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L.A. County coroner announces independent inquest into deputy killing of Fred Williams III in Willowbrook

Najee Ali, left, and Cliff Smith point to photographs of Fred Williams III before being fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy.
Najee Ali, left, and Cliff Smith point to photographs of Fred Williams III, who was fleeing a sheriff’s deputy before being fatally shot Oct. 20.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County coroner’s officials announced Friday that the department will conduct an independent inquest into the fatal deputy shooting of a man in Willowbrook, marking only the second independent probe by the coroner into a department shooting in more than 30 years and second under the current administration.

Fred Williams III, 25, died after he was shot by an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy who was chasing him through a backyard after authorities said they saw the parolee holding a handgun in the parking lot of Mona Park on East 122nd Street. Deputies said they encountered Williams during a patrol check of the park because of recent shootings.

It was the first deputy shooting recorded on department-issued body cameras, and the agency released footage of the chase and shooting about two weeks after the incident.

The footage from Oct. 16 shows Williams on top of a garden shed, holding a gun while jumping over a fence, before he was shot. During the incident, the deputy broadcast over the radio that Williams “pointed 417 at me,” referring to the firearm.

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When the footage was released, the man’s father, Fred Williams Jr., told The Times it refuted the deputy’s claim.

“We see the video, we all see the video, and he was shot in the back,” Williams said. “The video clearly shows there was never a gun pointed in [the deputy’s] direction.”

The coroner’s office has not completed the full autopsy report but has determined that Williams died by a “gunshot wound of back,” according to its online records.

The Sheriff’s Department said a semiautomatic handgun was recovered by homicide investigators.

Before this year, the coroner’s office had not launched an independent inquest in more than 30 years. Then deputies fatally shot 18-year-old Andres Guardado in the back five times during a chase in Gardena in June and put a “security hold” on the autopsy, shielding the findings from public view.

The coroner’s office eventually made the autopsy findings public anyway, citing the public interest in transparency, which infuriated county Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has come under heavy criticism from other county leaders.

The coroner’s office cited similar reasoning Friday in announcing the inquest into Williams’ death.

“As with the previous inquest, this proceeding supports the department’s mission and purpose to provide independent, evidence-based death investigations, [and] addresses the public’s interest in the death,” the agency said in a statement.

Retired Superior Court Judge Candace Cooper, who is overseeing the Guardado inquest, will also oversee the probe into the Williams case. It is scheduled to begin Jan. 28.

Although the medical examiner’s office has already determined the cause of death for Williams, the inquest is a public, quasi-judicial inquiry where witnesses may be called and documents may be subpoenaed in order to inquire into the cause, manner and circumstances of death, coroner’s officials said.

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Department said it welcomed the investigation.

“We enthusiastically support the decision by the medical examiner-corner to conduct an inquest into the shooting death of Mr. Fred Williams and look forward to the findings,” the department said. “Sheriff Alex Villanueva is committed to transparency and accountability and has been an advocate of utilizing the medical examiner-[coroner] Inquest process in order to determine manner and cause of death.”

Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.


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