OCDA Cites Lack of Evidence to Charge No-Comment Cops in Fatal Santa Ana Police Shooting

Santa Ana policemen Saul Esquivel and Dorin Buchanan refused to speak with Orange County District Attorney investigators about last year’s officer-involved shooting that killed David Contreras. The only other direct witness, Contreras himself, is dead. Without clear video evidence or detailed police statements, the OCDA closed its inquiry into the Nov. 6, 2016 shooting without pressing charges after patching together whatever they could to recount the events of that night.

The factual summary of the agency’s report released this week flatly reads that an unnamed Santa Ana police officer radioed a “998,” code for an officer-involved shooting, around 11:31 p.m. Three minutes later, Corporal Frank Gutierrez arrived on scene and spoke with Esquivel and Buchanan. According to Gutierrez’s May 8, 2017 report, Esquivel, whose previous shooting killed Jessica Gonzalez in 2013, told his superior that they pulled over a truck on West Edinger Avenue. During a physical altercation that ensued with the driver, the cop reported being struck with a Taser dart in the leg (Who fired it? Who knows!) and firing once in Contreras’ direction.

Buchanan also informed Gutierrez in the same report that he fired three times “towards the ground.”  But a later report from the corporal dated May 15, 2017 changed the narrative to say Buchanan fired those same three shots from the ground, not towards it. OCDA investigators followed up with Gutierrez last month, who explained that his latter report was the correct one after reviewing notes taken during the night of the shooting.

The white Ford F-150 truck Contreras drove turned out to be stolen and OCDA investigators sought out a woman who rode in the passenger seat but fled during his altercation with police. They found and interviewed her at Women’s Central Jail in Santa Ana. The unnamed woman told investigators that she was “delayed” and had “special needs” but recalled having met Contreras just that day who offered her a ride in the truck he later admitted was stolen. The two cruised around for hours and stopped occasionally to smoke meth.

When police pulled the truck over, Contreras wanted to run. Convinced by his new lady friend to stay, Conteras punched an officer after getting a gun pointed in his face. He resisted the two officers’ attempt to subdue him when they wrestled him to the ground. The woman fled the truck when she reported hearing five gunshots. She didn’t see the actual shooting, but noted Contreras never appeared to be armed nor reached for anything that could be used as a weapon.

The trail goes cold from there. OCDA investigators pursued dead-end leads from another woman who said she had video footage of the shooting before deciding her claim wasn’t credible. A surveillance camera nearby didn’t capture a clear view of the critical moments. A witness who stood in her front yard saw the shooting from afar—too far, actually, to clarify any questions about whether the cops committed a criminal act or were justified when opening fire.

The report notes additional officers arriving on scene didn’t find any weapons in the stolen truck, only two screwdrivers in Contreras’ pockets. Paramedics took him to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange. He suffered fatal gunshot wounds to his left leg and right chest. The autopsy report noted both to be “front to back” wounds.  As for the officers? They both suffered minor injuries and torn uniforms.

The OCDA report’s legal analysis reads much different than others in recent memory, too. It’s bereft of the usual case law citations of Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor that together establish an officer’s actions in a shooting must be judged by their reasonable belief of imminent danger and an objective view of the circumstances at the time that lead them to use deadly force. Instead, all investigators could really do was tie the injuries sustained by the officers to the passenger’s recounting of Contreras throwing a punch.

“It is the OCDA’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers in question did not act in reasonable and justifiable self-defense or defense of another at the time of the shooting,” the report concludes. “Based on the above-described facts available at this time, and the foregoing analysis, the prosecution would be unable to carry this burden in the case.” They also opined that a jury would find reasonable doubt on the question of guilt for either officer.

But the report ends on a different note, too. While the agency closed its inquiry into the shooting, it also states that, “should additional evidence become available, this matter may be reopened by the OCDA.”

As always, read the report in its entirety online.

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