PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — The family of a young man who was killed by police three months ago has filed a federal lawsuit against Indio, Calif., claiming an officer shot the man without justification and deleted video footage to hide his wrongdoing.
The lawsuit alleges that the shooting of Sammy Villarreal was captured by both security cameras and a camera phone, but that Indio police officers seized the recordings and erased the footage. The suit is now the third ongoing lawsuit alleging excessive force by Indio police.
Villarreal, 18, of Thousand Palms, Calif., was shot during a slow-speed car chase in the parking lot of an Indio apartment complex on Oct. 14. Police have said that Villarreal tried to escape the lot by accelerating backwards, crashing into a police car, which prompted officers to open fire.
However, the family’s lawsuit contends the shooting was unjustified because no one was in the path of Villarreal’s vehicle. The two officers at the scene were standing to the sides and the front of the car.
The Indio Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The department has a policy against commenting on lawsuits. Indio police have previously identified the officer who shot Villarreal as Cpl. Leonardo Perafan.
Officers were at the apartment complex to investigate a car theft case. While there, they saw a stolen vehicle drive into the parking lot, which is surrounded by apartments and fencing on three sides. An officer then tried to apprehend the driver, who was Villarreal. He then accelerated in reverse, striking a patrol car, then was shot, according to the sheriff’s department. Villarreal was taken to the emergency room, where he died half an hour after being shot. No officers were injured.
Police have never clarified whether anyone was in the patrol car that was struck. They also have refused to say whether or not Villarreal had a weapon.
Witnesses have told The (Palm Springs, Calif.) Desert Sun that there was a woman in the passenger seat of the stolen car during the shooting, but she has never been publicly identified.
The lawsuit claims that the shooting was recorded on apartment security cameras and the apartment manager’s cellphone, but that police seized and deleted the footage. Police have never said whether the shooting was caught on tape.
Staff at the apartment building declined to comment on Monday, saying they were not allowed to speak to journalists.
However, a reporter who visited the apartments confirmed that the complex does have security cameras. Two cameras were within 30 feet of the shooting spot, which is still marked by a memorial of flowers and candles.
This lawsuit comes as Chicago officials have released video of officer-involved shootings.
The November release of a 2014 Chicago police video showed a police officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times on a city street. Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged by the Cook County prosecutor's office with first-degree murder in the death of McDonald on the same day of the video's court-ordered release, which came 400 days after the incident.
The Villarreal family in California is represented by David Kenner and Brett Greenfield, lawyers who have successfully sued Indio police before.
The attorneys previously represented the family of Alejandro Rendon, 23, who was fatally shot as he fled from Indio Officer Alex Franco on Valentine’s Day in 2013. The Rendon family was awarded $1.9 million after a six-day trial.
Neither Kenner nor Greenfield were immediately available for comment.
Two other excessive lawsuits are pending against Indio police. The department has been sued by the family of Ernest Foster, who was fatally shot by Officer Jeremy Hellawell during a foot chase on July 4, 2013. Witness have said that Foster had a handgun and attempted to point it at the pursing officer in the moments before he was shot.
The department was sued again in December by Ruben Martinez, a fleeing suspect who was beaten by Officers Charles Holloway and Gerardo Martinez in September 2014. The beating was caught on the security footage of a nearby restaurant, and both officers are currently facing felony charges in Riverside County Superior Court.
Donald Cook, an attorney for Ruben Martinez, has said video will be the key to both the criminal case and the lawsuit.
“Having done this for 30 years, you never win a police chase without the facts, but generally, even the facts are not enough,” said Cook in December. “Because of the bias at the department, they tend to ignore reliable evidence. Video is much harder for them to ignore.”
Contributing: Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY. Follow Brett Kelman on Twitter: @TDSbrettkelman