Photo by Jessica CalkinsBy the time the Orange County District Attorney's Office eventually finishes its investigation into the shooting of Elmer Bustos, it's likely almost nobody will remember him—or how he died at the hands of a Santa Ana police officer.
According to Santa Ana police, 17-year-old Bustos shot at officers trying to question him on the afternoon of Jan. 27 while he walked with his girlfriend about a block south of Willard Intermediate School. Police claim they retrieved a handgun and several spent rounds at the scene, and took reports from witnesses who said they saw Bustos—a local gang member on probation—firing at officers.
But three other witnesses contacted by the Weekly—Elmer's girlfriend, his cousin and Alejandro Castaneda, a 15-year-old bystander police accidentally shot in the leg—tell a different story. They say they never saw Elmer holding a gun or firing at police (see “Nobody Saw Him Shooting at Anybody,” March 14). Those witnesses signed declarations saying they saw Elmer running from police and that he was shot in the back and side when he turned as officers shouted at him to stop.
“He fell with one arm under him and another stretched out,” said Elmer's cousin Alejandro Bustos. “That's when the cop got on his back.” He says police handcuffed Elmer and then called for backup. A few minutes later several police cars pulled up. “They didn't call the ambulance right away,” Alejandro said, adding that Castaneda, the wounded bystander, received medical attention before Bustos.
Elmer's father, Mario Bustos, said he's never been interviewed by police or prosecutors in the months since the shooting, and claimed that police seem more interested in harassing witnesses and activists trying to draw attention to the shooting. Mario said he still wants to sue the police department, but six months after the shooting, he still hasn't found a lawyer willing to take the case.
Naui Huitzilopochtli and Rosalinda Ramirez, two activists who have been in contact with the Bustoses, say that the family appreciates their efforts but now figures there's little to do but wait for the DA's office to complete its investigation. The activists also claim that witnesses—including a street vendor who was selling food from his truck that day—fear police retaliation if they tell the media what they saw.
There's no reason to believe the DA's office will complete its investigation into Bustos' death any time soon. A DA spokesperson refused to answer any questions about the shooting, telling the Weekly to file a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request if it wanted further information.
In response to that request, Doug Woodsmall, an assistant DA for felony projects, said his agency has not yet completed its investigation of the shooting and could not estimate when it will be done. “There are just too many variables,” Woodsmall said.
Whenever the probe is finished, there is little reason to believe that any wrongdoing by the officers who were involved in the shooting will be uncovered. According to Woodsmall, in the past five years, the DA's office has investigated 54 officer-involved shootings involving cops from city forces in Anaheim, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Cypress, Fountain Valley, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Beach, La Habra, Orange, Santa Ana, Stanton, Tustin and Westminster. The agency has also reviewed shootings involving the Orange County Marshal's Office, the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol. No charges of criminal misconduct on the part of officers have been filed in any of those cases, Woodsmall said.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).