One sunny afternoon in Lancaster, an hour's drive north of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley, Angel Mendez woke from an afternoon nap to a sound outside the 7-by-7-foot makeshift shack he called home. It was close to 1 p.m., and his fiancée, Jennifer Garcia, was resting next to him on a futon, pregnant with their fourth child.
Mendez, 30, and Garcia, 27, were living without their children one step above homelessness in the squalid, rat-infested backyard of Paula Hughes, Mendez's high school friend. The longtime couple had fallen on very hard times during the punishing recession that hammered the high desert, and they were broke.
On Oct. 1, 2010, life was about to get much worse.
Unknown to them, Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Conley, a member of a specialized unit set up by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca at the Lancaster station and given the ill-chosen name COPS HIT — for "Community-Oriented Policing Services High-Impact Team" — was about to enter their shack. With Conley was Deputy Jennifer Pederson, also a COPS HIT team member.
The deputies did not have a search warrant and did not announce themselves to Mendez and Garcia, who were not wanted for any crime and did not remotely match the description of the big, white man the officers sought.
Conley opened the shack door with his department-issued 9mm semiautomatic Beretta drawn. Mendez, who had on the bed a Daisy Powerline rifle-style BB gun that he used for shooting rats, sat up and moved the BB gun to the floor. Conley opened fire. A bullet ripped into Mendez's right forearm, passed through it and struck his right leg — proof, his attorneys today say, that he was reaching down to put the BB gun on the floor when shot.
"I didn't even know it was them," Mendez later told Sheriff's Homicide Sgt. Robert Gray. "They didn't say 'police'! They didn't say 'freeze'! They didn't say 'drop the weapon'! They said nothing, sir."
Conley and Pederson fired at will, peppering the couple with 14 more bullets, one of which struck the seven-months-pregnant Garcia in the right upper back and shattered her collarbone. Mendez was critically injured, hit multiple times in his right leg, arm, back and side; blood poured from his wounds. Weeks later, his badly fractured right leg, whose key arteries had been sliced in half, had to be amputated.
In a disturbing videotape taken minutes after the shooting, as a paramedic worked to stop the bleeding, police can be clearly heard pressuring Mendez to say he'd pointed the BB gun at Conley. Mendez begs the people around him, "Oh, please, don't let me die, sir!" then turns his head toward neighbor Charles Green, who is witnessing the drama, and tells Green: "I never pointed the gun at him, Charlie!"
From the moment he was shot, Mendez has maintained that he did not point his BB gun at Conley — that he was moving it to the floor. Conley told Baca's Internal Affairs Bureau investigators he saw a rifle barrel aimed at him and opened fire.
"I thought he was going to kill me," Conley told Sheriff's IAB Sgt. Patrick Kim, "and I thought he got the jump on me and I was done. So I thought, 'Here's my chance to live.' "
The horrific incident happened too far from the Los Angeles urban core to earn more than a few sentences in the media taken from the Sheriff's Department website. L.A. Weekly was among the few that bothered to report that a federal lawsuit had been filed by Mendez against L.A. County, Conley and Pederson, alleging use of excessive force and that Mendez's constitutional rights had been violated.
A four-day, no-jury trial before U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald wrapped up weeks ago in downtown Los Angeles, and his verdict is expected anytime.
But police experts and watchdogs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are questioning every aspect of the shootings — the events that set the Lancaster COPS HIT deputies on edge leading up to the shooting, the shooting itself and Baca's internal findings that the shooting was "in policy."
Critics suggest the Mendez case is further proof that Sheriff Lee Baca, who has come under withering attack for repeatedly failing to prevent his deputies from abusing and harassing jail inmates, is losing control of a department some see as a cowboy-style organization rather than a modern law enforcement agency.
Prominent civil rights attorney Samuel Paz, who has won many police-brutality lawsuits, says Baca's deputies "think they don't have to worry about being investigated because the top guys [Baca and his command staff] tell them they have free rein."
Paz cites a 2012 report by the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence produced by such heavyweight civic leaders as Rev. Cecil Murray, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell and former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno, which found serious problems.