A lawsuit filed this week claims Anaheim police officers covered up what really happened on the night of July 22, 2012, when they shot and killed Joel Acevedo. The Orange County District Attorney's (OCDA) office completed its investigation into the shooting clearing officer Kelly Phillips on the grounds that Acevedo was armed and shot first after fleeing a reportedly stolen Lexus SUV. The lawsuit alleges a completely different story involving nothing less than an outright execution.
The 25-page complaint states that Acevedo was "killed without legal justification in violation of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights."
More explosively, it says that Phillips (who received a Distinguished Service Award this May for the Acevedo incident during the PD's annual awards) and fellow officers Trang Pham and Daniel Lambaren had the young man detained and handcuffed. At that point, Phillips fired a shot to the head without warning.
"If we don't change the way we hold police officers accountable, the wrongs will only get worse," says attorney Matthew Pappas. He's representing Donna Acevedo and Joel's young son pro bono in the case.
"It's not about any money or even winning the case," Acevedo says. "Just getting the story out of what really happened is most important to me." She is also running for Anaheim city council this year.
The night of the shooting, a photo emerged showing Acevedo with a gun between his legs. The OCDA report noted that Phillips kicked it out of his hand as he lay on the ground twitching after the shootout. The complaint counters that Acevedo was never armed and that officers altered evidence to conceal their actions.
It isn't the first time such a claim has been made. Vanessa Duran, the driver of the SUV that night, told OCDA investigators that she witnessed an execution-style killing as officers held down her friend before firing. Duran's account was dismissed as without merit and at odds with the evidence collected at the scene.
Pappas, a former candidate for Long Beach city attorney, took on preparing the complaint as the statute of limitations to file approached. Acevedo's last lawyer died of pancreatic cancer. Had the deadline passed, no legal channels would remain to contest an official version that Acevedo insists is simply not true.
"This is a case, while difficult, presents something important," Pappas says. "When you have witnesses that say he was held down before being shot, there's a basis for filing."
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2