Killing by Police a Case of Mistaken Identity

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sheriff's detectives probing last month's fatal shooting by Huntington Beach police of an 18-year-old holding a toy gun have concluded that the teenager was not fleeing authorities and that officers were chasing another man when they came across the victim.

Sheriff's officials said Wednesday that the officers lost sight of the suspect before seeing Antonio Saldivar clutching the toy rifle on a dark street in the city's Oakview section. One of the officers fired, apparently thinking that Saldivar was the man they had been chasing, sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said.

The latest development in the case came to light a month ago when another man, Brigido Cara Mendez, told police that it was he, not Saldivar, whom police had been chasing the night of May 5. It was the same Huntington Beach officer involved in the shooting, Mark Wersching, who arrested Mendez on an outstanding warrant a month ago and first learned that Mendez had been the runner that night, officials said.

Mendez, 21, then threatened to kill Wersching and told him that gang members living in Oakview were planning to attack him, police said.

"I'm going to shoot you 'cause you killed an innocent person," Mendez allegedly told the officer while sitting handcuffed in a police cruiser. "You'll be dead in two hours."

Sheriff's officials said the new details will help piece together the events that led to the May 5 shooting, which triggered protests in the Oakview neighborhood, one of the city's poorest, most heavily populated Latino areas.

Mistake Admitted

Huntington Beach police acknowledged Wednesday that they had been mistaken when they previously said Saldivar had led police on a chase before he was shot.

But sheriff's and police officials maintained that the news does not necessarily offer evidence that Wersching acted improperly the night he shot Saldivar.

"It doesn't change the fact that he was holding a toy gun and that the officers apparently feared for their lives," Amormino said.

Saldivar's relatives said they feel vindicated by the latest news.

Susana Campos, the teenager's sister, said she and others told police weeks ago that officers had chased another man--not her brother--the night of the shooting. But, she said, police did not believe them.

Campos, 24, said that despite the new revelations, she still harbors serious doubts about the police version of events that night, particularly the assertion that her brother pointed a toy rifle at officers. Her brother had no history of violence, she said.

Saldivar's family has filed a $15-million claim against the city and Police Department, describing Wersching as an officer with a history of using excessive force. The city has yet to act on the claim.

Tim Black, an attorney representing Saldivar's family, said the latest development casts doubt on the version of events offered by police.

"It does even more to undermine their position that Saldivar would have had a motive to pick up a toy gun," Black said. "None of it makes any sense."

Up to now, police have maintained that Wersching and another officer saw Saldivar peering into a car and began chasing him. After briefly losing him, police said, the officer saw Saldivar holding what appeared to be a rifle and opened fire.

Now, however, authorities believe that it was Mendez the officers chased and that they came upon Saldivar later.

Threats Alleged

Two weeks after the shooting, Wersching was on night patrol when he spotted Mendez riding in a car near Beach Boulevard and Heil Avenue.

Wersching told supervisors he recognized Mendez as a gang member and knew there was a warrant out for his arrest. Wersching stopped the car and arrested Mendez, who was allegedly carrying false identification.

It was while Wersching drove him to Huntington Beach Jail that Mendez began threatening him, said Huntington Beach Police Lt. Chuck Thomas.

"Why do you want to shoot me?" the officer reportedly asked.

"Because you killed an innocent man," Mendez allegedly replied.

Thomas said he was unsure why Wersching recognized Mendez on May 19 and not the night of the shooting. But Thomas said that on May 5, Wersching was farther from Mendez and that the suspect only glanced in his direction before fleeing.

Sheriff's officials said they have corroborated Mendez's account of the chase that night and are following up on his contention that he knew Saldivar. Detectives are trying to determine how well the two knew each other and whether they were together the night of the shooting.

Thomas said Mendez's threats have worried department officials, who earlier this week temporarily moved Wersching from patrol to investigations as a precaution.

Thomas said Mendez allegedly told Wersching that he knew where the officer lived. The department is beefing up patrols in the officer's neighborhood and monitoring his house.

"They sound like they could be credible threats," Thomas said. "We have to take them very seriously."

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