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Murder charge upheld against ex-Long Beach school security officer in teen’s death

Eddie Gonzalez in a Long Beach courtroom.
Eddie Gonzalez, a former Long Beach Unified School District security officer, in court in Long Beach.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

A murder charge has been upheld against a former Long Beach school security officer who shot and killed an 18-year-old woman last year while she was seated in a vehicle fleeing the scene of a fight.

Following a preliminary hearing in a Long Beach courtroom on Wednesday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Daniel Lowenthal ruled that Eddie Gonzalez, 52, had no reason to believe his life was in danger when he shot into the back of a car and killed Manuela “Mona” Rodriguez last year.

Cellphone video captured at the scene showed Gonzalez fire twice as the car tried to turn away from him, sparking protests and a call for prosecution from Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia. The Long Beach Unified School District immediately fired Gonzalez, and Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón filed a murder charge a month after the shooting.

“The video ... is very clear and very compelling,” Lowenthal said. “It shows him firing two rounds into the back of the car after it had passed.”

Lowenthal called the act “senseless” and said Gonzalez had no reasonable fear of being injured when he opened fire.

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Gonzalez pulled up on the scene of a fight between Rodriguez and a 15-year-old girl on Palo Verde Avenue near Millikan High School and threatened to pepper-spray them if they didn’t stop brawling, according to testimony given Wednesday by Long Beach homicide Det. Ethan Schear. The dust-up between the two stemmed from a fight between the 15-year-old and a friend of Rodriguez, which devolved into an online war of words, Schear said.

Rodriguez, her boyfriend and his younger brother went back to their car after Rodriguez made a threat against the girl’s family and one of them took the 15-year-old’s cellphone, according to Schear, though one of the teens put the phone down and didn’t actually take it.

Gonzalez followed, ordering them to stop. As the car drove off, Gonzalez shouted and opened fire.

Rodriguez, who was in the vehicle’s passenger seat, was struck in the head, police said. Her 20-year-old boyfriend, Rafeul Chowdhury, and his 16-year-old brother were inside the car when Gonzalez opened fire. They were not hit.

Long Beach school safety officer Eddie F. Gonzalez charged with murder in the shooting death of Mona Rodriguez.

The injury left the 18-year-old mother brain-dead and she was taken off life support a week after the shooting.

Only two witnesses were called during Wednesday’s hearing, Schear and Long Beach Det. Donald Collier. They relayed witness testimony that offered different explanations for why Rodriguez was near the school that day.

Chowdhury told Schear the couple were in the area running errands, including buying shoes for their 5-month-old child. Chowdhury’s younger brother, however, told Collier that the trio were there because Rodriguez wanted to fight the 15-year-old and she knew the girl would be at Millikan High School that day.

When Gascón filed the murder charge against Gonzalez, the move surprised legal experts, who said that while Gonzalez’s actions were clearly excessive and violated generally accepted police practices about shooting at moving vehicles, a manslaughter charge would have been more appropriate.

Gonzalez’s defense attorney, Michael Schwartz, argued on Wednesday that the charge should be downgraded to manslaughter, saying his client had a valid self-defense claim since the car could have hit him after he was investigating what could have been considered a violent crime.

“If there’s an argument of self-defense involved ... this at worst becomes a voluntary manslaughter case,” Schwartz said.

But Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Saeed Teymouri countered that the case met the standard for “implied malice” because Gonzalez deliberately took an action he knew was highly likely to cause a death of another person. During the four-hour hearing, Teymouri repeatedly played footage of the shooting, ultimately freezing the video on a frame of the car moving past Gonzalez before he opens fire.

“He is in no danger,” Teymouri said, pointing at the screen.

Collier, who interviewed Gonzalez on the night of the shooting, testified that the safety officer acknowledged he had not been struck by the vehicle before and that he did not believe Rodriguez or any of the other people at the scene were armed. He told Collier he believed the vehicle was going to strike him, so he took aim at the driver but missed and killed Rodriguez.

Gonzalez remains in custody in lieu of $2-million bail and is due back in court next month. At least a dozen of his relatives and friends packed the court Wednesday, and several of them burst into tears after Lowenthal’s ruling. They declined to speak to reporters outside the courthouse.

While the short cellphone video of the shooting helped the case gain national attention last year, Wednesday marked the first time that surveillance videos from nearby businesses and other recordings were made public. One recording showed Rodriguez and the girl wrestling in the street, where Rodriguez landed several punches before Gonzalez intervened. Police said the 15-year-old did not require medical attention, however, and Lowenthal described the fight as “minor.”

A second cellphone video, taken from another car in the parking lot where Rodriguez was killed, suggested there were other children in Gonzalez’s line of fire. In the short clip, which shows the shooting from a second vantage point, a voice can be heard screaming that Gonzalez has his gun out and to “get down!”

The person filming the clip was a 16-year-old high school student, according to Schear. The teen’s grandmother and 10-year-old sister were also in the car.

Despite Wednesday’s ruling, prosecutors could still face an uphill climb at trial. Law enforcement officers and security personnel are rarely convicted of murder in line-of-duty killings, and the district attorney’s office lost a case with a similar fact pattern last year.

L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu was charged with manslaughter for shooting and killing an unarmed man who was driving away from him at a Norwalk gas station in 2016. Schwartz, who also represented Liu, argued the deputy had reason to believe the vehicle could be used as a weapon against him.

A jury acquitted Liu in November, and in that case, prosecutors had only filed manslaughter charges.


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