At Costco food sample line, gunfire, death and unanswered questions
It was a typical Friday night at Costco.
The cavernous Corona store was packed, and customers waited in line for food samples — the quintessential Costco experience.
An off-duty Los Angeles police officer, his wife and their baby were among those in the tasting queue. So was 32-year-old Kenneth French and his parents, who were shopping for a Father’s Day barbecue.
An attorney for the officer told The Times it was in this sample line that a lethal confrontation began.
It is still unclear what incited the dispute. But the attorney, David Winslow, said the officer was knocked to the ground by a large man later identified as French. The officer then fired his gun several times, sending scores of frightened Costco members fleeing.
French’s injuries were fatal. His parents, Paola and Russell French, were also shot and taken to the hospital in critical condition.
The officer — who was identified by multiple sources as Salvador Sanchez, a patrol officer in the Southwest Division — suffered minor injuries.
Los Angeles investigators are assessing whether Sanchez, who has yet to be officially identified by the force, violated any department policies in the shooting. Sanchez has been employed with the LAPD since May 2012, according to department records.
Family members of the Frenches are challenging police accounts of the event. Kenneth French was nonverbal and had the mental capacity of a teenager, said his cousin Rick Shureih. Kenneth had no history of being violent, he said, and his parents are kind and gentle people.
Russell, 58, and Paola, 59, had dedicated their lives to taking care of Kenneth, who lived with them in their Riverside home, Shureih said. Kenneth’s condition had worsened in recent years and he rarely spoke. He required constant monitoring.
In a Facebook post addressed to the Corona Police Department on Monday morning, Shureih said that his family is “pro police.”
“We need justice to prevail!” Shureih wrote. “Please review the surveillance tape!”
The incident was captured by Costco surveillance cameras, according to the police source.
Sanchez could not be reached for comment. A woman who answered a cellphone registered to Sanchez hung up Monday after a reporter identified himself.
Winslow, Sanchez’s attorney, said the officer was getting food for his son when he was attacked and briefly knocked out.
“His son was in his arms and he was feeding his son some samples when within seconds he was on the ground and woke up from being unconscious and he was fighting for his life,” Winslow said in an interview with The Times.
Sanchez’s work status with the LAPD has not been made clear. A police source, however, told The Times that Sanchez was with his family and had not been placed on leave. Corona police opted not to arrest Sanchez based on the initial statements of witnesses, the source said.
Sanchez was holding his 1-year-old when the fight broke out and feared for his life, the source said. His gun was the only weapon involved in the incident.
Shureih said that witnesses have contacted the family to tell them what they saw, and that their accounts do not match those of police. He would not go into further detail for fear it would compromise the investigation.
The family plans to hire an attorney, he said. Russell and Paola French were still being treated in an intensive care unit as of Sunday night.
Sandra Serrao, who lives in the Toronto area and has been friends with the French family for more than a decade, said the couple and Kenneth moved to California from Mississauga, Canada, a few years ago to help care for Paola’s elderly parents. The couple, Serrao said, has relatives in Canada and spent years living in Kuwait. Both are from India.
The Costco shooting garnered television headlines in Canada, but Serrao was shocked to learn who had been shot. She and her husband said they’d just spent more than an hour last week on FaceTime with the Frenches discussing the NBA finals.
She said Kenneth French was not the type of person to provoke anyone, which is why the situation is so difficult for her to understand.
“We’re still trying to wrap our heads around this,” she said. “They are such good people. We thought this was just another shooting in the U.S. We didn’t know it was them. This is horrible.”
LAPD Chief Michel Moore is expected to be briefed on the shooting in the coming days, and the officer probably will meet with a department psychologist, according to the source.
The Riverside County district attorney will ultimately decide whether the officer will face criminal charges.
An administrative investigation is standard protocol whenever an officer fires his or her gun. The five-person Police Commission ultimately decides whether officers are justified in opening fire and whether they followed department rules before pulling the trigger.
In 2018, the Police Commission determined that Officer Kevin Ferguson violated the department’s rules when he fired his gun while off duty during a clash with a group of teenagers in Anaheim a year earlier, a caught-on-camera dispute that went viral and triggered days of protests.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Protective League — the union that represents rank-and-file officers in the department — declined to comment on the Costco shooting.
Experts say it’s not uncommon for officers to carry their firearms in public while off duty.
Off-duty police, like private citizens with firearm permits in California, are legally allowed to fire their guns in self-defense in the event of an imminent attack if they’re unable to retreat from the situation, said Jody Armour, a law professor at USC.
“The real question will be whether a reasonable person in the situation of the shooter would have believed he was under attack, threatened with death or serious bodily injury,” he said. “The shooter has to feel like they’re about to be attacked and there was no less drastic alternative.”
Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, noted that off-duty officers usually do not have other tools for de-escalation at hand.
“On-duty officers have other weapons: batons, Tasers, not to mention radios to call for backup,” he said.
The facts that the officer’s child was in his arms and that the Frenches were not armed will be major factors in determining whether the level of force was justified, said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff’s deputy and use-of-force advisor to the California Assn. of Police Training Officers.
“Even when an officer is off duty, the understanding by law enforcement and prosecuting authorities is that the officer knows what they are doing,” Obayashi said. “Just because you’re off duty doesn’t mean your training and experience goes away.”
Obayashi said the officer’s justification for the shooting might be that he could not protect his 1-year-old without deploying his firearm.
In a phone interview with The Times, Shureih said the officer involved should have been able to defuse the situation without weapons.
“They’re taught not to discharge a firearm in crowded places, to de-escalate and try to take a suspect down without using deadly force,” Shureih said. “For him to shoot that many shots — that’s excessive.”
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