There is no evidence undercover California Highway Patrol officers were criminally culpable in shootings that killed a 19-year-old and wounded his then-18-year-old friend in the cul de sac of a Fullerton residential neighborhood on July 3, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s office.
Prosecutors enlisted to investigate the officer-involved shootings reached that conclusion with the help of statements by two CHP officers who say they were trying to stop Pedro Erick Villanueva from driving his red Chevrolet Silverado truck at them, residents of Pritchard Avenue where the shootings happened and Francisco Orozco Jr.
Orozco is the then-18-year-old who was hit in the arm by CHP gunfire while riding in his friend Villanueva’s shiny red pickup.
The incident led to the filing of claims—generally the first step before a lawsuit is brought—on behalf of Orozco and Villanueva’s family against the CHP. Claiming the shootings were not justified, supporters of the teens protested in front of CHP headquarters and another friend of Villanueva’s was arrested on suspicion of making criminal threats against an officer.
Orozco and Villanueva had been to a Santa Fe Springs swap meet parking lot car club gathering known as a sideshow that was being monitored by an undercover CHP team investigating illegal street racing. Sergeant John Henderson and Officer Rich Cleveland say they saw Villanueva’s Silverado doing doughnuts illegally when they decided to move in.
But the CHP officers were in street clothes and an unmarked Ford Taurus when they followed the truck out of the sideshow and to an area of Fullerton that was unfamiliar to Los Angeles County residents Villanueva and Orozco, according to the legal claims against the CHP.
The CHP said after the shootings that the officers opened fire because Villanueva made a U-turn, drove toward them and failed to stop. Orozco and the driver’s family claimed the pair had no way of knowing the undercovers were law enforcement.
“They never once used a siren, a loud speaker or provided any warning whatsoever before they started shooting,” Orozco says in a statement at the time. “They never identified themselves as law enforcement until after they stopped shooting.”
But in the OCDA report dated Jan. 10 and signed by Senior Deputy District Attorney Brock Zimmon and Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, Orozco is said to have voluntarily given a statement where he says before the shooting started he heard a horn or siren (but saw no emergency lights).
Orozco also apparently saw that Cleveland and Henderson were wearing vests with “Police” written across the chests and “street tactical unit” clothing and heard both officers shout, “Stop, police!” Further, the teen is quoted in the report saying he repeatedly tried to get Villanueva to stop or toss his keys out the window while they were being pursued and that he could not understand why he continued driving at the officers. He even wondered if his friend’s foot somehow got stuck on the gas pedal before ramming the Taurus the officers had been riding in.
Of the four witnesses who voluntarily gave statements reported in the OCDA file: One heard an officer yell, “Stop, [expletive]!” before the shooting and “Two suspects and all of the officers are OK” afterward; A second heard “Stop!” and six shots but could not make out who fired; A third videotaped what was happening at the scene, but it was after the shootings; And a fourth and his son pretty much saw the whole thing but it is not made clear in the report whether they realized Cleveland and Henderson were cops.
Other surprises that emerged from the OCDA report are Cleveland and Henderson saying they did not even realize Villanueva had a passenger. Both stuck to the party line of saying they believed they were in danger before firing their weapons. (No surprise there.)
The prosecutors’ report also states that Villanueva was placed on probation for three years and had his drivers license suspended a month before his death because of a misdemeanor conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol and possessing cocaine. The toxicology report from his autopsy showed he had a small amount of THC in his system.