For the first time in history, the Orange County district attorney's office has forwarded an officer-involved shooting case to the grand jury for possible indictment. The name that could be on that indictment: Douglas Bates, an off-duty federal Homeland Security agent who fatally shot Bassim Chmait, a 20-year-old Arab-American aspiring rap artist and Saddleback College business major, during a Feb. 5 altercation outside Bates' Mission Viejo apartment.
Members of the Chmait family on March 7 met with DA Tony Rackauckas, who informed them—after a monthlong investigation by the Orange County Sheriff's Department—his office will send the case to the grand jury on March 11.
Mark McCauley, a DA spokesman, said his office is prohibited from discussing investigations involving the grand jury. But Omar Chmait, Bassim's 23-year-old brother, confirmed the meeting with Rackauckas. "It's kind of scary, but it's a step in the right direction," he said. "When [Rackauckas] was talking to us, he said there was conflicting evidence. That's what's scaring us."
Chmait said Bassim's three friends, who were with him at the time of the shooting, all had the same story: Bates shot Bassim at point-blank range after confronting the group, which was heading to a nearby party at roughly 1:30 a.m. Chmait added that an independent witness, a neighbor of Bates, confirmed their version of what happened.
"The witness I am talking about is a DEA agent, so he knows what he's talking about," Chmait said. "He completely explains how angry the guy looked—his posture, his body language. . . . The witness said he was acting very aggressive, how he looked [angry] and how he was waving the gun around."
According to Chmait, Rackauckas refused to elaborate with the family what constituted the "conflicting evidence" that might explain why his office had yet to file charges against Bates. But there are reports that Bates is claiming his gun went off by accident during the altercation.
Such explanations don't sit well with the Chmait family, said family spokesman Tareef Nashashibi, a general contractor who is also chairman of the Arab American Committee of the Orange County Republican Party. Nashashibi said Bates never should have taken his gun with him when he confronted Chmait and his friends outside his apartment. "When I brought this up yesterday, [Rackauckas'] chief investigator said there are no set guidelines or laws on this. . . . It seems every law-enforcement agency has their own rules," Nashashibi said. "From what I understand, it's left to the common sense [of the officer] and the circumstances."
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He added that Rackauckas told the Chmait family his office was still hoping to interview more witnesses, some of whom were afraid of coming forward because Bates, who has been transferred to a desk job, still lives at the apartment complex. "Some of [the witnesses] don't want to get involved," Nashashibi said. "People are afraid. This is the federal government, and these things don't happen in Mission Viejo very often."
Omar Chmait said DA officials told his family that Bates should have called the police rather than rush into the street with his weapon drawn to confront a group of unarmed youths. "He can use force, but only if there is a threat to his life or weapons involved, but not a couple of kids walking to a party," Chmait said. "That's the one thing we hope the grand jury gets to hear: that this shouldn't have happened in the first place. And it happened because this guy thought he was Judge Dredd—that he can take the law into his own hands and be the police, judge and executioner at the same time."
A version of this story was posted March 8 on ocweekly.com.