Photo by John GilhooleyForthepastfewSaturdayevenings,upto 150 people have gathered outside the Madrid Apartments in Mission Viejo for a candlelight vigil. Their goal: obtain justice for 20-year-old Bassim Chmait, an aspiring rap artist and Saddleback College business major who was fatally shot in the head on Feb. 5.
They're angry because the man who pulled the trigger, Douglas Bates, an off-duty federal Homeland Security agent who lives at the apartment complex, still hasn't been arrested. What's strange about that is that Bates shot Chmait at point-blank range after confronting him and three of his friends who had just arrived at the apartment complex to attend a loud party near Bates' home.
At about 1:30 a.m., as Chmait and his friends approached the party, someone apparently threw a soda can at them. One of Chmait's friends then tossed the can into the street. That's when witnesses say Bates, who was upset about the noise, approached the three young men with his pistol and law-enforcement badge, shouting, "You don't want to fuck with a cop, do you?"
DA to forward case involving federal agent who killed South County rapper to grand jury. (March 8, 2005)
by NICK SCHOU Instead of backing away, the group walked toward Bates. That was a big mistake: during the altercation that ensued, Bates allegedly pistol-whipped one of Chmait's friends. When Chmait intervened, asking Bates to put down his gun, Bates shot him in the head.
Minutes after the shooting, an ambulance took Chmait to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Meanwhile, Orange County Sheriff's Department homicide detectives arrived at the scene, collected evidence, questioned Bates and several witnesses, and then left without arresting him. Bates has been reassigned to desk duty pending the outcome of a sheriff's investigation.
Sheriff's spokesman Jon Fleischman defended his agency. "You don't go out and make an arrest until you are reasonably sure someone committed a crime," he said. "We encourage the public to let us make our investigation, which we will do thoroughly, and when we do that, we will make our investigation available to the district attorney's office, which will then decide whether to make a case."
Susan Schroeder, a DA spokeswoman, said she met with members of Chmait's family following a Feb. 23 protest outside her office. She refused to comment on the case, saying only that her agency has yet to receive the results of the sheriff's investigation.
Mike Georgos, a friend of Chmait's, said he arrived at the apartment complex before Chmait was taken away in the ambulance. "Bassim was getting pulled away on the stretcher," he said. "His eyes were half-open; they were really red. He was covered in blood. His brains were pretty much hanging out."
Georgos said he became friends with Chmait when they met at Laguna Hills High School. They both went on to attend Saddleback College, where Chmait was a popular student and a well-respected rap lyricist whose band, Xtort Clan, played several local underground shows. "A lot of people called him a lyrical genius," Georgos said.
Omar Chmait, Bassim's 23-year-old brother, said Xtort Clan had toured Europe and was about to release a CD of rap songs. He said he and his brother also had plans to start a hip-hop clothing company. "He and I were about to launch everything," he said. "It was all about to begin right now—our plans for life and things." Omar added that sound clips from Xtort Clan's music will soon be placed on a website commemorating his brother: www.justiceforbassim.com.
Bassim Chmait was not a confrontational person, his brother insisted. "He wasn't a big guy," he said. "This border-patrol agent was huge. All the boys there were terrified of this guy. I hope they put this animal away for murder. He could have killed anybody."
"Bassim was a bright young man," said Tareef Nashashibi, a spokesman for the Chmait family. "He was full of life and at the verge of just starting his adult life. . . . He was just your typical South County boy."
Nashashibi, a 46-year-old general contractor who is also chairman of the Arab American Committee of the Orange County Republican Party, said he has met both Sheriff Mike Carona and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and has confidence they are treating the case as a high priority. "They are both honorable men," Nashashibi said.
That confidence isn't shared by some activist groups, including the New York-based International Action Center, which on Feb. 17 issued an Internet press release titled "Stop Police and Government Terror Against Arab-Americans." In its release, the group referred to the shooting as an example of anti-Muslim bias by law-enforcement officers. "Apparently, in between the lines of the employee manual given out by Homeland Security, the racist killing of an Arab-American youth is not considered a crime."
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"This could happen to anybody, regardless of ethnic background and race," Nashashibi countered. "This could have happened to anybody in Orange County."
But he is troubled that a month after the shooting, Bates still hasn't been arrested. "It's frustrating that the system works so slow and [Bates] wasn't placed under arrest. But we have to place our faith in the system."
Once justice has been obtained for Chmait, Nashashibi said, he plans to lobby for a law that would limit the ability of off-duty law-enforcement officials to use their service weapons. "If my neighbor is bothering me, I call the police," he said. "I don't go out shooting."