Slain man’s family files civil rights lawsuit against Fresno police

The family of Casimero “Shane” Casillas, 45, who was fatally shot by a Fresno police officer in September, has filed a federal civil rights wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Fresno and its police department.
The family of Casimero “Shane” Casillas, 45, who was fatally shot by a Fresno police officer in September, has filed a federal civil rights wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Fresno and its police department.

The family of a Fresno man who was shot and killed by police in September after he ran from a traffic stop has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Fresno and its police department.

The fatal shooting of 45-year-old Casimero “Shane” Casillas is somewhat similar to the killing of 19-year-old Dylan Noble, who was fatally shot by Fresno police during a traffic stop in June, says Fresno attorney Bill Schmidt, who is representing Casillas’ family.

Police said officers feared for their lives because they thought Noble had a gun in his waistband. After he was shot four times, including twice while he lay on the ground wounded, officers discovered Noble was unarmed.

A sheriff’s spokesman has said a Fresno police officer feared for his life when he shot Casillas because the Fresno man had a 2-foot-long metal pipe.

But Schmidt said Wednesday there’s no evidence that Casillas, who was shot three times, was threatening the officer with a pipe. Though police found a pipe, Schmidt said, Casillas’ fingerprints were not on it.

While officers wearing body cameras recorded their confrontation with Noble, the officer who shot Casillas didn’t have one.

Noble’s family members plan to sue the Fresno Police Department if the city rejects their claims for wrongful death and negligence.

We intend to hold the city of Fresno and the Police Department accountable for the tragic loss of a husband and father.

Fresno attorney Bill Schmidt

In the Casillas lawsuit, Schmidt has accused the Fresno Police Department of wrongful death, excessive force and negligence and identifies Trevor Shipman as the officer who fatally shot Casillas, who died in surgery at Community Regional Medical Center.

Schmidt, who filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno on Tuesday, said police rushed to apprehend Casillas “only because his passenger was not wearing a seat belt.” He said police then followed Casillas home “where he was gunned down within minutes.”

“We intend to hold the city of Fresno and the Police Department accountable for the tragic loss of a husband and father,” Schmidt said, while noting the department’s “long history of the use of excessive and deadly force.”

Police: Casillas shooting was justified

Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said Wednesday that an investigation by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office under the direction of the District Attorney’s Office, as well as an Internal Affairs investigation, determined that the use of deadly force was justified.

“The city of Fresno’s Office of Independent Review concurred with this finding, as did I,” Dyer said. “The City Attorney’s Office is prepared to vigorously defend this matter through the civil process.”

A Fresno Bee investigation a year ago revealed that from January 2012 to July 2015, Fresno police shot 30 people, killing 17. Some of the victims were unarmed. At least two were shot in the back. The Bee found that the 30 police shootings in Fresno was high compared with other California cities. In Oakland, there were 14 police shootings, three fatal, in that same time period. Bakersfield had 19 police shootings, resulting in 13 deaths. Long Beach had 33 officer-involved shootings; 13 were fatal.

In addition, a report by Roger Clark, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant who reviewed confidential Fresno police reports and documents for a federal civil rights wrongful death trial, found there were 54 police shootings in Fresno from 2005 to 2010 and 33 from 2011 to March 7, 2014.

According to Clark’s report, “There are at least 22 shootings by the FPD in the past 10 years that were not reasonable and thus unjustified.”

But the Fresno Police Department and the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office have ruled all of the shootings justified, and not one officer has ever been disciplined for shooting a person, said San Francisco attorney Arturo Gonzalez, who hired Clark to study the Fresno Police Department’s shootings for a federal civil rights wrongful death lawsuit.

One of the 22 shootings Clark’s report mentioned is the shooting of Casillas, who had a wife and child.

“Based on the facts that are available at this time, it appears that this shooting was avoidable because the officers responded with lethal force in response to a non-lethal threat,” Clark wrote. “Officers have other alternatives at their disposal to address situations like this, including the use of a Taser (stun gun).”

Schmidt said officers had a police dog with them. But officers chose not to use a police dog to apprehend Casillas, which they also decided against in the Noble case.

A Fresno Bee investigation a year ago revealed that from January 2012 to July 2015 Fresno police had shot 30 people, killing 17.

In 2012, Gonzalez won a $1.3 million settlement from the city of Fresno in that high-profile excessive-force case, which focused on the killing of Steven Vargas, an unarmed Fresno man who was high on drugs when a police sergeant shot him. At least seven lawsuits have been filed on behalf of shooting victims and their families since the Vargas verdict.

Fresno police, however, haven’t always been on the losing side.

A lawsuit that focused on the fatal police shooting of a mentally ill Fresno woman was tried in federal court in June. Police said Veronica Lynn Canter, 48, had armed herself with two knives and charged at officers Douglas Cox and Edward Louchren. A jury ruled the officers were justified in shooting Canter after she locked her ex-boyfriend out of his apartment near Bulldog Stadium in March 2014.

Gonzalez subsequently filed a motion for a new trial based on judicial error concerning jury instructions, court records say. The motion will be heard Sept. 2.

Sheriff’s Office handling Casillas investigation

The Sheriff’s Office is investigating the shooting of Casillas because it took place in the unincorporated area of Fresno County near Tarpey Village.

Police said Casillas eluded officers when they attempted a routine traffic stop at Belmont Avenue and Fifth Street shortly after 5 p.m. Sept. 7, 2015. Casillas reportedly sped away, and officers broke off a pursuit after Casillas drove through several traffic lights.

Officers again tried to stop Casillas at McKinley and Clovis avenues. Dyer told a news conference after the shooting that Casillas drove to Clovis Avenue and Lansing Way, where he ran from the car. Several officers then approached the home on East Saginaw Way where Casillas was reportedly hiding.

At the time of the shooting, sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said Casillas was hiding in a backyard, holding a 2-foot-long metal pipe. (A sheriff’s sergeant initially identified it as a 2-foot-long black PVC pipe.) He refused to surrender and ran toward a police officer with the pipe, Botti said, adding that the officer “feared for his life” when he fired his gun.

In describing what happened, Botti said Casillas was being sought on a felony warrant tied to a parole violation.

But the lawsuit says Casillas drove home “while largely following traffic laws.” During the pursuit, the lawsuit says, officers agreed to a “pit” maneuver, in which a patrol car forces a fleeing car to abruptly turn sideways, causing the driver to lose control and stop. Officer also discussed putting down spikes across the roadway to stop Casillas, the lawsuit says.

“This happened despite a supervisor ordering the field officers to stand down since there had been no violation of the law to warrant such tactics,” the lawsuit says.

Upon arrival at home, Casillas left his vehicle and went into the home of Robert Verduzco, a friend. Casillas had rented a small apartment in the back of Verduzco’s home, Schmidt said. The attorney said Verduzco told him that an officer first threatened to release the dog on Casillas “but then he heard ‘bam, bam, bam.’ 

Schmidt said the killing was unjustified because officers didn’t even know Casillas’ identity until after they shot him. He also said that Casillas had stopped at the vast majority of stops signs and stop lights. “Unlike what police say, this was not a high-speed chase,” he said.

The lawsuit accuses Shipman of using deadly force without following proper procedures.

“The Defendants were under no time pressure and used objectively unreasonable and excessive amounts of force given the absence of a warrant or exigent circumstances and the clear availability of other, less lethal, means,” the lawsuit says. “Reasonable officers would not have concluded that Casimero Casillas, isolated and surrounded by law enforcement officers, posed an imminent threat of serious physical harm to any individual or himself.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts