Nearly four years after Sanger police fatally shot an unarmed man, a federal civil rights trial began Wednesday to determine whether the three officers were justified in killing 46-year-old Charles “Charlie” Salinas, a Marine Corps veteran with a history of alcoholism, mental illness and a desire to die.
The trial in U.S. District Court in Fresno started off in dramatic fashion.
Jurors heard Salinas’ chilling 911 call in which he tells police dispatch that he has a gun and two knives and wants police to kill him.
“When they get here, tell them to shoot me,” Salinas told the dispatcher.
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But Salinas also told the dispatcher that he would not hurt the officers.
Jurors also watched a cellphone video of the shooting taken by a bystander. The video shows three officers with assault rifles standing 10 to 15 feet from Salinas before they opened fire. The officers fired 22 rounds toward Salinas, striking him 11 times as he stood unarmed in a flower bed outside a Sanger business on Academy Avenue in June 2012.
Fresno County’s chief forensic pathologist, Dr. Venu Gopal, testified that the bullets struck Salinas in the forehead, chest, abdomen, right thigh and in the back. The bullets punctured his brain, heart and lungs, killing him instantly.
Before the day ended, jurors got a glimpse of the officers’ defense to the charges.
Sgt. Jason Boust testified that he and the other officers feared for their lives when they shot Salinas because they believed he was armed with a gun and two knives. He said he shot Salinas because Salinas made a motion toward his waistband as he charged at him.
“He’s waving his arms. He’s running in and out of the bushes. He’s highly agitated,” Boust said. “None of us know what he would do to fulfill his desire (to die).”
But Boust admitted that he never saw any weapon in Salinas’ hands. He also said Salinas never verbally threatened him or the other officers.
In one final admission, Boust conceded that it was the first time that he described Salinas as “highly agitated.” In an interview with investigators and in his deposition, Boust described Salinas as upset, agitated, depressed, and mentally distraught, but never angry, violent or highly agitated.
Boust will resume his testimony Thursday.
The trial in Judge Anthony Ishii’s courtroom gives a rare glimpse into an officer-involved shooting, because the officers didn’t know they had been videotaped when they gave their account of the shooting to Fresno County sheriff’s investigators, court records say.
Salinas’ sister, Esperanza Booke, has sued Sanger and the three officers for violation of Salinas’ civil rights, saying the use of deadly force against an unarmed and mentally distraught man was unjustified, excessive and a callous disregard for human life.
Some family members cried when Salinas’ 911 call was played to the jury.
In opening statements, San Diego attorneys Robert Hamparyan and Aaron Salomon, who represent Salinas’ family, alleged a police cover-up because the officers who killed Salinas were allowed to gather for more than four hours and speak with a lawyer and Sanger Police Chief Silver Rodriguez.
Unlike other fatal police shootings across America, Salinas’ death didn’t draw protests. His family built a memorial for him in the flower bed in Sanger. There is a photograph of him as a Marine, decorated with flowers and mementos, including a portion of a medal that says “rifle sharpshooter.” The flower garden has solar lights that illuminate the photo in the dark.
In opening statements, San Francisco attorney Dale Allen Jr., who is representing the officers and the city of Sanger, told the jury the officers feared for their lives because Salinas had told police dispatch that he was armed. Allen also told the jury that officers shot Salinas after he made a motion toward his waistband and then lunged or charged at them.
But Hamparyan and Salomon said the officers’ accounts conflict with the video. Hamparyan told the jury that officers never saw Salinas with a weapon and that he never threatened the officers.
Without any warning from police, Salinas was fatally shot after obeying the officers’ orders to get out of the flower bed, Hamparyan said.
Both sides agree that the video shows Sanger police Officer Robert Pulkownik firing twice at Salinas with his bean-bag shotgun. Boust and Officers Angela Yambupah and Preston Little then immediately opened fire with AR-15 assault rifles. Fresno County sheriff’s Sgt. Joshua McCahill, who also responded to the call, pointed a gun at Salinas but never fired it.
Boust, Yambupah and Little are defendants in the case that will be decided by a jury of three women and five men. McCahill was not being sued and Pulkownik was dismissed as a defendant.
Hamparyan and Salomon contend the officers failed to follow Sanger police procedures when dealing with a mentally ill subject. But Allen said the officers followed correct procedure in confronting Salinas and didn’t know what he was capable of doing since he said he was armed.
In defending the officers, Allen implored the jury to understand the “totality of the circumstances” before making a decision. “They had to make a split-second decision to use lethal force,” he told the jury.
Allen said the video and witnesses clearly show that the officers tried to talk Salinas into surrendering. But Hamparyan said only Pulkownik, also a military veteran, tried to defuse the situation by calmly talking to Salinas. The other officers were yelling at Salinas, creating a chaotic and hostile situation, Hamparyan said.
Salinas grew up in Sanger and joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1988. He received an honorable discharge in 1991, Hamparyan said. Hamparyan said Salinas was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression. He was receiving treatment at the Veterans Administration hospital in Fresno.
Salinas was well-known to law enforcement. Court records show he had three misdemeanor drunken-driving convictions and one high-profile incident in September 1995, when Sanger police said he took two employees of a pizza parlor hostage during a drunken rampage – he fired at least four rounds into pinball machines after the hostages were released.
Salinas, who was armed with a 9-mm semi-automatic handgun and a .223 semi-automatic rifle with four loaded magazines, kept police officers and sheriff’s deputies at bay for about 30 to 40 minutes. Sanger police Lt. Martin Stumpf told reporters back then that Salinas had a history of mental illness and that he had been drinking during the standoff.
Salinas spent time behind bars for the incident.
At the time of his death, Salinas had a .30 blood-alcohol level, but no street drugs, Gopal testified Wednesday. The limit for driving is .08.
Gopal also testified that Salinas had tattoos of an American flag, and the words “Marines,” “USMC,” and “The Few, The Proud.”
Court records say Boust was hired by Sanger police in 2000. Pulkownik, Yambupah and Little were hired in 2010.
On the final day of his life, on June 15, 2012, Salinas called 911 shortly before 3 p.m. The first words out of his mouth: “I’m going to kill myself.”
He then told the police dispatcher he was “armed and dangerous” and was wearing “combat gear.” But he later told the dispatcher he was wearing a black Dodgers T-shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes. He also told the dispatcher he had been drinking and walking for three days with one goal in mind – go back to his childhood home to die.
“This is a nice place to die,” he told the dispatcher.