Riverside County prosecutors on Wednesday announced they would not file criminal charges against an off-duty Los Angeles police officer who fatally shot an intellectually disabled man in June during a confrontation in a Costco store in Corona.
Dist. Atty. Mike Hestrin said prosecutors presented the case Sept. 9 to a Riverside grand jury of 19 people, which compelled testimony from witnesses inside the crowded warehouse store. Ultimately, the grand jury decided no charges were warranted against the off-duty officer, Salvador Sanchez, in the fatal shooting of Kenneth French, 32.
The district attorney’s office presented incriminating as well as exculpatory evidence to the grand jury, which California prosecutors are required to do, and Hestrin said his office solicited questions from an attorney who represents Sanchez, a patrol officer in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southwest Division.
Hestrin could file charges despite the grand jury’s decision but said he would not do so because the minimum number of jurors — 12 of the 19 — didn’t find evidence to indict.
He rejected the idea that Sanchez, as a law enforcement officer, received special treatment. “I stand by the decision of the grand jury,” Hestrin said.
French was killed in a food-tasting line June 14. His parents, Russell and Paola French, were wounded in the gunfire.
In the weeks following the deadly encounter, sharply different accounts of the interaction emerged.
David Winslow, an attorney for Sanchez, said his client was getting a sample when he was attacked and briefly knocked out by French.
“He was shopping with his wife and 1½-year-old at Costco,” Winslow said. “His son was in his arms, and he was feeding his son some samples when, within seconds, he was on the ground and woke up from being unconscious and he was fighting for his life.”
Corona police also said the assault, which was captured on Costco security cameras, was unprovoked and led the officer to fire his 9-millimeter pistol.
Investigators with the district attorney’s office said no words were exchanged before French accosted Sanchez.
“There was no previous altercation. ... There was no inadvertent bumping. The officer [carrying his child] was hit in the head,” Hestrin said.
During a news conference Wednesday, Hestrin played a portion of a low-quality surveillance video, but the images were grainy and it was hard to decipher what was happening. The recording shows French, wearing a striped shirt, being pulled along by a male family member in a dark shirt. The two men become entangled and fall to the ground, and a woman is seen approaching them. Sanchez is barely visible in the far-left frame.
Prior to the confrontation between Sanchez and French, prosecutors said there was no previous interaction between the two.
“It was out of the blue and unexpected,” Hestrin said. “The officer was hit in the back of the head while holding a child in his hands.”
Ira Salzman, another of Sanchez’s attorneys, said his client had been vindicated.
“My client was assaulted and attacked, and what he did was excusable and reasonable under the law,” Salzman said. “It is a terrible tragedy. We have two sets of parents trying to protect their child. Sal had no choice but to use deadly force to protect his young son and himself from assault.”
The district attorney’s analysis determined 3.8 seconds elapsed between when Sanchez was knocked to the ground and when the first of a total of 10 shots were fired. The gunfire cannot be seen in the video.
The LAPD released a statement Wednesday afternoon, along with the video, saying that its administrative investigation is ongoing despite the decision by the Riverside County district attorney’s office.
“A court order barred the department from releasing that video, however, that stay order was lifted today and we are now able to release it to the public,” the statement reads.
After the LAPD’s investigation is complete, the statement says, the police chief “will make a recommendation to the Board of Police Commissioners, who will determine whether Officer Sanchez’s decision to use lethal force was within department policy.”
“The department continues to express its deepest sympathies to the French family,” the statement says.
The decision against prosecution capped a three-month investigation into a case that sparked debate about the use of deadly force by law enforcement and prompted worry among families of developmentally disabled children.
Civil rights attorney Dale K. Galipo, who is representing the French family, acknowledged that French pushed the officer but said the exchange wasn’t a justification for the shooting.
Before shots were fired, there was a gap in time when the officer declared he was a police officer, and French’s father stepped between the two men.
French was normally calm, but he had had a recent change in medication that might have affected his behavior, Galipo said.
The attorney has said French was nonverbal and suffered from schizophrenia.
In August, a Riverside County Superior Court judge blocked the release of the surveillance video that was unveiled Wednesday.
The Times requested a copy of the video from inside the store in late June, citing both California public records laws and Assembly Bill 748, which requires government agencies to produce video and audio recordings of critical incidents involving police that result in death or great bodily injury. That request was denied by the city, and The Times appealed the decision.
Judge Eric Keen wrote in a ruling July 22 that releasing the video would substantially interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation into the case. The order originally barred Corona and Los Angeles police from releasing the video for one year from the date of the shooting.