Lawyers for the family of an unarmed, mentally ill Marines Corps veteran shot and killed by Sanger police in June 2012 alleged a cover-up of the shooting during the second day of a federal civil-rights trial in Fresno.
On Thursday, the lawyers continued to probe the shooting of 46-year-old Charles Salinas and its aftermath. The day included surprise testimony that the first shot fired was by one of three Sanger police officers who shot Salinas with assault rifles – and not from another officer’s bean-bag shotgun.
Lawyers for the Salinas family focused Thursday on actions by the three officers after the shooting: They stayed together in a room at police headquarters for more than four hours and talked to a lawyer and police Chief Silver Rodriguez before meeting with Fresno County sheriff’s detectives.
Only Sgt. Jason Boust gave his account of the shooting to investigators that day. But when he did, he chuckled and laughed when he talked with investigators about Salinas’ fatal wounds.
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In testimony, Boust refuted any notion of a cover-up.
Sanger police Sgt. Jason Boust told the jury that he told the other shooters not to talk about the incident so they could “protect the integrity of the investigation.”
Typically, officers involved in shootings are separated to keep them from talking to each other so the investigation is fair and impartial, said attorney Robert Hamparyan, one of the lawyers representing the Salinas family.
Boust, who gave his account to investigators 51/2 hours after Salinas was killed, testified Thursday that keeping shooters or witnesses separate is not a firm rule. “It should be a consideration,” he said.
He also testified that though they were in the same room, he and officers Preston Little and Angela Yambupah never talked about the shooting.
In fact, Boust told the jury, he told the other shooters not to talk about the incident so they could “protect the integrity of the investigation.”
Boust said he and other officers did talk to Rodriguez, but they did not share any details of the shooting with the police chief.
Regarding the police lawyer, Hamparyan said the Sanger police policy, as well as a Government Code section, says officers who are involved in shootings should not to talk to a lawyer as a group.
Boust said he was unaware of the policy, noting that he, Little and Yambupah talked to a lawyer as a group for only five minutes.
Other officers not involved in the shooting also were allowed to mingle with Boust, Little and Yambupah. But Boust testified that no one talked about the shooting. Instead, Boust testified it was just small talk like “How are you doing?” and “Can I get you anything?” to keep their minds off the shooting until they talked to investigators.
Boust said the lawyer was with him during his sheriff’s interview. Little and Yambupah were allowed to go home without talking to investigators.
Little gave his account to investigators the next day without the assistance of a lawyer. He testified Thursday that “he wanted to sleep on it” before he gave a statement. He also said he called a friend in the Sheriff’s Office before giving his statement. Yambupah gave her account 10 days after the shooting, Hamparyan told the jury.
Rare glimpse into officer-involved shooting
The trial in Judge Anthony Ishii’s courtroom gives a rare glimpse into an officer-involved shooting. The officers didn’t know they had been videotaped when they gave their account to Fresno County sheriff’s investigators, court records say.
In the minutes before his death, Salinas called 911 and told police dispatch that he had a gun and two knives and wanted police to kill him.
“When they get here, tell them to shoot me,” Salinas told the dispatcher.
But Salinas also promised dispatch that he would not hurt the officers.
A cell-phone video taken by a bystander shows the 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 around 3:15 p.m. June 15, 2012. He died at the scene.
Salinas’ sister, Esperanza Booke, has sued Sanger and the three officers in U.S. District Court in Fresno 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.
A cell-phone video taken by a bystander shows the three officers with assault rifles standing 10 to 15 feet from Salinas before they opened fire.
The video shows officer Robert Pulkownik firing twice at Salinas with his bean-bag shotgun. Boust, Little and Yambupah simultaneously open 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, Little and Yambupah are defendants in the case that will be decided by a jury of three women and five men. McCahill is not being sued and Pulkownik was dismissed as a defendant.
In his testimony Thursday, Little said he fired first – before Pulkownik fire his bean-bag shotgun.
In defending the officers, San Francisco attorney Dale Allen Jr. 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. Though the video contradicts the officers’ version of the shooting, Allen asked the jury not to hold it against them, saying “in their minds” Salinas was running, sprinting or lunging toward them.
Allen said the officers truly believed that Salinas was armed and 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, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Hamparyan said the other officers yelled at Salinas, thereby creating a chaotic and hostile situation.
Salinas was initially lying in the flower bed when Pulkownik spotted him. When Boust and Little showed up, he was sitting or crouching in the flower bed. Both officers testified that Salinas hid in the bushes and that he was animated, agitated and not complying with the officers’ orders to show his hands.
Boust recalled Salinas saying, “I’m a veteran, I’m a veteran.” And for a moment, the situation was de-escalating because Pulkownik was talking to Salinas, Boust said.
But in a matter of seconds the situation escalated to a critical stage, Boust said.
When Salinas finally stood up, he clenched his right hand as if he were holding a knife or pick in it, Boust testified.
By then all five officers had formed a semi-circle in front of Salinas. Little and Boust testified that Salinas then pointed at two officers and said “I don’t want you to shoot me.” He then turned toward either Boust or McCahill and said, “I want you to shoot me.”
On the witness stand Thursday, first Boust and then Little each testified that he feared for his life because they believed Salinas was armed.
“I was scared that this was a guy who could kill me,” Little testified.
Boust and Little both described Salinas as sprinting toward them with his arms pumping up and down. But when the video was played in court, Boust conceded that the video did not show Salinas sprinting.
Both officers also conceded that they never saw Salinas with a weapon and testified that Salinas never verbally threatened them. They also said they knew a police dog and its handler was within a few minutes of showing up.
In questioning the officers, Hamparyan told the jury that Salinas was shot without any warning. He said proper police procedure would have been for the officers to ask Salinas if he had a weapon. Hamparyan also said the officers had a duty to warn Salinas that they would use deadly force if he didn’t comply with their orders.
But Boust and Little said asking a subject about a weapon or giving a warning isn’t always feasible in a fast-changing situation. In this case, Salinas was agitated, unstable and wanted to “commit suicide by cop,” Little said, so telling him he might be shot “would have planted an idea in his head.”
Yambupah is expected to testify Friday when the trial resumes.