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Family of teen fatally shot by undercover CHP officers files legal claim, saying he was unarmed

Family of teen fatally shot by undercover CHP officers files legal claim, saying he was unarmed
Pedro Villanueva's family has filed a claim against the state and the the California Highway Patrol following the 19-year-old's death on July 3. (Courtesy of Paul R. Kiesel)

The family of a 19-year-old man fatally shot by two undercover California Highway Patrol officers this month in Fullerton has filed a legal claim against the agency and the state, saying the teen posed no immediate threat to the officers and was unarmed.

In the claim filed Tuesday, the family's attorney said Pedro Villanueva was among dozens at a late-night Santa Fe Springs "sideshow" on July 3 where truck drivers were performing dangerous burnouts, all while undercover CHP officers monitored the area. The officers were part of a task force investigating illegal street racing and driving events during the long holiday weekend.

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As officers closed in, Villanueva fled in a red Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. Officers in an unmarked car followed him for about five miles into a dead-end street in Fullerton, where Villanueva made a U-turn and drove toward officers.

Officers opened fire and he died at the scene. Villanueva's 18-year-old passenger, Francisco Orozco, was wounded but survived.

"The officers never had an objectively reasonable basis to shoot Pedro Villanueva," the claim said. "At no time before the shooting did the undercover officers call and wait for uniformed officers as backup. At no time did the undercover officers use nonlethal force to detain Mr. Villanueva."

The only basis the undercover officers had for following Villanueva was that he attended the sideshow, said Paul R. Kiesel, one of the attorney's representing the family. At most, he said, the officers could have issued a ticket.

Villanueva and Orozco feared for their lives because they did not know who was chasing them, Kiesel said, adding that law enforcement has never been "so brazen in their exercise of deadly force."

"It wasn't until the bullets stopped that they realized they were police," he said. "They were unarmed. They had Fiji water in the center console."

Many law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles and New York police departments, prohibit officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless those inside are attempting to use another form of deadly force against the officers, such as shooting at them. Most of those agencies direct officers to try to get out of the way of the moving vehicle. The CHP, however, is among the departments that allow officers to use deadly force to stop the commission of an assault with a deadly weapon, including situations in which a moving vehicle is considered the weapon.

Kiesel also filed a claim against the CHP on Orozco's behalf, arguing that the passenger posed no threat when he was shot in the arm.

The officers who opened fire have not been identified. CHP officials previously said it was not clear if Villanueva knew he was being followed by police officers. The unmarked car was not outfitted with a dashboard camera because the officers were working undercover.

The CHP said it is deferring public statements about the shooting to the Fullerton Police Department, which declined to comment.

In a statement released by Kiesel, Orozco said a black car followed and chased him and Villanueva from the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet to the cul-de-sac where officers opened fire.

"They never once used a siren, a loud speaker or provided any warning whatsoever before they started shooting," he said of the officers. "They never identified themselves as law enforcement until after they stopped shooting."

The truck Pedro Villanueva was driving when he was shot and killed by undercover CHP officers in Fullerton.
The truck Pedro Villanueva was driving when he was shot and killed by undercover CHP officers in Fullerton. (Courtesy of Paul R. Kiesel)

The shooting prompted anger on some social media sites associated with truck enthusiasts. Last week, authorities arrested a 17-year-old friend of Villanueva's who was accused in court records of making a threat against the officers who opened fire. The teen told The Times his comments had been misunderstood.

At a news conference late Tuesday morning, Villanueva's parents called for justice and answers about why their son was shot. Pedro, they said, was a "good boy."

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"We have no words," said Villanueva's brother, Armando, 21. "There's nothing we can say."

The brothers shared "a lot of dreams together," he said. They worked together at the family restaurant, Villanueva Mexican Grill, and had hoped to one day open a branch of their own.

His parents wept as he spoke.

The red pickup truck, Villanueva said, was part of the family business. He and his brother would use the Silverado during catering events. The truck was registered in their father's name.

"We had lots of wishes," Villanueva said.

Dressed in black and shrouded in a veil, Hortencia Sainz sobbed in her seat.

"I miss my son," she said.

Her husband rubbed her shoulders as she stifled a whimper.

Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.

For more local and breaking news, follow me on Twitter: @sarahparvini

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