Newly discovered video shows Los Angeles police officers dragging the lifeless body of Jose Mendez moments after the 16-year-old was shot by police in Boyle Heights on Feb. 6. This, and the timestamp on the
Attorney Arnoldo Casillas, who will represent Mendez's family in a civil action against the city, agreed to share the video with L.A. Weekly, on the condition that it not be disseminated on the internet. He did, however, consent to allow us to publish
The video in question — which Mendez's parents, Juan and Josefina Mendez, discovered the day after the shooting while visiting the scene with Casillas — was filmed by a security camera from a nearby apartment complex. Looking north to an area on the downhill slope of East Sixth Street, the video captures the black Honda Mendez was driving coming to a stop in a residential driveway. Immediately, a patrol car pulls in behind it. The glare from the cruiser's headlights obstructs the camera's view of the shooting, but in the last clear sequence prior to the shooting, at 10:42 p.m. on the video timestamp, two officers can be seen rapidly exiting the patrol car, their guns drawn and pointed.
The officers quickly climb out of the patrol car and appear to point their weapons toward the vehicle with Mendez still at the wheel. One officer circles around to the right of the parked Honda, and the other to the left. The police car's lights obscure the rest of the incident from view.
Four and a half minutes later, at 10:46 p.m according to the video timestamp, two police officers are shown dragging Mendez's body by the shoulders down East Sixth Street and laying him face-down on the sidewalk, about 30 feet away from the driveway where the traffic stop was conducted and the shooting had taken place moments before.
In February, when LAPD Chief Charlie Beck addressed the initial findings of the department's investigation into the shooting, he made no mention of officers moving the body at the scene. LAPD public information officer Rosario Herrera told L.A. Weekly last week that she had not seen the video in question and had no information about it. “This is the first time I’m hearing of this. That’s news to me that they moved the body,” Herrera said.
Speaking in general terms, Herrera said, “Usually there’s no movement of the body, unless for special circumstances, whatever that is.”
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. If it 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. But in this instance, there was not another passenger in the car, so public danger seems an unlikely reason. Also, the body does not appear to have been obstructing traffic in the roadway — until it was moved, it was in a residential driveway.
We also 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.”
“I was in many officer-involved shootings, when [the victim or victims] were dead, and they're treated like a homicide scene,” he said. “There’s lots of little differences, but you cannot move a body. That’s tampering with evidence. You can’t do that. And to be quite honest, it shows consciousness of guilt.”
The timestamp on the video is also at odds with the LAPD's timeline of events that night.
PIO Herrera reiterated to L.A. Weekly the details of Beck's February report: At about 10:45 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 6, officers spotted a stolen Honda traveling down Lorena Street in the Hollenbeck area. The officers followed the vehicle briefly until it came to a stop.
“When the officers began approaching the vehicle,” Herrera said, “that’s when the driver’s door opened, and that’s when the officers saw the suspect point a sawed-off shotgun at one of the approaching officers. And then that’s when the officer-involved shooting occurred.” Mendez was pronounced dead at the scene at 10:56 p.m., according to coroner's records.
But the video's timestamp indicates that by 10:45 p.m., Mendez had very likely already been killed. The fatal confrontation is unlikely to have occurred any later than 10:43 p.m. By the 10:46 p.m. mark in the video, the two officers are seen dragging Mendez's body down the sidewalk on East Sixth Street.
In the video, one of the officers who sets the body down on the sidewalk proceeds to remove an object, possibly a cellphone, from the pocket of Mendez's shorts. Then this officer and another officer appear to handcuff Mendez's wrists behind his back, as more and more police officers — eventually, eight in all — surround the body, looking on. Mendez makes no visible movement at any time as he lies on the sidewalk. The names of the two officers involved in the shooting have not been released.
Casillas said he is baffled as to why the officers moved the body in the first place. “It literally makes no sense. I thought, well, maybe they’re giving him CPR,” he says. “But they don’t. They go through his pockets. They handcuff him.” City and county law-enforcement officials consulted for this story say it is not unusual for the victim of an officer-involved shooting to be handcuffed despite being wounded, even in cases where the victim is unresponsive.
Casillas does not dispute that Mendez was driving a stolen vehicle at the time of the traffic stop. But he questions Beck's claim that Mendez “armed himself with a sawed-off shotgun.”
“They claim that there was a sawed-off shotgun in the car,” Casillas says, “I can’t corroborate that. No one’s seen it.”
LAPD Captain Andrew Neiman provided L.A. Weekly with the department's Feb. 11 news release on the shooting, which states that a loaded, sawed-off shotgun was recovered at the scene.
The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office has yet to release the findings of its autopsy in the Mendez shooting. But Casillas has hired a local forensic pathologist to perform a private autopsy, and he provided a copy of the results to L.A. Weekly. “There were numerous shots to the head with a direction from left to right,” the report's conclusion reads. “There were three shots to the back with a direction of back to front.”
According to the report, there was a total of 13 gunshot wounds on Mendez's body, but that figure includes what are likely re-entry wounds, or multiple wounds caused by the same bullet; the exact number of shots fired by the officers remains undetermined in the report.
Juan Mendez, the victim's father, says that under such scrutiny, the police version does not hold up. “This version where my son gets out of the car and points a gun at them and they fire — how then do the police explain so many bullets in his back?” Mendez says.
A homemade altar graces the patio at the front of the Mendez home in Boyle Heights. On a covered table, amid flowers and photographs, the family keeps Jose's ashes in a reliquary of Mexico's most venerated religious figure, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Juan suggested taking the ashes back to the family plot in Mexico City, but his wife, Josefina, demurred; she prefers that the ashes stay where they are for now.
Juan reaches for a picture frame on the altar. The photo shows Juan and his wife with eight of their nine children, gathered together for a family portrait on a soccer field at Rancho San Antonio (The eldest son, Jhony, 26, was at work that day.) The family portrait, taken Jan. 3, is the last they have with Jose.
Jose was a star player in the youth soccer leagues in the Boyle Heights area, and soccer matches have long been a family activity on weekends. But they became a kind of family therapy about a year ago when Jose started getting into trouble. “He started using drugs,” as Juan put it succinctly. He also stopped coming home at night and stopped attending classes at Theodore Roosevelt High School, where he was in his freshman year.
Juan removes another photo from Jose's altar. It is another family portrait, and this time, Jose is in the middle, flanked on either side by his parents and siblings. It was taken on Christmas Eve, in the front yard of the rehabilitation facility where he was living at the time.
It has been nearly seven months since the Sunday morning when Josefina answered a knock at her screen door to find a huddle of detectives in suits on her front porch. “One of them told me they had bad news,” she recalls. “My first thought was, he’s going back to the rehab center.”
Juan was at work at the time, and Josefina was too distraught after the detectives left to call her husband and tell him what happened. So Diego, her eldest boy, made the call to the hotel kitchen downtown where Juan washes dishes and supervises the cleaning crew.
“The phone call was very shocking. Very difficult to forget,” Juan says, choking back the emotions from the memory.
Juan and Josefina have lived in Los Angeles for 16 years; they moved into their current house on South Indiana Street when Jose was 7. Juan is a short, husky man with broad shoulders and a deep, resonant voice. To provide for his family, he volunteers to supervise for weekend banquets at the hotel, and afterward, he gathers up the discarded bottles and cans to extra money.
“I work honorably. I provide for my family,” he adds, pausing to gather his emotions, then continuing. “And I’m mad. I’m very angry. To me, it isn’t right. I want to know the truth of what happened to my son.”
In thinking about how his son's death has affected his life, Juan returns to a memory of a day trip years back that the family made to Hollywood. Juan is sure there is a photo of it tucked away in a family album somewhere. The photo is of Jose, and he was only a boy then, cheesing it up beside two police officers on the Walk of Fame; Juan remembers coaxing his son into the photo.
“There was a time I admired the police,” Juan says, and his voice grows stern. “I had a lot of respect for the police. Now my children run away at the sight of police.”
Casillas, the family's attorney, says he expects to file a federal civil rights lawsuit in the next 90
Lacey has come under criticism recently from the families of Los Angeles residents killed or brutalized by police. In May, her office quietly agreed to a deal with the attorneys for LAPD Officer Richard Garcia, who was charged with assault under color of authority based on a video in which he repeatedly kicked and punched Clinton Alford Jr. after Alford had surrendered to police in South L.A. Lacey also waited more than two years without announcing whether she will charge two officers for the shooting death of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill man killed in South L.A. in 2014. Lacey's inaction persists despite the L.A. Police Commission's finding that one of the officers, Sharlton Wampler, handled the encounter with Ford so improperly that it led to the fatal confrontation. On Aug. 11, the two-year anniversary of Ford's death, his family and supporters protested outside Lacey's office; some held up signs referring to Lacey as “DA Lazy.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind she’s not going to prosecute,” Casillas says. “There’s never a case that Jackie Lacey is not going to give immunity in a shooting to police officers. And so, what the family’s left with to get their day in court is to bring their own civil action.” A spokeswoman for the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office said it has not been presented a case on the Mendez shooting.
So why disclose the existence of the video now, more than six months after Mendez was killed?
The reason for the wait, Casillas says, was to give the police investigators time to take statements from the officers involved. He is confident that by now the statements have been given.
“So now, whatever version it is that they’ve given,” he says, “it better be consistent with them at some point, about three minutes afterward, dragging him away from the car.”