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Man fatally shot by California Highway Patrol was unarmed, family attorneys say

A man poses for a photo in a house
Leonel Chavez was fatally shot by California Highway Patrol officers. His family and their attorneys say it was unjustified.
(Christian Contreras)

A 24-year-old man fatally shot by California Highway Patrol officers in El Sereno on Tuesday was unarmed, attorneys for his family said.

A witness said the man, Leonel Chavez, seemed intoxicated when he got out of his Honda after colliding with a Chevrolet Camaro at Indiana and Medford streets.

A CHP officer shocked Chavez with a stun gun before others opened fire, shooting him multiple times, according to witnesses.

“He was unarmed. He posed no threat to officers. This shooting is totally unjustified,” said Christian Contreras, an attorney for Chavez’s family.

Maritza Padilla, Chavez’s mother, said the officer who fired the fatal bullet needs to pay for killing her son.

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“I need justice, and I need the one who shot him fired out of the CHP,” she said at a news conference Wednesday at the shooting scene.

CHP Officer Robert Ruiz said officers responded to the collision about 3:15 p.m and fatally shot one of the drivers.

Ruiz did not offer any details about what led up to the shooting or why the officers needed to use deadly force. He could not say whether Chavez was armed or whether a weapon was found at the scene.

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta announced Wednesday that he had launched an investigation into Chavez’s death.

A law passed in July requires Bonta’s office to investigate fatal police shootings of unarmed civilians to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

In 2019, 16 civilians were shot by CHP officers. The year before, 12 were shot, and 16 were shot in 2017.

The state Department of Justice will assign 27 special agents and six supervisory agents to the California Police Shooting Investigation Teams.

Chavez was a security guard who lived in the Ramona Gardens housing development, attended community college classes and liked to play basketball.

A witness to the shooting told KCBS-TV Channel 2 that Chavez appeared under the influence of alcohol or drugs but was attempting to comply with officers’ commands.

“He raised his hands up, put them behind his neck, just the way they told him,” Dalilia Mendez said. “But I guess he was kind of drunk, so when he turned around, he stumbled and then that’s when they tasered him.”

Mendez told another television station, KABC-TV Channel 7, that Chavez “was reaching at one of the cops” when he was shot about seven times.

Humberto Guizar, another Chavez family attorney, said one officer’s decision to use a stun gun on Chavez showed that deadly force was not required to subdue him.

Chavez may have been upset about getting in an accident because his car had recently been repaired.

“I know CHP isn’t saying anything, and I am not surprised given the circumstances,” Guizar said. “What can they say? They shot a man without justification.”


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