FRESNO, Calif. — Eight steps.
That is how far Isiah Murrietta-Golding, an unarmed 16-year-old Latino boy, got on April 15, 2017, before a Fresno, California, police detective’s bullet shattered the back of his skull and tore into his brain.
Murrietta-Golding, who was shot as he ran through the side yard of a day care center, died three days later at Community Regional Medical Center, according to his death certificate. His cause of death is listed as “perforation of brain and penetration of skull.”
An internal investigation by Fresno's Office of Independent Review found that Sgt. Ray Villalvazo, who is named in a federal lawsuit filed by Murrietta-Golding's parents, was justified in shooting the teen. Villalvazo told investigators Murrietta-Golding had reached for his waistband several times, making the officer believe he was armed.
Villalvazo said he feared for his life, and investigators believed him.
See a portion of the body camera and surveillance footage below. Warning: The images may be too graphic for some viewers.
The Fresno Bee reported that then-Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said in March 2018 that the detective's actions "were within department policy."
"Fearing he was about to be shot, Sgt. Villalvazo fired one round, striking Murrietta-Golding," Dyer said last year, according to the Bee.
Surveillance footage released last week by an attorney for Murrietta-Golding’s family shows in exact detail how the teen died -- and casts doubt on Villalvazo’s claim that he feared for his life.
"A picture is worth a thousand words, and this video is worth a million words," Stuart Chandler, an attorney for the teenager's father, told The Washington Post late last month. "It's clear this shooting was not justified. He was running away, holding up his pants, posing no threat to anybody."
Legal analyst Tony Capozzi told ABC30 in Fresno, which obtained both the surveillance footage and body camera footage from that day, that there was "no way" Villalvazo was in fear for his life.
"That's a justification for the shooting that he committed here," Capozzi said, gesturing toward the screen displaying the footage. "Frankly, I think the killing that he did in this particular case ... there was no reason for him to shoot that gun. None whatsoever. It makes me angry just to even look at this videotape."
Watch the footage of Murrietta-Golding’s shooting below, courtesy of The Washington Post. Warning: The images may be too graphic for some viewers.
A lawsuit filed by Michael Haddad, an attorney representing Murrietta-Golding's mother, accuses Villalvazo, Dyer and the city of excessive force, unlawful deadly force, assault and battery and negligence, the Bee reported. Haddad last year accused Dyer of a pattern of defaming minorities shot by police.
The then-chief described Murrietta-Golding as being associated with the Calwa Bulldogs gang, the Bee said.
Haddad countered that description of the 10th grader, saying he was a good student who attended a public charter school. Murrietta-Golding liked sports and playing video games with his siblings, the attorney said.
"Isiah had no tattoos and was not in a gang," Haddad told the newspaper. "He was a little boy."
A shooting and a fatal crash
According to both the lawsuit and the investigation of Murrietta-Golding's slaying, the events leading to the teen's death began the day before the shooting, when four young men got into an argument with two teenagers outside a Fresno pizza joint.
One of the teens was Murrietta-Golding’s 17-year-old brother. The other teen was reportedly identified as Murrietta-Golding.
As the men drove away from the fight, Murrietta-Golding’s brother fired several shots at the car. No one was struck, but the volley of shots caused the driver to crash into a tree in the median of the road.
The driver, Eugenio Ybarra, 19, of Fresno, was killed in the crash.
Murrietta-Golding's brother, who was never publicly identified because of his age, turned himself in to authorities the night his brother was shot, as Murrietta-Golding was on life support, ABC30 reported at the time. He later pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter for killing Ybarra, the news station said.
The day of Murrietta-Golding’s killing, police officers in the department’s Street Violence Bureau, including Villalvazo, staked out the home on East San Bruno Avenue where the brothers lived.
The officers could not go into the home because they did not have a search warrant, the lawsuit states.
Around 3:30 p.m. on April 15, a car carrying three teens, including Murrietta-Golding in the front passenger seat, left the home, the court document says. The officers conducted a “high-risk” traffic stop in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.
The report on the internal investigation describes the passenger, identified in court records as Murrietta-Golding, as a suspect in the shooting the day before. Haddad denied that claim, however, in an interview with ABC30, in which he said police admitted there was no probable cause to detain the teen.
"They were not focused on Isiah," Haddad said. "They thought his brother was the shooter."
Murrietta-Golding and the other teens in the car initially complied with officers' demands, which included orders to walk backward toward the officers with their hands in the air. The teens were held at gunpoint as they did so, the body camera footage obtained by ABC30 shows.
Murrietta-Golding is seen initially doing as an officer commands, his empty hands up by his head, until the officer tells him to get down on his knees. That’s the moment the teen bolts.
"Several witnesses stated the officers were repeatedly identifying themselves loudly and telling the suspect to stop. Another witness also plead with the suspect to stop as he ran by," the Office of Independent Review's report states. "The pursuit continued for several blocks. During the foot pursuit, the suspect was observed reaching for his waistband several times.
“In view of the fact the suspects had used a firearm the previous day, and the weapon was outstanding, the gestures were interpreted as the suspect possibly reaching for a weapon.”
Read the findings from the city of Fresno's Office of Independent Review below, beginning on Page 12.
The officer’s body camera does not capture the end of the chase, but the camera’s audio catches officers screaming at the teen to get down on the ground before a single gunshot rings out.
It also catches a chilling comment by one unidentified officer as Murrietta-Golding lay dying.
“Good shot,” the officer tells Villalvazo as another officer stands over Murrietta-Golding’s prone figure.
Neither Villalvazo nor his partner wore body cameras. The footage obtained by ABC30 was from an officer involved in the initial traffic stop of Murrietta-Golding and the other teens.
Dyer said last year that Murrietta-Golding's shooting was justified because he was wanted in connection with Ybarra's homicide, the Bee reported. The lawsuit against Villalvazo, Dyer and several other officers, named as John Doe defendants, disputes that claim, stating that the teen was detained simply because investigators were looking for his brother.
It also states that at no point during the foot pursuit did Murrietta-Golding threaten anyone or pose a threat to the officers chasing him.
"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," Chandler told the Bee. "You can't do that in America."
“At the time that Isiah fled on foot, defendant Villalvazo and Doe defendants had no legal justification to point guns at Isiah, and no legal justification to seize Isiah at gun point,” the lawsuit argues. “Isiah exercised his right to self-defense and to non-violently resist defendants’ attempts to unlawfully seize him.”
The new video, which Chandler told the Post had been withheld from him until the discovery phase of the lawsuit, shows what happened next.
‘Treated like less than human’
The footage shows Murrietta-Golding scaling a metal fence outside New Life Discovery Preschool, which was empty that afternoon because it was a Saturday. As he flips his body over, his baseball cap falls from his head.
He picks it up and starts to run.
Villalvazo and another officer pursue Murrietta-Golding to the fence, and Villalvazo’s colleague begins to scale the fence after him.
Villalvazo, however, is seen getting into a contorted shooting stance on the sidewalk, pointing his handgun through the bars of the fence.
The lawsuit alleges Villalvazo failed to give Murrietta-Golding a verbal warning as he fled, though the body camera footage indicates at least one officer gave multiple commands for the teen to get down on the ground.
"The suspect turned and looked back over his right shoulder at the officer and at the same time reached for his waistband area with his left hand," the internal review states.
The surveillance footage backs that statement, but it appears in the video that Murrietta-Golding is grabbing his falling pants as he stumbles through the day care’s side yard. At one point, he throws a brief glance over his shoulder in Villalvazo’s direction.
“Sgt. Villalvazo fired a single shot, which tore through Isiah’s occipital lobe,” the lawsuit states.
Read the lawsuit filed on behalf of Isiah Murrietta-Golding below.
The teen immediately drops to the ground, motionless, in the video. Villalvazo does not climb the fence, but the officer with him does, as does the officer wearing the body camera.
As the first officer approaches the teen, he appears to point a handgun or Taser at him.
The officer yanks on Murrietta-Golding’s right arm and uses his foot to kick him onto his stomach before handcuffing and frisking the unarmed, motionless teen, who is left lying face down on the ground.
"It was later determined the suspect was not carrying a weapon at the time," the internal review says.
The lawsuit states that it took at least eight minutes for the officers to secure medical care for the dying boy, though some officers are seen attempting to administer first aid. Paramedics called to the scene assessed Murrietta-Golding as having a Glascow coma score of 6.
The Glascow Coma Scale is used to assess consciousness in a person following a traumatic brain injury. According to the lawsuit, Murrietta-Golding was unconscious and his breathing at the scene was weak.
“Although he was in critical need of emergency medical care and posed zero risk of escape and zero threat to anyone, Villalvazo and Doe officers refused the request of ambulance personnel to remove the handcuffs,” the lawsuit states. “Instead, Villalvazo and Doe officers told ambulance personnel that the handcuffs would be removed by FPD only after Isiah was at the hospital.”
The Post reported that Chandler obtained documents for the lawsuit that include a report filed by the ambulance crew. The report describes Murrietta-Golding's "gaping" head wound, which rendered him incapacitated.
Still, the handcuffs remained on his wrists.
"He was treated like less than human," Chandler told the Post.
New Fresno police Chief Andy Hall, who was sworn in to replace Dyer on Oct. 16, initially declined to address the details of the video. He ultimately spoke out last week -- to bolster Villalvazo’s defense by saying the slain teen was “known to carry firearms.”
Hall asked the public not to rush to judgment, pointing out that Villalvazo and the other officers were investigating a homicide when the shooting took place.
“The video represents a different vantage point and was not what the pursuing officers could see,” Hall said.
Hall also said the danger to innocent civilians increased when Murrietta-Golding leaped over the fence into the yard of a day care center.
Chander pointed out to the Post the fact that the shooting took place on a Saturday, when the day care center was closed. The attorney also said the investigation into Murrietta-Golding's shooting showed the trajectory of the bullet, which, if it had missed Murrietta-Golding's skull, would have gone through the day care's window, endangering anyone in the building.
‘Imminent’ versus ‘immediate’ threat
Murrietta-Golding’s killing at the hands of police came five months after the Fresno Police Department agreed to pay $2.2 million to the family of another man who was fatally shot by an officer in 2012.
Jaime Reyes Jr., 28, was killed June 6, 2012, as he climbed a fence at an elementary school. According to the lawsuit filed by his family, he was wanted in connection with the burglary of a neighbor’s home.
Reyes’ family told officers he was suffering from mental issues brought on by methamphetamine use, the document says.
When the officers found Reyes walking in the neighborhood, he “obviously was an emotionally disturbed and/or intoxicated person, requiring special police procedures and tactics,” the lawsuit states. As the officers chased Reyes, who had nothing in his hands, they drew their weapons.
Haddad, who also represented Reyes’ family in their case against the department, told the Bee in November 2016 that, if the case had gone to trial, the evidence would have shown that Fresno police Officer Juan Avila shot Reyes as he reached the top of the fence. Once Reyes fell to the ground, the wounded man lay face down.
Avila shot him three more times in the back as he lay there, Haddad said.
Read the lawsuit filed in the 2012 shooting death of Jaime Reyes Jr., whose family was awarded $2.2 million in damages for his killing.
According to the Reyes family’s lawsuit, Reyes lay unattended for 20 minutes while officers awaited an ambulance. He died during emergency open-heart surgery.
As they did in the shooting of Murrietta-Golding, Fresno authorities found Avila’s killing of Reyes to be justified. The Bee reported that Dyer described Reyes as an intoxicated gang member who carried a stolen gun into a schoolyard full of children.
Haddad said Reyes did have a gun -- unloaded and wrapped in a plastic bag in his pocket.
Dyer said the settlement with Reyes’ family was an economic decision.
“Circumstances unrelated to the actual incident have dictated that it would be economically sound for the city to settle this matter before incurring the costs of trial,” Dyer said, according to the Bee.
Haddad told the newspaper the settlement came after an officer at the scene of Reyes’ shooting testified in a deposition that there was a pause between Avila’s first shot, which downed Reyes, and the remaining shots fired as he lay on the ground.
The attorney said he would have also shown at trial a pattern of unlawful shootings by Fresno officers.
As part of the settlement in the Reyes case, Fresno Police Department officials agreed to change the agency’s use-of-force policy. Whereas officers before were allowed to shoot if they deemed a suspect posing an “imminent threat,” or a threat in the near future, the changes would allow lethal force only in cases of an “immediate threat,” or a threat at the moment the trigger is pulled.
According to ABC30, Villalvazo told investigators after the Murrietta-Golding shooting that he was not aware of the policy changes.
The Bee reported that the settlement also required added training for both homicide detectives and internal affairs investigators to help them better take into account statements by witnesses that contradict officers’ stories.
After the Reyes shooting, for example, a female witness told police she “saw an execution,” Haddad told the newspaper. Investigators into Reyes’ death disregarded her statement, the attorney said.
It was not clear what portions of the new policy and training had been put in place when Murrietta-Golding was killed. The report on the teen's shooting states, however, that an officer may use deadly force, in part, "to protect himself/herself or others from what he/she reasonably believes would be an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury."
Avila, the officer who killed Reyes, is no longer on the police force, the Bee reported. Villalvazo, a former homicide detective, remains on the force as a supervisor in the department’s Street Violence Bureau.
Cox Media Group