Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies mistakenly shot and killed a teenager in Palmdale early Thursday when their bullets bounced off the ground as they opened fire on an aggressive dog, sheriff's officials said.
The 17-year-old was struck in the chest by at least one "skip" round several yards from the deputies as they fired several shots at a charging pit bull just after 3:40 a.m., officials said. Investigators believe the deputies did not notice the teenager in the darkness, the department said.
Moments earlier, the dog had bitten one of the deputies and the teenager had restrained the animal so that it wouldn't attack again. The bitten deputy did not fire but was struck in his right leg by a fragment of a bullet fired by a fellow deputy that bounced off the ground in the shooting.
The teen was identified by family members as Armando Garcia-Muro, who was about to enter his senior year at R. Rex Parris High School in Palmdale. The eldest of four siblings, he loved dogs and aspired to go into construction, said his mother, Roberta Alcantar.
"He would give his life for anybody," she said. "He was a very loving person."
In a news conference at the scene hours after the shooting, Capt. Christopher Bergner of the Sheriff's Department Homicide Bureau said it appeared that both the teen and the deputy had been struck by rounds that ricocheted off the ground when deputies fired at the charging animal.
"He may have been struck by one of the skip rounds in what we're calling an extremely, extremely unfortunate incident," Bergner said. "Our initial impression was [the deputies] didn't even see the individual coming around from the side of the building."
Five deputies were present at the time of the shooting but only two fired, discharging six to eight rounds, Bergner said.
Authorities said deputies had gone to an apartment complex in the 38500 block of 10th Street East around 3:40 a.m. in response to a call about a loud party. As they arrived, a pit bull charged at them and bit one of the deputies in the left knee, Bergner said.
The teenager restrained the animal and brought it to the rear of the complex, which was around a corner, Bergner said. Meanwhile, the deputies retreated from the home to call for backup and medical units, who arrived and checked on the bitten deputy's injuries.
At some point, the pit bull broke free and charged at the deputies again.
Bergner said the dog was a full-grown male that weighed 60 to 65 pounds and was 5 to 7 feet away from the deputies when they opened fire.
The dog was struck and retreated to a carport area at the rear of the complex, the Sheriff's Department said. Deputies decided to try to corral the dog to prevent anyone else from being attacked, but as they approached the carport they noticed the boy on the ground wounded.
Deputies provided medical aid before paramedics arrived and took him to Antelope Valley Hospital, where he died.
Garcia-Muro's aunt, Amber Alcantar, said deputies told her the teen was shot while trying to stop the dog from attacking deputies a second time. She said she heard a knock on her door in the early morning. It was Garcia-Muro's friend, who was frantically looking for the boy's mother.
The youngster was holding a pair of bloodied shoes. They were Garcia-Muro's, Alcantar said.
"Obviously something was wrong," she said. She and Garcia-Muro's mother went to two hospitals in search of him, but couldn't find him and eventually returned home.
The dog's owner, who lives at the apartment complex where the shooting occurred, declined to give her name because she had "too many things going on with the law right now."
She said the dog is a 3-year-old blue-nosed pit bull. Her home is used as a local hangout by some of the neighborhood kids, she said.
"They are all my friends," the woman said. "They are good kids. They come over and they listen to music."
The neighborhood children were hanging out and listening to music like they ordinarily do, she said Thursday. Her dog was off its leash, but was well-mannered, she said.
She was skeptical of the deputies' claims that her dog attacked them.
"That's not my dog. That's not his personality," she said.
The deputy who was bitten and later struck by a bullet fragment was treated at a local hospital and released, Bergner said. The dog was shot and survived but will be euthanized.
Under the department's use-of-force policy, deputies are allowed to fire at animals if they "reasonably believe" that they're about to be killed or be seriously injured by the animal.
Bergner said any time a deputy fires a duty weapon, he or she is put on temporary desk duty while the incident is investigated.
The Los Angeles district attorney's office has previously determined that officers are justified when firing at dogs that pose an immediate threat, even if the officers' bullets end up injuring someone else at the scene.
In 2014, a deputy fired a shotgun at a dog biting his leg and mistakenly wounded a resident who was struck in the leg by pellets that rebounded off the ground. Prosecutors wrote in a memo that the man's injures were an "accidental" result of the deputy's "lawful discharge of his shotgun" and did not constitute a crime.
A similar result came in 2009 when local prosecutors reviewed a shooting in which a man claimed to have been shot when a probation officer opened fire at a charging pit bull. The district attorney's office concluded it was unclear if the man's injury was caused by a bullet, but that the officer was justified and that any injury was "accidental and unavoidable given the circumstances."
All police shootings, even ones that could be deemed "justified," come with risks, said Sam Walker, a nationally recognized expert on policing.
"If you miss a person, who knows where that bullet goes," said Walker, a retired criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. "That's the reason most departments ban warning shots or shots at moving vehicles. You don't know where the bullet is gonna go."
Staff writer Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.
6:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the teen's mother.
2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with more details from the Sheriff's Department and comments from the boy's aunt and the owner of the dog.
11 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from a Homicide Bureau captain.
9:50 a.m.: This article was updated with information from a Sheriff's Department statement on the shooting.
9:05 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the incident from an internal memo.