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Family sues over San Bernardino deputy who shot pursuit suspect from helicopter, leading to crash

Family sues over San Bernardino deputy who shot pursuit suspect from helicopter, leading to crash
A San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy in a helicopter shot and fatally wounded a man driving a Chevy Tahoe the wrong way during a chase on the 215 Freeway in San Bernardino on Sept. 18, 2015, but the vehicle kept going and crashed head-on into a family in a Dodge Durango, right. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A family is suing the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department for major injuries they said they suffered after a deputy aboard a helicopter fatally shot a wrong-way driver, who then crashed into their SUV on the 215 Freeway last year.

Attorneys representing Jose and Maria Villegas and their 13-year-old son, Aldo, said the family accumulated millions of dollars in hospital bills after they suffered broken bones and internal injuries as a result of the shooting. The couple's son, who was born without a knee and used crutches to move around, is now confined to a bed because he can't use his arms after they were broken in the Sept. 18 crash, they say.

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The San Bernardino County couple and their attorney say the sheriff's department's actions were reckless.

"There are situations where shooting in the air is appropriate, but not on a crowded freeway," said attorney V. James DeSimone, one of the lawyers representing the family.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Cynthia Bauchman said the department has not been served with the lawsuit.

According to the sheriff's department, Nicholas Johnson, 32, of Fontana had committed a home invasion robbery on Sept. 17 in Devore. Deputies identified Johnson as a suspect and tried to the stop him in his beige Chevrolet Tahoe the next day.

But he continued driving and police followed him through Fontana and San Bernardino. As the wild pursuit reached speeds of 100 mph, Johnson nearly hit pedestrians and drove through red lights and stops signs.

He eventually sped onto the northbound 215 Freeway in the wrong direction, driving into oncoming traffic.

Meanwhile, a sheriff's helicopter was flying over the pursuit.

The sheriff's department said Johnson continued to "jeopardize the safety of the public," so a deputy aboard the helicopter fired and struck his Tahoe several times.

Villegas' attorneys said Deputy Paul Kowalski fired at least nine shots at Johnson's vehicle.

Johnson, who was struck by the gunfire, jumped out of the moving Tahoe and ran a few yards before collapsing along the roadway. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

But Johnson's Tahoe continued barreling forward and crashed head-on into the Villegas' Dodge Durango.

The couple's son's arms were broken and he developed an infection, they say.

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DeSimone, the Villegas' attorney, said a family member is looking after the boy because the couple have their own medical complications and can't care for him. Aldo Villegas will require ongoing care and rehabilitation.

Jose and Maria Villegas also suffered broken bones and complication with their lungs, the lawyer said.

DeSimone said deputies "created a guarantee of a dangerous situation."

A day after the crash, sheriff's spokeswoman Jodi Miller said the deputy made the decision to fire because the suspect "had been threatening the safety of the public by traveling at a high rate of speed, running stop signs and red lights, narrowly missing pedestrians and traveling southbound on the northbound freeway."

Law enforcement experts have said such shootings are rare, but are justified in desperate situations.

"If the officer reasonably perceives an immediate threat to the public, that justifies reasonable force, including deadly force," said Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff for Inyo County and special legal counsel to multiple law enforcement agencies.

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