Fresno chief, police union stand by cop who fatally shot teen as outrage builds

Community activists are expressing outrage after seeing video footage that shows a Fresno police sergeant fatally shooting an unarmed 16-year-old boy as he fled during a foot pursuit.

Meanwhile, the local police union and supporters of law enforcement have stepped up in support of the sergeant, saying he acted within guidelines while pursuing a murder suspect.

The footage shows Sgt. Ray Villalvazo firing a single shot into the back of Isiah Murrietta-Golding’s head, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the teen’s family.

The video was captured on a surveillance camera at a daycare facility on April 15, 2017, and was released by attorney Stuart Chandler, who’s representing the family of Murrietta-Golding. The boy’s family alleges the sergeant used excessive and unlawful deadly force, and committed assault and battery with negligence.

Additionally, in footage released from a police officer’s body camera, one officer is heard shouting “good shot” as officers handcuff and search the already prone Murrietta-Golding.

New chief’s statement

Fresno Police Chief Andy Hall said police do not typically comment on pending litigation but he decided to make an exception for this case, according to a statement issued on Wednesday. He said the video shows a different vantage point than Sgt. Villalvazo had, and said the teen was known to carry a gun.

“The video released yesterday is an officer-involved shooting that occurred over two years ago. The use of lethal force in this case occurred while officers were investigating a homicide,” the statement says. “The 16-year-old in this case was involved in the homicide with his brother and the brother was later arrested and pled guilty.”

He stressed that the Fresno Police Department‘s Internal Affairs Bureau, Fresno County District Attorney’s Office and the city of Fresno’s Office of Independent Review all deemed the lethal force justified.

Former Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, who is now a candidate for mayor, said back in March 2018 that an internal police investigation determined that “Sgt. Villalvazo’s actions were within department policy,” and that the shooting was justified because the teen was a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Eugenio Ybarra, who died a day prior to the Murrietta-Golding shooting.

Dyer did not immediately return requests for comment on Wednesday.

“Fearing he was about to be shot, Sgt. Villalvazo fired one round, striking Murrietta-Golding,” Dyer said in 2018.

Was shooting justified? Opinions differ

Cesar Casamayor, a community organizer with Fresno Barrios Unidos, said the footage clearly showed the police were not in danger.

Casamayor said he had known the teen from a program he ran at Romain Park, where the boy would play basketball with other young people.

Casamayor said he was especially disgusted by the “good shot” comment caught in the video. It’s a reality all too common for people of color, he said.

“A grown-ass man shot a 16-year-old little kid,” he said. “That’s the (expletive) that hurts. That’s how (police) look at us in this community,” he said.

Moments before the shooting, police had pulled over a car with Murrietta-Golding inside at a shopping center at Shaw Avenue and Fresno Street.

An officer commanded Murrietta-Golding to step out of the vehicle, put his hands behind his head and take a few steps back toward the officer. That’s when Murrietta-Golding took off running through the busy parking lot, according to the suit.

Eventually, Murrietta-Golding jumped the fence of a daycare center. There, video taken from the surveillance camera shows Villalvazo crouch down slightly, then fire at the teen through the fencing.

A second officer was already climbing the fence in pursuit as Sgt. Villalvazo fired his weapon, video shows.

Police say the teen reached into his waistband during the pursuit. Casamayor said the narrative pushed by police is not backed up by the video.

“He’s reaching to pull up his pants that are falling down. I don’t understand how in any way, shape or form, he’s a threat to the cops,” he said. “That’s not fair. There’s no justification for Isiah to get shot.”

There are those, however, who are standing by Sgt. Villalvazo.

The Fresno Police Officers Association is in full support of the sergeant and says its members believe the shooting to be justified, according to union president Todd Fraizer. He said detractors have the benefit of hindsight when criticizing officers, but don’t understand what an officer has to do in the moment.

“They’re looking at a video that only provides one perspective. This was escalating quickly,” he said. “(The sergeant) was chasing a potential murder suspect who was hopping a fence into a daycare.”

The sergeant didn’t know if the daycare was open, Fraizer said. It was closed on that Saturday in 2018.

Fraizer said Murrietta-Golding was previously seen holding a gun in surveillance video from the shooting the day before he died.

Still, community advocates say some police are too quick to fire their weapons. Building Healthy Communities CEO Sandra Celedon said the video is a reminder why people of color are often hesitant to interact with police.

“It’s really sad and shocking,” she said of the video. “I can’t even put words to my reaction except that this shouldn’t be the reality.”

Celedon said the shooting is an example of how the police department should not be focused on enforcement as much as being a guardian of the community. “Community policing is really about refocusing the way police and community interact,” she said.

Fresno Police Department is no stranger to claims of excessive force. A Jan. 23 incident spawned a lawsuit against the city and police accusing the department of excessive force after an officer repeatedly punched 17-year-old London Wallace.

Last year, the Fresno City Council approved a record $2.8 million settlement between the city and the family of 19-year-old Dylan Noble, who was unarmed when killed by Fresno police in 2016.

Civil lawsuit moving forward

The upcoming civil trial in the Murrietta-Golding case is scheduled for October 2020, according to Chandler. “We have filed this lawsuit because it’s clear to us that the shooting was unjustified,” Chandler said.

The video shows Murrietta-Golding, who was shot in the back of the head, immediately drop to the ground. “Sgt. Villalvazo fired a single shot, which tore through Isiah’s occipital lobe,” the lawsuit says.

Chandler said he disagrees with Dyer’s statements from 2018 that the shooting was justified.

“There absolutely is no way the officer’s life was in danger,” Chandler said. “He was running away and he was trying to hold up his pants.

“And for the chief to make a comment that it was justified to shoot Isiah because he was considered a possible suspect, it’s not the place of the police to make that determination and without a trial.

“You can’t do that in America.”

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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.