The Orange County Grand Jury will begin hearing testimony today on the shooting death of a 20-year-old man last month by an off-duty federal officer during a confrontation at a noisy party, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said.
Sheriff’s officials said U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer Douglas Bates killed Bassim Chmait with a single shot to the head during an altercation Feb. 5 at a Mission Viejo apartment complex. Authorities said Bates, who lives in the complex, got into a fight with Chmait, of Laguna Hills, and four to six of Chmait’s companions as they arrived at the party about 1:30 a.m.
The initial report of the incident by the Sheriff’s Department said Bates came out of his apartment because he heard a disturbance and that his duty weapon discharged, perhaps accidentally.
The victim’s brother, Omar Chmait, challenged the official version. Omar Chmait was not present, but he has said that witnesses, who were friends of the victim, contended that Bates had provoked the fight.
Law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation said several witnesses gave contradictory accounts of the shooting. On Thursday, Rackauckas said the grand jury would sort through the testimony and decide whether to indict Bates.
“There might be some credibility questions, and we want to lay all of that information out to the grand jury so they can make whatever credibility decisions need to be made,” Rackauckas said. He expects the grand jury probe to be completed in two to three weeks.
Sheriff’s detectives finished their investigation last week and forwarded their findings to the district attorney. Normally, prosecutors review such reports and decide whether the evidence warrants charges. But Rackauckas said his office and the Sheriff’s Department decided it would be better to let the grand jury hear the facts and make a decision.
“It’s a case where we think we need testimony under oath,” he said. “There’s further investigation to do. The grand jury is an investigative body, and we want the testimony of a number of people who could be witnesses.”
He declined to say whether the grand jury was impaneled to hear the case because investigators were having problems getting key witnesses to talk to them, as some law enforcement officials have said.
“But it’s certainly our intention to have [testimony from] everyone who might be a witness to any relevant part of what happened,” Rackauckas said.
It was also learned Thursday that sheriff’s investigators had summoned a deputy district attorney to the scene the night of the shooting when they discovered that the shooter was a law enforcement officer. “We have had a deputy district attorney [involved in the investigation], starting right away,” Rackauckas said.
Chmait’s family and friends have held weekly vigils outside the Madrid Apartments, in the 2800 block of Los Alisos Boulevard, calling for Bates’ arrest. About three weeks ago, the family also organized a demonstration outside Rackauckas’ office to press for the prosecution of Bates.
On Thursday, the victim’s uncle, Hikmat Chmait of Irvine, expressed relief on behalf of the family.
“This gives us hope that maybe justice will be served,” he said. Initially discouraged by what they perceived as the reluctance of authorities to pursue the case, Chmait said, the family was “feeling better” knowing that the evidence would be presented to the grand jury.
“We won’t feel good, though,” he said, until the family hears that Bates will be prosecuted. “I hope the prosecution prevails.”
Rackauckas said he understood the family’s concerns, but said prosecutors and the grand jury would make decisions based on the merits of the case.
Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.