A Sanger police officer who shot unarmed Charles Salinas with a beanbag shotgun in June 2012 testified Thursday in a federal civil rights, excessive-force trial that he feared for his life when three other police officers fatally shot the suicidal Marine Corps veteran with assault rifles.
Robert Pulkownik got off the witness stand in U.S. District Court and showed the jury how the 46-year-old Salinas turned into an angled “bladed stance,” as if to fight him. Pulkownik said Salinas then ran at him at full speed “like a track star.”
“He bolted right at me like he was going to kill me,” Pulkownik told the jury.
He bolted right at me like he was going to kill me.
Sanger police Officer Robert Pulkownik
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But when he was shown a video of the shooting, Pulkownik agreed that Salinas was not running at him.
In his defense, Pulkownik told the jury that his account was his perception of Salinas’ actions at the time of the shooting.
Pulkownik’s testimony was not unusual. It mirrored that of Sanger police Sgt. Jason Boust and Officers Preston Little and Angela Yambupah. Boust, Little and Yambupah have already testified that they feared for their lives and that of their fellow officers when they fired 22 times at Salinas, striking him 11 times, from 10 to 15 feet away.
Only Fresno County sheriff’s Sgt. Joshua McCahill has testified that Salinas never made him fear for his life. Though he had his handgun drawn, McCahill never fired it. McCahill described the incident as a “nonlethal situation.”
On the fifth day of testimony, attorney Robert Hamparyan, who represents the Salinas family, continued to hammer at the officers’ accounts of the deadly shooting and probe whether the Sanger Police Department tried to cover up the incident.
In defending the officers, San Francisco attorney Dale Allen Jr. has implored the jury to understand the “totality of the circumstances” before reaching a conclusion. Though the video contradicts the officers’ versions of the shooting, Allen asked the jury not to hold it against them, saying the officers had to make a split-second decision and “in their minds” Salinas was running, sprinting or lunging toward them.
Testimony has revealed that Boust, Little, Yambupah and Pulkownik were allowed to stay 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.
On Thursday, Hamparyan questioned whether the sheriff’s office did a fair and impartial investigation.
Hamparyan asked sheriff’s Detective Robert Buenrostro, who investigated the killing of Salinas, whether he found it suspicious that four of the five officers said Salinas had a “bladed stance” and then lunged, jumped, ran or sprinted toward the officers before he was shot – even though the video proves their accounts wrong.
Buenrostro said he found nothing wrong with the officers’ accounts.
Sheriff’s investigator testifies video of shooting was not a key piece of evidence. Instead, the video is just one person’s perception of the shooting taken 60 feet away.
Buenrostro also testified the video was not the key piece of evidence. Instead, he said the video was just one person’s perception of the shooting taken 60 feet away.
The trial in U.S. District Court in Fresno gives a rare glimpse into an officer-involved shooting because the officers didn’t know they had been videotaped by a bystander when they gave their accounts of the shooting to sheriff’s investigators, court records say.
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.
Both sides agree that a drunken Salinas called 911 at 2:59 p.m. and told a police dispatcher 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 the dispatcher that he would not hurt the officers but would provoke them to shoot him.
Hamparyan’s questioning Thursday of Pulkownik resembled a legal boxing match.
When Pulkownik couldn’t recall details of his account to investigators or his deposition in May 2014, Hamparyan would read transcripts of both to the jury.
One key point was whether Salinas had committed a crime at the time of his death. Pulkownik testified that it was undetermined if Salinas had committed a crime. But in his deposition, Pulkownik said under oath that Salinas hadn’t committed a crime and was not under arrest. Instead, Pulkownik said he was there to help Salinas.
Responding to the 911 call, Pulkownik said he grabbed a less lethal shotgun and also drew his handgun as he searched for Salinas. Once he saw Yambupah had a rifle, Pulkownik said he put his handgun in its holster.
Pulkownik said he found Salinas lying on his side in a flower bed. He testified that he never saw Salinas with a gun, knife or weapon, and Salinas never verbally threatened him before he was shot. But he said Salinas repeatedly failed to comply with orders to show his hands or put his hands up and surrender. Instead, Salinas flipped him off, he said.
Pulkownik, who was a police officer in the military, recalled talking to Salinas about his military service. He recalled Salinas showing him a tattoo and mumbling something like his name, rank and serial number “like a POW.”
In his testimony, McCahill said Salinas, while in the flower bed, showed his hands and raised them as high as his shoulders. But Pulkownik said that never happened.
Pulkownik recalled Salinas saying he was worthless and that he didn’t want the officers with assault rifles to shoot him. Salinas wanted McCahill to shoot him.
But, like McCahill, Pulkownik said he was glad that a police dog was en route so the incident could end peacefully.
The encounter with Salinas was a “lethal situation,” Pulkownik testified, because he believed Salinas was armed, failed to show his hands, and failed to comply with officers’ repeated commands to surrender. Once Salinas got into the “bladed stance” and charged, Pulkownik said he had a right to fire his weapon.
“I felt he came directly at me,” he said, adding that the other officers fired simultaneously.
Testimony is expected to wrap up next week.