•Unarmed Tulare man struggled with police before being shot twice.
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• Tulare police say Samuel Gonzales tried to grab officers’ gun.
• Gonzales’ mom said her son didn’t deserve to be shot.
This much isn’t in dispute: On Jan. 17, 2013, Tulare police officers Vince Medina and Ryan Richmond had an altercation with Samuel Gonzales. Richmond wrestled with Gonzales, and both officers used their department-issued flashlights to hit Gonzales in an attempt to subdue him.
The altercation ended when Medina fired two shots into Gonzales, who was entangled on the ground with Richmond.
At issue is whether Medina and Richmond acted properly. Did Medina fire the lethal shots only after Richmond said Gonzales, high on methamphetamine and fearing a return to prison, was trying to get his gun? Or did the two officers overreact, using their flashlights against the unarmed 44-year-old and then shooting him without warning, bypassing less lethal options such as a Taser or pepper spray?
Anita Deporto, Gonzales’ mother, filed a federal lawsuit against Media and Richmond, as well as the city of Tulare, alleging wrongful death and negligence. The matter is now in the hands of a federal court jury after testimony wrapped up Monday afternoon before U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill.
In closing arguments, the two sides saw the incident in starkly different terms.
Los Angeles-area attorney Dale Galipo, who is representing Deporto, told jurors that Gonzales didn’t make the smartest decisions that day by trying to flee officers, but he didn’t deserve to die. At no time, Galipo said, were the lives of the officers in imminent danger.
“Was (shooting Gonzales) a last resort?” he asked. “I think the answer, based on the evidence, is no.”
But Orange County attorney Bruce Praet said the officers acted properly. He said Gonzales ignored commands to stop resisting and to get on the ground before trying to grab Richmond’s gun, which was holstered. He said Gonzales was a Norteño gang member, had spent 18 of the past 25 years in prison, and was wanted for a felony parole violation. He didn’t want to go back to prison.
“That’s the real Sammy Gonzales,” Praet said. “Not the sweet little innocent kid they showed.”
The incident started with a police call from a clerk at the La Palma Bakery on West Inyo Avenue in downtown Tulare who said gang members were loitering in front of the business. Before officers arrived, some of the group had left. Medina and Richmond knew of an abandoned house nearby that police said was a gang hangout. When the two officers began checking out the house, Gonzales ran out.
Much of the closing arguments centered on whether Gonzales went for the gun, and if he actually had a realistic chance of getting it.
Praet demonstrated to jurors how easy it was to pull the gun from Richmond’s holster — even though the officer was wearing a safety holster.
But Galipo countered that not only was Richmond wearing a safety holster, he was also protecting the gun with his hand. Gonzales, who was face down, never had a real chance of grabbing it, Galipo said.
Despite any of Gonzales’ shortcomings, he did nothing that day to be shot and killed, Galipo said.
“She’s not saying her son was an angel,” Galipo said of Deporto, the plaintiff. “But she’s saying he didn’t deserve to be shot.”