolen gun in his hand, a threat to the officer who shot him Thursday and to the public. But relatives and friends who gathered Friday to mourn the fallen teen, nicknamed "Woofie" for his love of dogs, say Pulido was unarmed and ran because he was violating his probation.
"The cop gave him no warning. They shot him in the back," Pulido's father, 43-year-old Pedro Pulido, said Friday as he sat stiff with grief in the family living room surrounded by his sobbing children, sisters and cousins. "They just killed him cold."
A source close to the police investigation said Pulido was aiming the gun back over his shoulder at Officer Ernie Conde when the officer fired four times at him Thursday afternoon. The teen was hit once, in the upper rear right shoulder.
While detailed autopsy information was not available Friday, a police source said the shot might have struck the teen's spine.
Conde, named by his peers as Santa Ana's 1995 Officer of the Year, "had no choice, none at all" the police source said.
Police officials issued a statement saying a .357 magnum--stolen in Torrance in October 1994--was found on a nearby lawn, where it landed after flying from the wounded Pulido's hand.
Police Chief Paul M. Walters and Lt. Bob Helton, the department spokesman, were unavailable for comment Friday.
Conde served a stint with the department's narcotics unit and had also been assigned to the city's "weed and seed" program targeting one of the city's most troubled neighborhoods. Conde enjoys a reputation of having strong ties to the community, fellow officers said.
"He took it real, real hard," one officer said of the shooting.
Conde and his partner had stopped about 4:30 p.m. in the 200 block of McClay Street to question Pulido's two friends, who were drinking beer as Pulido sat on his bike chatting and sipping a soda.
But before the squad car had even come to a full stop, Pulido abruptly dropped the bike and bolted, one friend said, leading officers on a chase down a driveway, over a chain-link fence, and through a small, weed-strewn lot before he jumped over a wall into a parking lot.
Conde leaned over the wall and shot Pulido when the youth allegedly pointed the weapon at him, police sources said.
But family and friends say they doubt Pulido had a gun and think he ran from officers simply because he was violating his probation for a car theft conviction by hanging out on the sidewalk with his old friends, and he was afraid of police.
"I don't think he had a gun, but even if he did, that's no reason to shoot him in the back," said Juan Lenus, 20, a friend of Pulido who spent several hours with him Thursday afternoon and said he never saw a gun. "He didn't pose a threat to those officers. He was running away from them, not toward them."
Youth often run from the police in this hard-edged neighborhood, said one 24-year-old man named Alex, who declined to give his last name.
"The officers know these guys are going to run. They've been running for years," he said. "It's like a game with them. They'll run from the cops all weekend."
Police said Conde's partner yelled, "I know you have a gun," at Pulido before Conde fired. But Julio Bonilla, 21, who was drinking a beer and talking to Pulido when the officers pulled up, said he heard no such thing. "I would have heard it," he said Friday. "It wasn't that far."
Orange attorney James H. Cesena, hired Friday by the Pulido family, said he has spoken to Bonilla and two other people who were in the area and saw part of the chase.
"They all say they heard nothing, no shouts, no statements of any kind from any of the officers," Cesena said.
Cesena said he thinks it unlikely that the weapon was hurled over the wall into the neighboring yard, because a towering stand of aging prickly pear cactus borders the wall.
The family will press for a full investigation into the shooting, urge criminal prosecution of the officer and contact the FBI about the incident, Cesena said. The district attorney's office is investigating the incident, which is routine for all officer-involved shootings.
"In my mind, there's no question it's murder," Cesena said. "It's a violent and brutal use of police force. . . . This young man was killed in the prime of his life."
As other family members clutched him, Pedro Pulido broke down in front of news cameras Friday, saying "I just want somebody to tell me why they shot my son in the back. I want justice for my son. This is no Christmas for me."
Friday, Joseph Pulido's schoolbooks were laid out on a family table. After a semester of continuation studies, he was itching to get back to Santa Ana's Century High School in January and finish the 35 credits he needed for graduation, family members said.
The teen had been strongly encouraged by one teacher, who helped him get his books ready, and he had been on a waiting list since September to reenter the high school, said his mother, 43-year-old Elizabeth Pulido.
"He would get bored at the house and tell me, 'Let's call the school and see if there's an opening," his mother said.
The youth, who doted on his three pit bulls and also raised pigeons, hung around with gang members in the east Santa Ana neighborhood where he spent his entire life.
In a news release issued Friday, police identified Pulido as a known gang member, and one police source said his chest was covered with gang tattoos.
But after a stint in Juvenile Hall for auto theft earlier this year, Pulido told friends and relatives that he planned to stay out of trouble and proudly promised to become the family's first child to graduate from high school.
"He wanted to become somebody," said Rosemary Cueva, 26, Pulido's stepsister. "He would call us on the phone when he was locked up, and he said he was going to change. . . . He wanted to move too. He didn't want to live in Santa Ana anymore."
Cueva is married and lives in Tustin. Three other Pulido sisters--ages 14, 16 and 21--live at home.
Friday, more than 30 relatives, friends and neighborhood children walked the five blocks from Pulido's home to the feed store parking lot where he was shot.
There, doubling over in sobs at the sight of the sawdust swatch that marked the scene, they placed a photo of a smiling Pulido in an undershirt and recited the rosary. Neighborhood children toyed with the sawdust, and 11-year-old Gustavo Aranda, who heard the shots and saw his friend lying on the ground, crouched wide-eyed near the makeshift altar.
Just a month ago, Pulido gave Aranda a pit bull puppy, he said.
"He tried his best all the time," said a red-eyed Lucina Funes, 15, another friend of Pulido. "He wanted to be something else, not just a gang member. It's just that they didn't give him a chance. People judged him before they knew him."
At the Pulido home, wrapped gifts with his name on them sat unopened at the foot of the family Christmas tree--Levi's and shirts for the teen's return to school next month. His mother said she and her son had plans to head to the Orange Mall Thursday night to pick out a jacket--his biggest holiday gift.
Teresa Vargas, 49, Elizabeth Pulido's cousin whose house abuts the lot where Pulido was shot, said that, although Pulido had been in some trouble, he was a conscientious teen who cared about others.
"He wasn't a killer. He wasn't a murderer. It could have been my sons," Vargas said.
Bennie Owen, 54, who owns the Pulido home, said she watched the youth grow up. "Joseph was the light of his father's eye, as only sons often are," Owen said.
"The last time I saw him I shook my finger in his face jokingly and said, 'You stay out of trouble.' He just smiled."