Fresno man's killing by police stuns friends

Neighbors say they saw police chase vehicle, then heard shots.

March 29, 2009 

Friends and neighbors of Stephen Willis said Sunday they were stunned to learn that he had been killed in a confrontation with Fresno police early Saturday morning.

"I was very shocked," said Valentino Garza, Willis' friend and neighbor. "I couldn't believe that it was him."

Willis, 23, died shortly before 1 a.m. at the Stoney Brook Apartments at Balch and Winery avenues after two officers fired 35 rounds at him in the apartment complex's parking lot.

Officers said Willis drew a gun and fired one shot at them. Willis' parents said hours after the shooting that officers executed their son.

An autopsy on Willis was conducted Sunday, the Fresno County Coroner's Office said, but its findings were not made public.

Police spokesman Jeff Cardinale said he expects autopsy results will be released later this week.

Meanwhile, friends say the confrontation with police would have been out of character for Willis, a Buchanan High School graduate. He was taking a heating and air conditioning course at ITT Technical Institute.

"It still hurts me to think that he's gone," Garza said. "It didn't seem like something he would do."

Jose Villa, who lives next door to Willis' apartment, said Willis was a "good guy" and a good neighbor, who helped him move a television just a few hours before his death. "I couldn't believe it happened to him," Villa said.

A memorial of candles, balloons, artificial flowers and a cross that read "R.I.P. Steve" sat just outside Willis' apartment Sunday near the site of the shooting.

Police said officers were investigating a disturbance in the area early Saturday when a car sped past them into the apartment complex. The car struck an entry gate and screeched its tires as it entered the parking lot, police said.

Two officers then followed the car into the complex.

Chris Zimmerman, a resident in the southeast Fresno apartment complex, said he and a few friends were on an apartment patio when they saw a car being driven erratically, and then saw the two officers follow it.

"Once he pulled in, the officers were right behind him," said Zimmerman, who was about 25 yards away from where the shooting happened.

Zimmerman said his view of the shooting was obscured and he didn't hear any exchange of words before he heard about 20 gunshots. After the first volley, he heard some yelling, and then about 15 more gunshots.

Zimmerman said he wasn't necessarily being critical of the officers; he speculated that officers may not have had any time initially to yell out commands.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said Saturday that officers immediately told Willis to put his gun down, but that he refused and instead pulled the gun out of the holster and pointed it at officers.

Dyer said witnesses heard officers tell Willis to drop the gun.

Dyer said investigators found Willis' gun had fired one round. One of the officers was apparently grazed by a shot in the left thigh, but not seriously injured.

Dyer said Willis' girlfriend, who was in the car when it pulled 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 hurry to get to their apartment.

Willis' parents, Chris and Liz Willis, said Saturday the shooting by officers was unprovoked.

Chris Willis, who is chief of security at Saint Agnes Medical Center, said his son had gone target-shooting with friends Friday and was merely taking his gun out of his car's trunk at the time of the shooting.

The family has retained attorneys.

The reporter can be reached at ejimenez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6386.

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