The family of an intellectually disabled man who was shot and killed by an off-duty Los Angeles police officer inside a Costco in Corona filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the officer and the city of Los Angeles.
Kenneth French, 32, died in the June 14 shooting; his parents, Russell and Paola French, were seriously injured.
“Our lives will never be the same and the holidays are completely empty without Kenneth,” the parents said in a statement. “Our family has been terrorized in too many ways. We are still fighting for our health and will not stop fighting for justice.”
Prosecutors declined to charge Officer Salvador Sanchez, a veteran of the LAPD’s Southwest Division.
“If it was anyone other than a police officer who went into a Costco with a concealed gun, pulled it out because they believed someone pushed them or hit them, and fired 10 shots, killing a mentally disabled man and hitting his parents, they would not be pulled out of that Costco without being detained, arrested and put in jail,” said civil rights attorney Dale K. Galipo, who is representing the French family in the lawsuit.
“I can certainly say without any fear of contradiction that my client was treated like anyone in this position,” said Ira Salzman, an attorney for Sanchez. “He wasn’t afforded any special treatment whatsoever. The Riverside district attorney’s office and Corona Police Department treated him like any other individual under investigation for a serious crime.”
According to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Russell and Paola French told Sanchez that their son struggled with mental illness and pleaded with him not to shoot, but he did anyway.
The lawsuit states that Kenneth, Russell and Paola French posed no immediate threat to Sanchez because they were moving away from him at the time of the shooting, which is supported by surveillance video and the fact that Kenneth and Paola were shot in the back.
Sanchez identified himself as a police officer both before and after the shooting, leading bystanders to neither intervene in the use of force nor attempt to render aid to the injured family members, according to the complaint. He also failed to assist the three victims after he shot them, the lawsuit states.
Because Sanchez continued to identify himself as an officer to law enforcement agencies that responded to investigate the shooting, he was not arrested, according to the lawsuit.
“Instead, he was freely released without even being ticketed or cited for any crime,” the lawsuit states. He also was permitted to review surveillance footage from inside Costco before being interviewed by law enforcement, and he was allowed to accompany Los Angeles Police Department investigators on a walk-through of the store several days after the shooting to explain what happened, according to the complaint.
“There should not be special privileges given to police officers, and we believe he was given many special privileges after this shooting,” Galipo said.
The lawsuit states that “Sanchez invoked his governmental status to influence the behavior of those around him” and that his “actions of identifying himself as being a police officer throughout the incident, including both before and after the shooting, was done with the purpose and effect of influencing the behavior of bystanders, plaintiffs and eyewitnesses.”
In addition to losing their son, both Paola and Russell French required multiple surgeries, including one to remove Russell’s kidney. The two will require medical care for the rest of their lives as a result of the injuries, Galipo said.
The lawsuit seeks wrongful-death damages, compensatory damages for personal injury and punitive damages for alleged violations of state civil rights statutes. It also names as defendants 25 unidentified LAPD managers or supervisors.
Sanchez “worked for the LAPD, he was using their gun, he announced himself as a police officer and he acted in part based on his training with the LAPD, which we think is totally inadequate,” Galipo said.
The LAPD can’t comment on open litigation, said Officer Jeff Lee, a department spokesman. He said that the LAPD is continuing to conduct an administrative review of Sanchez’s actions and that Sanchez is assigned to home duty pending the investigation’s outcome.
The shooting, which took place in a food tasting line inside the warehouse store, sent shoppers running for cover.
According to the French family, they were shopping for Father’s Day and had stopped at a stand for sausage samples when Kenneth got into a physical altercation with Sanchez, who was holding his toddler.
Paola French has said she believes Kenneth pushed or shoved the officer. Prosecutors and attorneys for Sanchez have said Kenneth struck him in the back of the head without warning or provocation.
Sanchez was knocked to the ground and started shooting 3.8 seconds later, firing 10 times, according to the Riverside County district attorney’s office. He was about 20 feet from the victims when he opened fire, police said.
Riverside County prosecutors in September announced they would not file criminal charges against Sanchez after a grand jury didn’t find evidence to warrant them. Dist. Atty. Mike Hestrin could have filed 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.
In announcing that there would be no charges against Sanchez, the district attorney said the officer believed that the blow to the back of his head delivered by Kenneth French was a gunshot and that he was under attack.
Galipo said that video of the incident does not support the claim that Sanchez was hit from behind and called the grand jury process “rigged from the start.”
He said that Sanchez, through his attorneys, changed his story, first saying that Kenneth French struck him so hard that he lost consciousness, and later, after that explanation was not supported by surveillance video and witnesses, saying that he believed he had been shot.
“Can you imagine if a non-police officer went to Costco and started shooting people, saying, ‘I thought I was being shot at?’” Galipo said. “They would immediately put a mental hold on this person.”
Salzman, the attorney for Sanchez, said the officer “never changed any of his stories.”
“He was always consistent, he was always truthful, and the prosecuting authorities recognized that,” he said.
Authorities in September released a portion of the surveillance video showing the shooting, but the images were grainy and it was difficult to decipher what was happening.
Galipo said the family hopes that a civil jury will be able to bring them some measure of justice by finding that Sanchez “used excessive and unreasonable force” that was in part informed by his training as a police officer.
“We don’t want to see no accountability, and then five years from now or three years from now, this guy shoots two or three or four more people, maybe someone’s child,” Galipo said. “We don’t want to see this happen to someone else, and that’s one of our main motivating factors.”