Advertisement
Share

Anaheim police officers who killed councilman’s cousin have a history of fatal shootings

An image taken from police body cam footage
An image taken from body cam footage shows the scene where Anaheim police fatally shot Brandon Lopez in Santa Ana on Sept. 28.
(Anaheim Police Department)

When Anaheim police officers fatally shot a Santa Ana city councilman’s cousin in September, it wasn’t the first time some of them had been involved in deadly shootings.

Anaheim Officers Catalin Panov, Paul Delgado, Brett Heitmann and Kenneth Weber fired the fatal shots at Brandon Lopez on Sept. 28 after a car chase and hours-long standoff at a construction area in Santa Ana. Lopez, 33, was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle and had warrants for armed robberies, domestic violence and driving on a suspended license.

Body camera footage revealed that the officers mistook an empty water bottle in a black bag for a gun right before they shot and killed Lopez.

The incident has drawn criticism from Santa Ana Councilman Johnathan Hernandez, who said police unnecessarily escalated the situation when they shot his cousin, who was suffering from a mental health crisis. Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento compared Anaheim police to “a firing squad” and questioned the officers’ “provocative decision” to fire a flash-bang round into Lopez’s car.

Advertisement

The California Department of Justice is investigating the shooting under Assembly Bill 1506, which requires the department to investigate all police shootings in the state that result in the death of an unarmed civilian.

A history of fatal shootings

For Officers Panov and Delgado, this wasn’t the first time they’ve been involved in a fatal shooting.

Delgado has been involved in at least three other shootings, according to district attorney’s records and a 2017 report on Anaheim police use-of-force incidents from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

In 2018, Delgado was involved in a shooting that left Kenneth Yamashita-Magarro paralyzed from the waist down. While conducting surveillance on another person, police started tailing Yamashita-Magarro, wrongfully believing him to be the suspect.

After a car chase that ended with Yamashita-Magarro crashing a car and being pursued on foot, he was shot in the chest, left leg and lower back. According to a district attorney’s report, police believed Yamashita-Magarro was reaching into his waistband for a gun, but no gun was found on him. The district attorney’s office cleared Delgado and another officer of criminal wrongdoing last year.

Delgado was also involved in the fatal shooting of Robert Moreno in 2014. Moreno was shot 23 times after allegedly shooting a police dog and firing at officers. Delgado and two other officers were cleared by the district attorney’s office.

In 2008, Delgado was also involved in the nonfatal shooting of Jose Francisco Rodriguez, according to district attorney’s records clearing him of criminal wrongdoing.

Rodriguez led police on a chase through Garden Grove and Anaheim before being boxed in by Anaheim SWAT team armored vehicles in a parking lot. According to a district attorney’s report, he exited the vehicle suddenly with a shotgun and pointed it at officers before they shot him.

Rodriguez’s brother-in-law, Joel Martinez, told the Orange County Register at the time that Rodriguez was suffering from a mental health episode.

“He seemed really depressed,” Martinez told the Register. “He was going through a lot — I was actually surprised how much he’s going through, that he was handling it. This is a crisis situation here.”

An Anaheim officer and police car
Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento likened Anaheim police to “a firing squad.”
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Panov has been involved in at least two other shootings.

In 2008, he and another officer shot and killed David Abrams on the 91 Freeway after a car chase. Police said Abrams had shot an officer in the leg, spurring the pursuit.

During the freeway incident, Norma Alicia Cortez-Gomez and Tereza Cortez ended up in police officers’ line of fire. The women filed a lawsuit, claiming that Cortez-Gomez was shot in the abdomen, hand, back and shoulder by bullets from police as they fired at Abrams, who was taking cover behind their car. Cortez-Gomez was treated at a hospital. The city of Anaheim settled the case with the women for $300,000.

The lawsuit claimed that police officers targeting Abrams placed the women “in a position of great danger” and risked “imminent severe injuries to their personal safety and well being that they would not have otherwise faced.”

In 2014, Panov and five other officers shot and killed Steen Parker, who was suspected of robbing a Fry’s Electronics store at gunpoint.

Leading up to the shooting, Parker was holed up in a car for a few hours as police tried to get him to surrender with tactics that included firing pepper balls and gas into the car. About three hours into the standoff, Parker appeared to fire a single round through the top of the car. According to a district attorney’s report that cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing, an officer said he believed that Parker was trying to make it seem as if he had killed himself.

After an officer hit Parker with a beanbag round requested by Panov, Parker raised his gun and fired at Panov and another officer. Several officers opened fire, including Panov, who fired an entire magazine, the district attorney’s report says.

Heitmann has been present during two police shootings, though he didn’t fire his gun in either instance.

Heitmann was partners with Officer Nick Bennallack when Bennallack fatally shot Manuel Angel Diaz in 2012. A federal jury concluded in 2017 that Bennallack used excessive force when he killed Diaz, who was unarmed and running away from him in an apartment building courtyard. Protests erupted in Anaheim in response to the killing of Diaz and Joel Acevedo, who was killed a day after Diaz. Heitmann was also partners with Bennallack when Bennallack shot and killed Bernie Villegas in 2012, mistaking a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun for an actual shotgun.

Bennallack has been involved in four fatal shootings in eight years, including the Parker shooting with Panov.

Deadly encounter

According to a video released by Anaheim police last month, officers chased Lopez, the councilman’s cousin, for 35 minutes through Tustin, Irvine and Santa Ana. After his car became stuck on streetcar tracks that were under construction, Lopez remained inside the vehicle for several hours as police commanded him to exit.

Sgt. Jacob Gallacher said in the video that a Santa Ana police officer who was monitoring Lopez’s movements in the car reported to other officers that Lopez was reaching under the seats and had a gun.

Less than an hour before the fatal shooting, Anaheim police took command of the incident from Santa Ana officers.

The video shows that about 30 minutes before Lopez was killed, a Santa Ana officer reports that he spoke with a member of Lopez‘s family who said he wanted to be killed in a “suicide by cop.”

A crumpled plastic water bottle and a small black Guess bag are among items marked as evidence.
A police photo of the objects Brandon Lopez had that officers mistook for a gun.
(Anaheim Police Department)

Gallacher explains in the video that Anaheim police decided to shoot a “chemical agent” into the car “with the hopes that it would encourage him to surrender.” After a nearly four-hour standoff, police deployed gas and a flash-bang at the car.

Body camera footage of the shooting shows Lopez leaving the car after the flash-bang was fired and the car filled with gas. Within a few seconds, police shout “Hands up!” and “Gun!” Several shots ring out and Lopez falls to the ground.

Gallacher said Lopez had a “black object in his right hand,” and officers were still concerned about a potential gun after he was shot because he was lying on his hands. A projectile was fired at his body, but he was unresponsive. He was declared dead at the scene.

Gallacher said that a gun was not found. Instead, police found an empty plastic water bottle inside a black Guess bag underneath Lopez’s body. A note from Lopez was found in the car, along with a knife and drug paraphernalia.

Anaheim police spokesman Shane Carringer declined to comment due to pending litigation from the Lopez family.

Anaheim city spokesman Mike Lyster said in an email last week that the Lopez shooting was unique and should be analyzed separately from the officers’ past shootings.

“We never want to see loss of life involving our police, but we take issue with the narrative,” Lyster said. “Each incident involving our police is unique and needs to be looked at on its own. Seeking to draw conclusions from different incidents does a disservice to all involved.”

Potential lawsuit

The Lopez family filed a claim Nov. 21 seeking $20 million in damages from the city of Anaheim, contending that the officers used “excessive and unreasonable force” against Lopez. The family is being represented by well-known civil rights attorneys Vicki Sarmiento, who is the sister of the Santa Ana mayor, and Dale Galipo.

The claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

Sarmiento said the Lopez shooting exemplifies that the Anaheim Police Department lacks sufficient de-escalation training for its officers. She specifically questioned the use of the flash-bang, which can cause temporary blindness and hearing loss, according to the American Journal of Operations Research.

“What was the plan once he exited, given the fact that it does cause temporary hearing loss and disorientation?” she said. “So I think the very use of that flash grenade … and then to shoot him within seconds was catastrophic in terms of training.”

A cloud of smoke and chemicals rise from a car surrounded by other vehicles.
A flash-bang and chemical agent hit Brandon Lopez’s car.
(Anaheim Police Department)

Sarmiento also said that the officers had time on their hands and could have used Lopez’s family to help get him out of the car.

“I don’t really understand where the breakdown took place, why they wouldn’t let them communicate or have a mental health person there communicate with Brandon,” she said.

The attorney also mentioned that the legal team will be looking into the Santa Ana police officer who announced that Lopez had a gun.

Jennifer Rojas, a policy advocate and organizer with the ACLU Southern California, said the killing of Lopez illustrates that Orange County needs police reform and that officers are not adept at responding to mental health crises. Rojas co-wrote the 2017 ACLU report on the use of force by Anaheim police.

“The Anaheim Police Department has an unacceptably long history of killing Black and Latino residents, low-income residents and people in behavioral health crises,” Rojas said. “The fact that the officers who were involved in killing Brandon Lopez are repeat shooters raises questions about the effectiveness of the reforms that Anaheim PD has put in place since the back-to-back shootings of Joel Acevedo and Manuel Diaz back in 2012. Having a police review board and independent auditor, strengthened training, body cameras — that has not prevented police officers from killing community members who are in a behavioral health crisis.”


Advertisement