After battling for years, the family of Caesar Ray Cruz finally received a settlement from the city of Anaheim for his death at the hands of the Anaheim Police Department. Officer gunfire claimed the life of the 35-year-old on December 11, 2009. The wrongful death lawsuit filed afterward had been dismissed before being revived by the Nine Circuit Court of Appeals last year. The city admits no wrongdoing in making the payment to family members last week but that doesn't stop Theresa Smith, Caesar's mother, from feeling that they did her son wrong.
“I'm disgusted that, although there's no price on human life, they would think that his life, or even that of his children, is worth so little,” Smith tells the Weekly. “The amount given to his children was so minimal that it wouldn't even take care of them for a year.”
Cruz's death nearly six years ago remains a matter of controversy. Then, an informant tipped Anaheim policeman Nathan Stauber that Cruz was a gang member on parole driving around with a gun. Officers tailed his SUV and attempted to pull Cruz over for a broken tail light. He pulled into a Wal-Mart parking lot in Anaheim Plaza when cop cars surrounded him. Cruz reversed, stopped and tried getting out of his SUV. That's when the police bullets started flying in a flash.
Officer Stauber, Kelly Phillips, Michael Brown, Bruce Linn and Phillip Vargas unloaded on Cruz, claiming he reached for his waistband. Police later recovered a gun from the vehicle but not anywhere on him as he dangled from a seat belt, one of the “curious discrepancies” the Ninth Circuit found with the official version. Cruz was neither on parole nor a documented gang member. His sole conviction for drug possession happened back in 2002.
Smith took to Harbor Boulevard to protest outside the Anaheim Police Department. It laid the foundation for future demonstrations that swelled in 2012 over the summer when more families of men slain by police joined in. “It means something,” Smith says looking back. “All of it, the protesting, being outspoken, collectively brought about more awareness.”
But her efforts fell short of justice for her son. The Orange County District Attorney's (OCDA) office ruled the shooting justified in 2011 without bothering to mention it to Smith. “To finally settle, after all these years, knowing the system, I couldn't see how I could win. It's heartbreaking,” she says. “I honestly thought in doing this, the end result would be the right thing. It felt like he died all over again.”
The paltry settlement approved by the Anaheim City Council on July 21 is divided between the eight plaintiffs, including Cruz's five children, who've grown up without their father. “Caesar would have been able to see his son with special needs graduate high school with honors if not for that day,” Smith says. “He would be very proud of the young men that they're becoming.”
Newport Beach attorney Richard P. Herman represented the family in the civil suit. He previously reached settlements with the city in two other wrongful death cases. Anaheim paid out $245,000 to the family of David Raya, an unarmed man slain by police in 2011, and $1.55 million for the 2008 fatal shooting of Julian Alexander.
Others mounting legal challenges against recent controversial police shootings in Anaheim haven't fared as well. The families of Marcel Ceja and Bernie Villegas, men slain in 2011 and 2012 respectively, lost in court with a judge ordering them to foot the bill. Attorneys and family members dropped the Martin Angel Hernandez civil suit this summer. A civil jury rejected excessive force claims last year in the fatal shooting of Manuel Angel Diaz, a decision currently being appealed. A lawsuit filed by the family of Joel Acevedo, killed the day after Diaz in July 2012 sparking riots in Anaheim, continues.
The trend disturbs Smith, but she continues her activism lobbying in Sacramento against school-to-prison pipelines and racial profiling by police. In Anaheim, Smith wants to see more meaningful police oversight than the Public Safety Board that meets quarterly. She's slated to be on a panel as part of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) conference in Riverside next month.
“I will never get justice for my son because they can never give me his life back,” Smith says. “All I ever asked for was accountability, but even that was too much.”
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2