Fresno police fire 35 rounds, kill man

Officers say he drew a gun at southeast apartment complex.

March 28, 2009 

Fresno police officers shot and killed a 23-year-old man they say drew a gun and fired at them early Saturday in a southeast Fresno apartment complex.

Stephen Willis -- a Buchanan High School graduate who was studying at ITT Technical Institute -- died after two officers fired 35 rounds at him in the parking lot of the apartment complex where he lived.

The officers feared for their lives, Police Chief Jerry Dyer said in a news conference Saturday afternoon. Investigators believe Willis fired once at officers, Dyer said.

But Willis' parents characterized the death as an unprovoked execution, and they held a separate news conference with their attorneys to condemn the officers' conduct.

"He was a good boy. He would not have done what the police said he did," said Willis' father, Chris Willis, who is chief of security at Saint Agnes Medical Center. "It doesn't make any sense. It is murderous."

The confrontation happened shortly before 1 a.m. at the Stoney Brook Apartments at Winery and Balch avenues, Dyer said.

Officers were investigating a disturbance and had detained several people when a car sped past them into the nearby apartment complex, he said.

The car struck an entry gate, screeching its tires as it continued through the parking lot, and two officers went into the complex to investigate. They found the car parked and a suspect standing near the trunk, holding a holster that contained a handgun later found to be a .38-caliber revolver.

"The officers immediately told the individual to put the gun down while drawing their firearms," Dyer said. "However, the suspect refused to drop the gun and in fact pulled the gun out of the holster while stepping back and at the same time pointed that gun in the direction of the officers."

The officers fired at Willis as he retreated between his car and a van parked next to it, Dyer said.

"The suspect kneeled down behind one of the vehicles and again pointed his revolver in the direction of one of the officers," the chief said. The officers also took cover behind vehicles during the melee.

Together, the officers fired 35 rounds from their .40-caliber Beretta pistols at Willis. Dyer said he didn't know how many shots hit Willis, adding that an autopsy today will reveal more about the man's death.

News conference by Stephen Willis' parents

News conference by Police Chief Jerry Dyer

Willis was found with the gun and holster next to him, Dyer said. "An inspection of the handgun revealed that one round had been fired," he said.

The chief said one of the officers was apparently grazed by a shot in the left thigh. He was examined by paramedics at the scene and released.

Willis was the fifth person so far this year to be shot by Fresno police officers, Dyer said. The shooting was the second such fatal confrontation this year.

The death comes just days after the Fresno City Council voted to set up an independent police auditor to monitor the Police Department.

The Willis family's attorneys criticized the newly created Office of Independent Review, saying that it will not have enough authority.

Previous proposals would have given the auditor more authority to investigate independently, but the new agency will not conduct independent investigations or interview witnesses.

"It's a sham as it's proposed," said attorney Rick Berman.

Chris Willis and his wife, Liz, described their oldest son as a young man who stayed out of trouble and who had no reason to act aggressively as police described. They have another son, Jeffrey, 18.

Berman said Stephen Willis was taking a heating and air conditioning course at ITT Technical Institute.

"Our son was a happy 23-year-old with his whole life ahead of him," Chris Willis said.

He said his son had gone target-shooting with friends Friday. "He was just taking his gun in from the trunk of his car," Willis said.

Attorney Eric Schweitzer said the shooting was unprovoked.

"The police are here to protect us and not to execute our children," Willis said.

A search warrant served at the suspect's apartment turned up a box of .38-caliber ammunition with six rounds missing, Dyer said -- the same number of shells the man's revolver held when police examined it. One was spent.

Dyer said the man's girlfriend -- who was in the car when it sped into the complex -- told police the couple had been drinking tequila earlier in the evening at a Fresno club. As they returned home, she said she became nauseous and was in a rush to get to her apartment.

Berman confirmed that Willis and his friends had been drinking earlier in the evening, but he said they were not drunk when police arrived.

"This young man was doing nothing," Berman said.

Dyer said it serves no purpose to get into a debate with Willis' parents.

"I recognize the parents are going through difficult times," Dyer said. "I offer my condolences to them."

Dyer said the police investigation so far shows that the two officers who confronted Willis told him to drop his weapon, but he refused to do so.

"There are witnesses who heard the officers repeatedly tell the individual to drop the gun," Dyer said.

"Our officers do not have a desire to take anyone's life," Dyer said. "I wish this incident did not happen this way, but it did."

The reporters can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com, plloyd@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.

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