Airman’s Shooting Sparks FBI Inquiry
Responding to a dramatic videotape of a police shooting, federal officials opened an investigation Tuesday into the conduct of a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy who opened fire on a man who appeared to be following the deputy’s order to get off the ground.
A grainy videotape of the shooting in Chino was broadcast repeatedly on television Tuesday. The quality of the tape is poor, and it is difficult to clearly hear all the exchanges between the deputy and 21-year-old Elio Carrion during the seconds before the shooting.
At one point, a voice on the tape appears to say “Stay on the ground.” A moment later, however, the deputy appears to tell Carrion: “Get up, get up.”
“I’m going to get up,” Carrion replied as he began to rise from a crouch. As he did so, the deputy, who was standing a few feet away, fired multiple rounds.
Carrion, a U.S. Air Force security officer who had recently returned from duty in Iraq, was hit in the chest, shoulder and leg. He was listed in good condition Tuesday at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton.
San Bernardino County sheriff’s officials have refused to release the deputy’s name.
The incident, which took place Sunday night, began with the deputy’s chasing a blue Corvette on a short pursuit that authorities said reached speeds of 100 mph. Officials said the deputy pursued the Corvette because the driver was speeding. Carrion was a passenger in the car.
The chase ended when the car crashed into a fence on a residential street in Chino about 10:30 p.m. The driver, Luis Fernando Escobedo, 21, was arrested on suspicion of felony evading. The district attorney’s office has not filed charges against him, however, and he was scheduled to be released from jail Tuesday night, officials said.
Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Cindy Beavers said Tuesday evening that neither the driver nor Carrion was armed and that there was no indication Carrion would be arrested or charged with a crime.
Sheriff Gary Penrod has reviewed the videotape, as have several members of the department, Beavers said.
“The dialogue is difficult to understand,” Beavers said. “We cannot make judgments on this shooting yet. It is not crystal clear, and if there’s any question left open, we can’t say whether Carrion or the deputy is wrong.” The deputy’s conversation with Carrion in the seconds before the shooting is “critical,” she said.
Beavers said sheriff’s officials hoped the federal investigation would include a forensic review of the video to help “clear up audio issues, to be exact in the dialogue between the deputy and the passenger.”
On Tuesday, U.S. Atty. Debra Wong Yang asked the FBI to look at the incident to determine whether the deputy violated Carrion’s civil rights, her spokesman, Thom Mrozek, said.
In addition to the federal investigation, the Sheriff’s Department will investigate and report its findings to the San Bernardino County district attorney. Assistant Dist. Atty. Michael Risley said Tuesday that, according to available records, the district attorney’s office had never filed criminal charges against a law enforcement officer involved in an on-duty shooting.
Current and former elected officials in the county said they were troubled by the shooting.
“I found the images very disturbing,” said Supervisor Gary Ovitt, whose district includes Chino. “It did not appear that the passenger had done anything to provoke the shooting, so I can understand why people are demanding answers.”
Eunice Ulloa, a 21-year Chino councilwoman and former mayor, called the shooting “frightening” and said she had received numerous calls from concerned residents in the blue-collar farming town of 80,000.
“It doesn’t appear there was any justification for the shooting,” said Ulloa, who lives near the shooting scene. “The video was horrifying, and it was horrifying to hear that night -- all this yelling and screaming. I just hope the Sheriff’s Department interviews all the witnesses involved to learn what triggered this officer to shoot. It appears this guy [Carrion] was shot unprovoked.”
The videotape was shot by a bystander who provided the original to law enforcement officials and sold a copy to KTLA-TV Channel 5. The tape picks up after the pursuit ended and shows Carrion crouching with the deputy hovering over him, his gun drawn.
The deputy can be heard shouting repeated profanities at Carrion, calling him a “punk” and telling him to “shut up.”
At one point, the deputy kicks at Carrion, but it is unclear whether he makes contact.
On the tape, Carrion can be heard telling the deputy, “I’m here on your side. All right? I’m here to tell you.... We’re here on your side.” In the background, yelling can be heard, and Carrion appears to yell at the driver to be quiet.
“We mean you no harm ... all right?” said Carrion, who also interspersed his statements with profanity. “I served more time than you in the ... police, in the ... military, OK?”
After the shooting, Carrion can be heard moaning in pain as the deputy shouts -- apparently into a radio -- “Shots fired! Shots fired!” He then shouts: “Shut the ... up!” several times.
Someone in the background says, “You told him to get up!” The deputy tells the unidentified person, “Shut ... up!”
Carrion’s wife Tuesday denounced the shooting, calling it a criminal act by the deputy. Mariela Carrion said the Sheriff’s Department should fire the deputy who shot her husband and prosecutors should file criminal charges against him.
“He shouldn’t ever be carrying a badge again,” Mariela Carrion said. “It’s unfair and sad for a man like my husband to be treated like that. For what he [the deputy] did, he should have to pay for it in court.”
Bill Abernathie, president of the sheriff’s deputies union, the San Bernardino County Safety Employees Benefit Assn., complained about the video’s repeated airing on television.
“To paint every cop in California as bad people because one incident happened, and we don’t know the facts, is just wrong,” he said.
Jim Erwin, chief of administration for the union, said the deputy involved had retained an attorney, and rank-and-file members were “waiting for the investigation to conclude.... I don’t know all the details or what provoked it,” Erwin said.
The attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
Vanessa Escobedo, 19, the sister of the Corvette driver, said she spoke to Carrion by telephone Tuesday. She said he expected the deputy to be charged with a crime for shooting him.
Carrion “said he doesn’t want to talk to anyone in the newspaper or television; he said he’d just rather go to court and talk,” said Vanessa Escobedo. “He told me they had no weapons at all in that car. He’s upset. He doesn’t know why they shot him.”
Carrion grew up in Montclair and attended Montclair High School. He graduated in 2002 and joined the Air Force the next year.
Kimberly King, a nurse assistant at the high school, said she met Carrion when he worked as an aide. When King heard about the shooting on television Tuesday morning, she said, “I just wanted to come through the screen” and knock the gun from the deputy’s hand.
“It broke my heart this morning when they announced his name. I just cried for him and his sweet family,” said King, 42. “It just broke my heart this way to see his name announced on TV, like he’s a common criminal.”
She said Carrion once befriended a schoolmate who was struggling in class and encouraged him to stay out of trouble, and that he was respectful of his family and girlfriend, whom he married.
“I remember him so vividly as truly one of the most polite, conscientious, extraordinarily devoted kids,” said King, who has received several e-mails from Carrion since his graduation and saw him when he visited his former high school in his Air Force uniform.
Carrion played basketball for three school years and notched perfect attendance in 2002, according to his yearbook, where he is pictured in a gray suit and silver tie. In the nurse’s office, he would run errands, make deliveries and greet other students.
“He was a quiet and very honorable young man,” King said.
No one answered the door at Carrion’s parents’ house, a modest stucco building across from an elementary school. Three flags rustle on poles -- the Mexican flag, the U.S. flag and the Air Force flag -- and hand-held Mexican and U.S. flags dot the rose bed in the frontyard.
Times staff writers Michelle Keller, Mitchell Landsberg, Ashley Powers, Susannah Rosenblatt and John Spano contributed to this report.