The mother and father of José Mendez, a 16-year-old boy shot and killed by Los Angeles police in Boyle Heights early last year, have filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Los Angeles Police Department for wrongful death. Information in both the lawsuit and the autopsy report could be used to challenge LAPD’s account of the shooting — including whether Mendez pointed a weapon at the officers and why they moved his body from the scene.
The lawsuit seeks to “establish the true and unequivocal facts surrounding the shooting and killing of José Mendez.”
“I’m aware that to fight against City Hall is difficult,” Juan Mendez, José’s father, says. “But we won’t stand here with our arms crossed. I don’t believe what the police say. We’ll do everything possible to clarify what happened.”
At around 10:40 p.m. on Feb. 6, 2016, officers with LAPD's Hollenbeck Division spotted Mendez on Lorena Street behind the wheel of a Honda that had been reported stolen a few hours earlier. A video of the fatal encounter, recorded by a security camera at a nearby apartment complex, shows the vehicle driven by Mendez turn slowly into a driveway on East Sixth Street and stop.
Immediately, a patrol car pulls in behind it and two officers emerge with their service weapons drawn and pointed toward the Honda.
The glare from a spotlight mounted on the patrol car obscures the actual shooting in the video, which Mendez’s parents discovered and which L.A. Weekly obtained in August. The video does show the officers stepping out of the vehicle. Gunfire can be seen four seconds later.
The officers — identified in the lawsuit as Josue Merida and Jeremy Wagner — shot Mendez 19 times, according to an autopsy report by the County Medical Examiner’s office.
The video shows, less than five minutes after the shooting, two officers dragging Mendez’s motionless body by the shoulders down East Sixth Street and placing him face-down on the sidewalk, about 30 feet from the driveway where the shooting occurred.
Chief Charlie Beck said in February that when officers approached the vehicle, the driver “armed himself with a sawed-off shotgun,” resulting in the shooting. Chief Beck said he did not know if the teen pointed the gun at police. LAPD public information officer Rosario Herrera told L.A. Weekly in August that Mendez opened the driver’s door and pointed the weapon at one of the approaching officers. The department’s Feb. 11 news release on the shooting states that a loaded, sawed-off shotgun was recovered at the scene.
The medical examiner’s report, which L.A. Weekly obtained last week, indicates Mendez was still wearing his seatbelt at the time he was shot. “Police fired numerous rounds before cutting him from his seatbelt and dragging him down the sidewalk where [paramedics] determined death on scene,” the report states. The report does not indicate the reason for moving the body. The report also states that Mendez had methamphetamine and amphetamine in his system when he was killed.
“People do bad things all the time; life continues for them ,” Juan Mendez says of the circumstances of his son's death. “My son was shot to pieces; I can't accept that my son died the way he did.”
The family’s lawsuit states that the shotgun was concealed underneath the front passenger seat, and that officers did not discover it until after the shooting had already occurred.
“Their version that he immediately left the vehicle and pointed the gun at them is directly contradicted by the coroner’s account that he had to be cut out of the car he was in,” says Arnoldo Casillas, the attorney representing the family.
LAPD was not immediately available to comment on the seatbelt development or the lawsuit.
The outcome of the lawsuit may hinge on whether a judge orders police to release footage from the officers’ body cameras from the night of the shooting. Casillas says he has learned that the officers were wearing cameras that night.
“The first thing we’re going to do is request the body cam video,” Casillas says.
Chief Beck does not publicly release body camera footage in most cases without a court order. The department policy allows officers to review the footage before writing their reports or giving statements to internal investigators, a practice decried by the ACLU and other advocates of greater police transparency.
Juan Mendez says he believes the officers shaped their account of the shooting around what the body cam videos showed. “They have lots of information,” he says. “They only publicize the parts that support their version of what happened.”
Mendez says he was initially prepared to accept the police at their word until he and his wife, Josefina, went to the scene a day after the shooting and discovered the surveillance camera. Mendez says the footage of officers dragging his son down the sidewalk was painful to watch and made him suspicious.
L.A. Weekly consulted with several experts, including city and county officials, for examples of suitable reasons for moving a body from a crime scene. Speaking in general terms, LAPD spokeswoman Herrera says, “Usually there’s no movement of the body, unless for special circumstances, whatever that is.”
Some officials said if the body were obstructing traffic, for example, or there were a public danger, such as the presence of an additional suspect who is armed, the police might call to request permission from the medical examiner's office or paramedics to move the body from a scene. Neither appears to apply in this case.
Dan Baker, chief deputy at the L.A. County Office of the Inspector General, has handled more than 100 officer-involved shootings and says rarely was a body moved. “Most commonly it’s been either if a body were on a freeway or if the person were still alive and in need of immediate medical attention.”
The officers in the video do not appear to attempt to provide José Mendez assistance. Officers surround the body, and at one point one of them appears to pat down the pockets of Mendez’s cargo shorts and remove an object.
L.A. Weekly showed the video to Ambrosio Rodriguez, a 13-year deputy district attorney for Riverside County who is now in private defense. Rodriguez called the police actions in the video “extreme.”
“They're treated like a homicide scene,” Rodriguez says of officer-involved fatal shootings. “There’s lots of little differences, but you cannot move a body. That’s tampering with evidence. You can’t do that.”
According to department records, officers Merida and Wagner, defendants in the Mendez lawsuit, were previously involved in the fatal shooting of a suspect on Nov. 8, 2014. The suspect was leading officers on a slow-speed pursuit in Cypress Park and reportedly pointed a sawed-off shotgun at one of them. Wagner also was involved in a third fatal shooting, in 2010, when he shot and killed a suspect who was wielding a knife on the Van Nuys Boulevard ramp off the 101 Freeway.
The L.A. Police Commission heard a report yesterday from Chief Beck on the Mendez shooting. A spokesperson from the commission confirms the board will evaluate Chief Beck’s recommendations regarding the actions of officers involved in the Mendez shooting. Per procedure, the commission will conduct the evaluation in closed session and publish a report of its evaluation at a later date.