When Theresa Smith lost her son, Caesar Cruz to a fatal December 11, 2009 officer-involved shooting in Anaheim, she hoped her family would be the last to have to endure the pain of such a devastating loss.
“As soon as he was killed,” Smith, a resident of Fullerton, says, “I wanted awareness.”
Her 35-year old son was shot and killed in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart off the 5 freeway by four Anaheim police officers.
Available details about the incident remain few and far between to this day. Cruz, a married father of five, was not a parolee though the Anaheim Police Department said it responded to a report that one was armed and cruising around.
According to authorities, undercover officers tailed the vehicle and a
marked patrol car joined in later as an attempt to box it in failed. At
one point, the Chevy Suburban stopped and then attempted to speed away
when shots were fired by officers who had, by then, gotten out of their
cars. Investigators claim they found a handgun at the scene.
Smith's demand for answers into her son's death evolved into weekly protests for nearly the past two-and-a-half years outside the busy intersection along Harbor Boulevard where the Anaheim Police Department is located. “I'm personally not afraid of retribution,” she says, though others' fear of such kept them from joining the demonstration at the early onset. Smith has also filed a civil lawsuit against the police.
Unfortunately, fatal officer-involved shootings in Anaheim did not stop with that fateful December day in 2009. As other families have been affected, they began to join in, most recently members of 21-year old Martin Angel Hernandez who was shot and killed in an Anaheim alley earlier this year.
“My initial thing was, of course, for my son,” Smith adds. “It's time consuming, but I'm really excited about the families who are starting to come around and stand up.”
Not only are they standing up, but this Saturday at 6:30 p.m., they will be on the march from the Wakefield Avenue neighborhood where Hernandez died to the entrance in front of Disneyland where a candlelight vigil will be held. Family members and friends of Cruz, Hernandez and Justin Hertl, who was shot to death by a police detective in Anaheim in 2003, will be participating on behalf of all those who have been affected over the past ten years by officer-involved shootings in the city.
It's not solely about remembrance. Personal experiences are spurring calls for policy changes. When the District Attorney's office sent a letter to Anaheim Police Chief John Welter in July 2010, it concluded that the shooting was justified in Cruz's case based on its investigation. “I only found out a few months ago,” Smith says. And it wasn't the authorities who reached out to the family or their attorney: It was only when Amber Stephens resurrected the incident from media silence with a September 2011 article for Fullerton Stories that the journalist informed her.
Smith, who has set up the non-profit Law Enforcement Accountability Network (LEAN), believes that there needs to be an outside, unbiased investigative agency into officer-involved shootings to ensure greater transparency and accountability.
In the meantime, while searching for justice, there is also the grief where the absence of loved ones remains a constant presence. “This is going to be a very tough Mother's Day for all of us,” Smith says of both the mothers who are marching or are grieving in their own personal way. “What I miss the most about my son is that he never let a Mother's Day go by without getting me a card and a flower, always since he was little.”
“They say it's painful when you have a child,” she adds, with her voice tinged by surging emotions, “try burying one.”