By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
For one, trigger-happy federal agent in Orange County, Dec. 1, 2011, was a day he should've stayed in bed. I'd tell you his name, but his employer, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency inside the Department of Homeland Security, doesn't want the public to know because of embarrassment. Officials inside the Anaheim Police Department know the agent's name and what he did that unnecessarily put dozens of kids in life-threatening danger, but they are also protecting his identity.
Law-enforcement officials have been content to let the bizarre incident remain a public mystery. But there is a problem. There were eyewitnesses, and at least one of them is demanding answers. It's an understandable position. The federal agent's bullet—the one that struck a crowded Anaheim elementary school and caused an emergency lockdown—was intended to kill or seriously maim him.
It has been four months since a shocked Danny Noriega, a 28-year-old union carpenter, faced the barrel of a gun and a lethal bullet speeding his way. I recently stood with Noriega on the exact spot where he says his life almost ended and asked him what prompted the shooting.
"That's what I'd like to know," said Noriega, who was born at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange. "I've done nothing wrong. I'm not wanted [by police or immigration authorities] for anything."
The incident—just minutes away from Disneyland—began unremarkably: He'd dropped off his girlfriend's son in a parking lot across the street from Westmont Elementary School in Anaheim. He was waiting at a stop sign behind another vehicle to exit when the unimaginable happened.
"I hear the screech of breaks, and this guy jumps out of his car, points a gun at me and shoots," Noriega recalled about the casually dressed, sunglasses-sporting, tall, Caucasian driving an unmarked sedan. "He didn't say nothing. He just jumps out and shoots."
Fearing for his life, the unarmed Noriega frantically drove around the vehicle ahead of him at the stop sign, sped down several streets by the Anaheim Plaza Shopping Center and onto the 5 freeway.
"All I could think of was 'I got to find help, get protection from the police,'" said Noriega. "I didn't know if he was going to try to shoot me again."
That day, he'd forgotten to bring his cell phone, so he drove north on the 5 to find a payphone from which he could call for help. At a Chevron gas station at Beach Boulevard and Auto Center Drive, he borrowed the business' cordless phone to dial 911.
"Can I get the [police] over here," an obviously unnerved Noriega told the 911 operator at the Buena Park Police Department, according to an audio recording reviewed by the Weekly. "I dropped off my girlfriend's kid at school, and some detective shot at me. He put his front [police] lights on [his dashboard] and took a gunshot at me, and I don't know why."
Noriega assumed the arrival 70 seconds later of a swarm of nearly a dozen patrol units and Anaheim's police helicopter would guarantee his safety. After all, he'd been shot at without warning, called 911, been honest about events and stayed put until cops arrived. But he assumed wrong.
"A cop told me to get on the ground, and he put handcuffs on me," he said. "They were acting like I was the bad guy. They asked me why I left the [shooting] scene. I said, 'What? You think I should stay so he can take another shot at me? I don't think so.'"
After about 15 minutes, the ICE agent who shot at him arrived at the Chevron, where Noriega had been placed in the back of a Buena Park police vehicle. He recalled that the same agent had walked by him at his apartment complex days earlier without saying a word to him.
"[At the gas station,] I thought he was going to say, 'Sorry, this is a case of mistaken identity,' but he doesn't say anything to me," he said. "The other ICE agents are looking at a picture, looking at me and looking back at the picture. I could see them shaking their heads 'no' because I wasn't the guy they were looking for. But they wouldn't let me go. They called me a suspect."
For the next 10 hours, authorities knew they had captured the wrong man but nevertheless kept an innocent Noriega in custody, fingerprinted him, rummaged through his vehicle and, without bothering to get a court order, searched his home.
Rather than admit they'd erred, officials apparently tried to cover up their incompetence by threatening to charge Noriega with—drum roll, please—attempted murder of a law-enforcement officer.
"[The ICE shooter] said I tried to run him over," Noriega said. "That's not true. That's nuts. All I did was try to get away from a man shooting at me for no reason."
The assertion against Noriega was dishonest, a fact underscored by two glaring points. If authorities really thought he'd tried to kill one of their own, he'd still be in jail facing as many criminal charges as they could file. They also wouldn't have given him a courtesy ride home, picked up all the costs of his impounded SUV and made apologetic statements.
In the aftermath, Anaheim PD and ICE have refused to tell Nick O'Malley, Noriega's attorney, what happened or identity the shooter. Over government objections, O'Malley is seeking to enforce a subpoena to get answers. Officials say they are entitled to keep the information a secret because, they claim, there's an ongoing investigation into filing charges against Noriega.
Both assertions are malarkey. Government officials know exactly what happened. This unidentified ICE agent, who hadn't done adequate preparation work, prematurely locked himself into the erroneous belief that he'd found a fugitive, failed to identify himself in an incident he provoked near an elementary school, fired his weapon at an unarmed person, lost the suspect, and then looked for an excuse to mask his own incompetence.
How can I make such a statement? Even before Noriega made his 911 call, Anaheim PD officials knew ICE had botched the operation. One police official with insider knowledge described the shooting as "FUBAR"—fucked up beyond all recognition.
ICE and Anaheim PD won't admit it publicly, but the man they'd been looking for wasn't Noriega, the father of a 4-year-old girl. They'd been looking for Juan Carlos Alcala, a 38-year-old, Costa Mesa-based, major international cocaine dealer and fugitive with a federal warrant for his arrest. At the time the ICE agent took his shot at Noriega, Alcala was more than 120 miles south in Mexico.
Nine days after the Noriega fiasco, immigrant officials finally got the right man when Alcala crossed into the U.S. Earlier this month in a federal court in Texas, he pleaded guilty to cocaine-distribution and money-laundering counts. Whenever he's sentenced, he'll face a maximum punishment of life in prison, plus $8.5 million in fines.
Still, despite the dramatic developments, Noriega and O'Malley remain in the dark. Officials won't tell them what happened, except that the mystery agent remains on the job. On April 17, Orange County Superior Court Judge William Monroe will decide whether to force the government to come clean.
This column appeared in print as "Ice ICE, Baby: Why are government officials protecting an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who almost killed an innocent Anaheim man?"