A mother's worst nightmare came true for Theresa Smith five years ago, when 35-year-old son, Caesar Ray Cruz, was killed by Anaheim police. The father of five left to pick up his kids for football practice that day, but instead got tailed by five officers acting on a tip from an unnamed informant describing Cruz as an armed drug dealing gang member on parole. They cornered him at a Wal-Mart parking lot, where they opened fire and killed him.
"I was at home and I got a phone call from my sister and my niece," Smith recalls. "When I heard he got shot, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would find out that he was dead."
Five years later, the police accountability activist is planning a march from the Anaheim Plaza Wal-Mart to APD headquarters in memory of her son.
"When I arrived at the scene, the police told me they had taken him to UCI Medical Center," Smith remembers. "When I arrived at the hospital I wasn't allowed to see him or ask any questions for almost three hours."
Anaheim police and an Orange County District Attorney's (OCDA) office investigator finally took Smith to a room. She refused to answer any police questions. It was at that time they informed her Cruz was dead. "Honestly, I don't remember much after that."
KABC-TV Channel 7 ran a story on the shooting that day under the headline "Wild undercover-cop shootout at OC Wal-Mart." Back then, Sid Garcia reported that an exchange of gunfire took place with Anaheim police telling the Eyewitness News outlet that Cruz fired first. "I emailed Garcia personally twice and ABC itself," Smith says. She followed up with phone calls. "I left messages demanding a retraction and I never got a response."
This summer, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals revived Smith's wrongful death lawsuit finding many "curious and material factual discrepancies" in the police version of the shooting. A 9mm was later recovered from Cruz's SUV, but he was unarmed and entangled in his seat belt after cops opened fire, claiming he reached for his waistband. The OCDA ruled the shooting justified after completing their investigation in 2010 but never notified Smith.
The federal appeals court said a jury should best decide the civil case, but for all these years, Smith hasn't yet had her day in court. She still continues to fight for her late son, though his loss is something that only gets harder with time. "The reality of him actually being gone doesn't get easier," she says. "He's not coming back."
In 2012, Smith tried to hold a vigil at the Wal-Mart parking lot where Cruz was shot only to collapse in emotional grief early on. "It felt like day it happened that year because of all the killings," Smith says of the police shootings that exploded in riots. "Not only was I feeling my pain but the pain of the other families as well." Last year, she held a vigil away from Wal-Mart on the anniversary of her son's death and announced she was ready to forgive the five officers that killed Cruz in person. None of them responded to the letter Smith wrote them each individually.
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Attorney Michael Gennaco's Office of Independent Review (OIR) firm is reviewing high-profile police shooting cases in Anaheim, including Cruz. "I have a meeting with Gennaco on January 6 to see what his findings are," Smith says. "I don't hold much hope out for that."
Until then, Smith is calling for the memorial march Thursday starting at 4 p.m., the time the autopsy states Cruz died. The action will conclude with a vigil at APD headquarters. "Although I have forgiven the officers who shot my son, I will never forget," Smith says. "I won't ever stop fighting for justice."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2