The shooting of an Anaheim man, whose death helped fuel days of heated protest in Orange County's largest city last year, was legally justified, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s office.
Joel Acevedo, was shot and killed by Anaheim police officer Kelly Phillips on July 22, 2012. The shooting death came one day after an Anaheim officer shot and killed an unarmed man, Manuel Diaz, nearby.
A letter describing the district attorney’s findings was sent to Interim Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada on Monday.
According to the investigation, Acevedo was shot three times, in the head, neck and elbow. A gun was found near his body.
Acevedo’s mother, Donna Acevedo, has spent months calling for reform of the Anaheim Police Department and for an independent investigation of her son’s death and of other police shootings.
She called the D.A.’s findings one-sided and incomplete.
“I believe they murdered my son, they executed him,” she said.
Phillips, who gave a statement to investigators eight days after the shooting, said he was patrolling the neighborhood late at night when he noticed a woman, who he said was affiliated with a local gang, drive by in a Lexus SUV.
The officer told investigators he tried to pull her over because her license plate lamp was not on and she rolled through a stop sign. The woman did not stop and Phillips began a high-speed pursuit, according to the letter.
The SUV headed to Guinida Lane, where the driver collided with a curb, blowing out the car's tires. The driver and two men, including Acevedo, ran and Phillips and two other responding officers, Trang Pham and Daniel Lambaren, chased them.
Phillips said he spotted a “flash of dark” that was Acevedo, making his way to the north of a parking lot in order to flee. The officer said he turned to walk in Acevedo’s direction, saw a dark silhouette move behind a parked vehicle and drew his weapon.
Phillips said he saw a shadow pop up in front of the SUV and then disappear. He heard a gunshot and said he believed that Acevedo had shot at him. The officer said he took cover behind the SUV and again saw a shadow pop up and heard a gunshot.
“This went from gangster running and hiding to gangster trying to kill me,” Phillips told investigators. “So at that point, I, I went from, it was pure survival like he’s going to kill me or I’m gonna kill him and I’m not, I don’t want to die today,” he later added.
After Phillips saw the shadow pop up again, he said, “So I move left and I knew that I needed, I needed to shoot him before he shot me.” Phillips said he fired four shots from his handgun at the figure.
As Acevedo fell, Phillips said he saw a handgun in his right hand. Phillips approached him, saw that he was still twitching and kicked the gun out of his hand. It came to rest between Acevedo’s legs, Phillips said.
Phillips and another officer rolled Acevedo onto his left side, handcuffed him and then rolled him onto his back, according to the statement.
The autopsy report showed that Acevedo was shot once on the right side of the head from front to back, once in the right elbow and once at the lower part of his neck.
Investigators said they found a chrome Smith & Wesson .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol at the foot of Acevedo’s body. A forensic expert determined that three bullet cartridges found near the body were fired from that gun. DNA swabs also found Acevedo’s DNA on the Smith & Wesson.
Phillips' .45 caliber Glock pistol was also collected by investigators. The forensic expert determined that four bullet cartridges found at the scene were fired from that gun.
Vanessa Duran, the woman driving the SUV, who was later arrested and convicted of vehicle theft in relation to the incident, told investigators that Acevedo tripped as he tried to leave the parking lot and Anaheim officers dragged him back.
She said two Anaheim officers held Acevedo down while Phillips killed him. She also said that two days before the shooting, Anaheim officers had chased Acevedo and shot at him as he ran away.
Duran made an agreement with prosecutors that allowed her to give her statement with the promise that it would not be used against her in the theft case.
Prosecutors said they did not find Duran’s statements believable. They also said they did not find any reports or other witnesses or evidence to corroborate her statement that officers had chased and shot at Acevedo two days before he was killed.
“The only evidence contradicting Officer Phillips’ claim of self-defense is Duran’s immunized account of the event. In all relevant aspects, Duran’s account is far less credible than Officer Phillips,’” the prosecutors said.
Donna Acevedo, the mother, said she received the prosecutor’s report on Monday. She said she will continue pushing for independent oversight of the Anaheim Police Department. She said she was upset that the report indicated that investigators interviewed 64 witnesses but focused only on the statements of Duran and the three officers.
“There were people out there that night,” she said.
In March, the district attorney's office determined that the shooting of Manuel Diaz was reasonable and justified.The shootings sparked days of protest and led to calls for reform of the police department and the city's electoral system.