Family members of Justin Hertl gathered on Thursday evening outside the Anaheim Police Department for a candlelight vigil. Ten years ago that day, the 23-year-old man was walking his grandmother to her car in Yorba Linda around 10 a.m. when three cops approached him. The father of two was shot after one officer yelled “gun!”
Marking the somber occasion, Hertl's mother, sister and grandmother spoke out to those in attendance, including friends and supporters who have lost loved ones to officer-involved shootings in Anaheim and elsewhere. Ten years later, the pain ran deep as ever and the family still seeks answers.
“I was with Justin the first day he was born,” his grandmother Barbara Kordiak said, holding a flickering candle. “And then I saw Justin on the last day of his life when the Anaheim police department shot him in the back with me standing next to him.” She recounted that fateful morning when they headed to get something to eat only to see his life taken.
His mother, encouraged by those around her, took the microphone and read a letter she prepared for the anniversary. “Twenty-three shots were fired from all directions, one bullet for each year of his life,” Cindy Wagner said fighting through tears. Her son was struck by nine of them. “He didn't stand a chance, shot many times in the back, once in the head. No apologies, no explanation, no remorse was given.” Grief engulfed her as she neared the end of her statement unable to finish reading it.
The Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) deemed the shooting justified in a one-page summary that offered the family little in the way of details or closure. According to OCDA documents listing recent Anaheim police shootings, three APD Crime Task Force (CTF) investigators were looking for an at large parolee who was also “wanted for a recent auto theft.” In regards to Hertl, it further read that the “suspect was armed with a replica handgun and shot by officers.”
The family takes issue with the notion of him being armed, replica or not. “He had his arm around me. When they started shooting, he fell forward with his arms out towards me. There was no gun in his hands. There was no gun anywhere,” Kordiak told the Weekly. “They disregarded what I said.”
Wagner echoes her mother. “In the police report, it said there was a plastic gun found underneath his chin,” she says, “but my son's prints weren't on it.”
Wagner plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the city in the coming year. “It's going to take some time,” she says, “but we will win in court.”
The case of Justin Hertl is just one of a number of high-profile Anaheim PD shootings looked at by the Office of Independent Review (OIR). A staffer from the Los Angeles-based firm run by Michael Gennaco came to the Kordiak home for an interview, but the visit wasn't very reassuring. “I was really hopeful something would come of that, but now probably not,” Kordiak says.
Other Anaheim cases that are currently being reviewed or slated to be include that of 35-year-old Caesar Cruz who was killed in an officer-involved shooting on December 11, 2009. “They were supposed to give [the completed review] to us in early September,” Wagner says of the OIR. “We were then told it would come after the New Year.”
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @dpalabraz