Badgering the Witness
Photo by Nick SchouFour months after Santa Ana police fatal- ly shot Elmer Bustos, critics say department officials are intimidating witnesses and activists instead of investigating the shooting.
"The police are harassing the witnesses," alleged Mario Bustos, father of 17-year-old Elmer Bustos.
According to Santa Ana police, Elmer shot at officers when they stopped him on the afternoon of Jan. 27 while he walked with his girlfriend about a block south of Willard Intermediate School. They say they retrieved a handgun at the scene, along with several spent rounds, and took reports from witnesses who saw Elmer, a gang member on probation, firing at officers.
But at least three other witnesses—Elmer's girlfriend, his cousin and a 15-year-old bystander police accidentally shot in the leg—say they never saw Elmer holding a weapon or firing at police (see "Nobody Saw Him Shooting at Anybody," March 14). They claim police shot Elmer in the back as he ran—and then took so long to call for an ambulance that he died shortly after reaching the hospital.
Police referred the case to the DA's office, but a DA spokesman refused to say whether that office had finished investigating, refused to say how many officer-involved shootings the DA's office has investigated in the past five years and declined to answer whether any of those investigations uncovered evidence of official wrongdoing.
Sergeant Baltazar De La Riva, a Santa Ana PD spokesman, did not respond to interview requests by press time. In a previous interview, De La Riva insisted his department's officers had shot Elmer in self-defense.
"There are rumors of other witnesses who saw otherwise," De La Riva added. "And I strongly suggest those witnesses contact the DA's office and tell them what they saw."
But Mario Bustos said he doubts police are interested in talking to witnesses who might contradict their version of what happened. He claimed that at least one such witness—a local street vendor—told him that, while being interviewed about what he saw, police threatened to take away his business license.
"They aren't doing any investigation except to ask people whether they know Naui and Rosalinda," Bustos said.
That would be Naui Huitzilopochtli and Rosalinda Ramirez, activists who've spoken at City Council meetings in an effort to draw attention to the shooting. Ramirez said their efforts to get the Santa Ana City Council to investigate the shooting went nowhere. At a February council meeting, police questioned several activists about activities that had nothing to do with the Bustos shooting.
After that meeting, Santa Ana police arrested one of those activists, Matt Martinez, for riding a bicycle without a permit. They fined Martinez and placed him behind bars. While in jail, Martinez claimed, police asked him what he knew about Huitzilopochtli and Matt Lamont, a Long Beach anarchist arrested last year for possession of an explosive device.
"That was an inappropriate line of questioning," Ramirez said. "It was attempted intimidation of someone who just wanted to show support for Elmer's family." Ramirez wrote about the arrest in an article posted on la.indymedia.org, which accused police of arresting and intimidating activists to prevent them from speaking at the meeting.
In response, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters posted a message on the website that accused Ramirez of lying.
"All the community members that wanted to speak were allowed to do so," Walters wrote. "You should be ashamed of yourself by misrepresenting what really occurred."
Ramirez said Martinez's arrest didn't stop other activists from showing up at a March 3 council meeting, but she added that little was accomplished that evening, either. She said Walters spoke with her at the meeting. "He informed me that the matter is in the DA's hands now, so even the police have their hands tied," she said, adding that Walters told her that the DA investigation would probably take between six and nine months to be completed.
"It was obvious that the council just wanted to get us out of there and leave them in their comfortable, do-nothing positions in peace," Ramirez said. "They couldn't have said, 'Who gives a shit?' more clearly."
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