Nearly a year after a pair of deadly officer-involved shootings rocked Anaheim, the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) has ruled the killing of Joel Acevedo on July 22, 2012 justified.
The Weekly obtained the agency's 10-page report, addressed to Interim Chief Raul Quezada and yet to be publicly released. It concludes that an investigation “does not support a finding of criminal culpability” on the part of Anaheim Police Officer Kelly Phillips, who fired the fatal shots.
Acevedo, 21, was riding in a 2003 silver Lexus SUV driven by Vanessa Janine Duran. Jose Gaudencio Hernandez was also a passenger in the vehicle that police later reported as stolen. At around 11:20 p.m. on the night of July 22, 2012, according to the DA report, they were headed eastbound on West Guinida Lane.
Traveling westbound in a gang suppression unit were three Anaheim police officers: Trang Pham, Daniel Lambaren and Phillps. The two vehicles crossed paths when Phillips, the driver, reported recognizing Duran.
The marked APD patrol unit made a U-turn and began following the SUV for the stated reason that the license plate was not illuminated as mandated by law. Another traffic violation was noted before an accelerated pursuit commenced northbound on Iris Street. Attempting later to turn back on Guinida Lane, the SUV jumped the curb, blowing out its front tires as the three occupants took off running.
Hernandez was said to have dropped and then picked up an object as he fled. Phillips stated that he believed the object was a firearm. Hernandez was later detained by Lambaren, but the report does not specify the alleged object or if it was ever recovered by police. Duran and Acevedo ran in different directions. Officer Phillips, in a voluntary statement given an entire eight days after the incident, claimed that he entered a parking lot between two apartment complexes in pursuit of Acevedo. There, as he approached a white Honda SUV, the officer says he saw a shadow and heard a gunshot at which point felt his life to be threatened.
Phillips, an officer involved in the fatal 2009 shooting of Caesar Cruz in Anaheim, went on to claim that a dark shadow emerged towards the front of the second vehicle and when he heard a second gunshot, returned fire shooting four rounds from his .45 Caliber Glock Pistol. “I just had a dark shadow moving,” the officer is quoted as saying. “As soon as I got the dark shadow, I shot.”
Police claim Acevedo fell to his right side with a semi-automatic pistol clutched in his right hand. As the man laid twitching, Phillips states that he approached him, kicked the gun from his hand where it fell between Acevedo's legs. The above photo from the scene was released last summer showing the weapon positioned as stated by Phillips. A dying Acevedo was handcuffed, according to the report, and rolled on his back.
The autopsy, which spared its usual emphasis on gang-affiliated tattoos, noted three gunshot wounds sustained by the 21-year old, including fatal ones to the head and lower neck, which severed his aorta. Unlike with Manuel Angel Diaz, who was shot and killed in an officer-involved shooting on Anna Drive the day before, no independent autopsy was ever conducted.
Neither officer Pham nor Lambaren witnessed Acevedo firing, though both reported hearing three to four gunshots. Duran, the driver, successfully evaded arrest that night, but would eventually be taken into custody at a later time. The statement she gave to the OCDA recounts a wholly different scenario, with an explosive claim: Anaheim PD “executed” Acevedo.
As the woman faced criminal charges stemming from the July 22, 2012 incident, she was interviewed in December under the condition that disallowed for her testimony to be used against her in OC Superior Court. Duran says that Acevedo had been fired at by APD officers two days prior. On the fatal night in question, as focus from officers at the scene shifted away from her, she claims to have witnessed the execution-style shooting of Acevedo.
Duran told a deputy district attorney that as she ran passed the parking lot where the shooting occurred, she first saw Acevedo trip before officers dragged and held him down before the fatal shot was fired. Startled, she hit something making a noise that gained the attention of an officer who gave chase and shot at her, both unsuccessfully.
The OCDA aggressively discounted her account on multiple grounds. The report was released at this time in part because Duran's criminal case had to be closed before her statement could be released publicly. In exchange for a one-year prison sentence, she pleaded guilty late last month to multiple felonies including unlawful taking of a vehicle, evading a peace officer/reckless driving with felony criminal street gang enhancement and street terrorism misdemeanor.
Duran's previous record shows no gang-related convictions, only misdemeanor false impersonation and theft of personal property.
The fact that she gave her side of the story under the condition of immunity is also scrutinized. The OCDA's letter most strongly objects to the notion of an execution-style shooting based on the physical evidence presented and that her association with Acevedo makes her "biased.”
Investigators from the OCDA Special Assignment Unit report having interviewed 64 witnesses. None of the residents of the densely populated area were presented. The canvassing was said to have produced no witnesses to the supposed shootout between Acevedo and Phillips, nor any corroboration of Duran's account–only general notions that consecutive gunshots were heard.
The only evidence, it is written, that counters Phillips' claim of self-defense is Duran's statement which the DA–in using language better suited for a Victorian-era sermon–stated was an "immunized account” found to be "less credible,” "evincing moral turpitude,” and "stretch[ing] credulity.” With that, the OCDA closed its inquiry into the last fatal officer-involved shooting to date in Anaheim for which the city's police department had come under heavy scrutiny during its long, hot summer.
The contents of the investigative letter are unconvincing to Joel's mother, Donna Acevedo. “This report is a whitewash,” she told the Weekly. “Like all of the DA's reports, it takes the officers' word as gospel and ridicules any conflicting testimony.”
Acevedo says she has much reason to believe in Duran's version of what happened that fateful night. “There is much, much more to be said about the flaws and dishonesty of this report, too much to mention here,” she adds. “Bottom line, they murdered my son.”
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @dpalabraz