National Gun Forum banner
1 - 1 of 1 Posts

· Ancient Gaseous Emanation
57,894 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Eric Dexheimer, Austin Bureau
Aug. 29, 2019

The morning was sunny and bright last February when Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Lee Meadow noticed the pickup truck that just passed him on Interstate 10 was missing a front license plate. With the trooper’s lights flashing behind him, the driver eased to a stop on the right side of the highway just outside of Junction.

As Meadow approached the open window on the truck’s passenger side door a handgun suddenly appeared and a single shot blasted over his right shoulder. Meadow dropped to the ground and the truck sped off. The trooper ran back to his cruiser, radioing he'd been shot at and was in pursuit of a gray Chevy Colorado pickup.

Sheriff Hilario Cantu was in his office when he heard the radio traffic. He and Deputy Jack Noah jumped into a Kimble County cruiser. Noticing the shotgun he’d grabbed on the way out wasn’t loaded, Cantu exchanged it for Noah’s assault rifle.

The sheriff and his deputy stationed themselves at a highway exit just west of Junction. Noah set up close to the guardrail in case he had to quickly bail out. Soon the sheriff saw a pickup heading their way “at a high rate of speed” and suddenly switching lanes.

Cantu raised his rifle as the truck approached. He fired as it sped past, pocking the vehicle with a line of ten bullet holes that ran from the front panel across the passenger door and into the rear of the cab. The truck drifted off the road about a quarter-mile ahead.

“Sheriff Cantu then looked back and saw that the actual suspect vehicle being pursued was now approaching,” a report from that day states. The vehicle he’d shot into was not a gray Colorado, but a white Silverado.

“At this point,” according to the document, “Sheriff Cantu realized that he had fired on the wrong vehicle.”

Shooting at cars discouraged

Hugo Reyes was returning from his job in the West Texas oilfields to his home in Edinburg. As he drove east, he chatted on the phone with his wife, Amparo Villareal, and his father-in-law.

“He told me he saw the police on the side of the road,” Villarreal recalled. “He thought it was weird that they had big guns.”

“Suddenly we heard this ruckus. I thought he’d gotten distracted and he’d hit somebody. Then the phone cut off.”

There was no answer when she tried calling. When Villarreal finally got a call from her husband's phone it was from Cantu, she recalled. "He said he was the sheriff, and that [Hugo] had been shot. I said, 'How is that even possible? I was just with him on the phone.'"

“He said it was a similar vehicle.” But, Villarreal said, “they are in no way, shape or form the same.”

For subscribers: Banned from guns, Texas gave him a license anyway. Citizens paid the price.

Police have long grappled with how best to respond to suspects fleeing in cars. Over the past three years, U.S. officers shot and killed an average of 162 people annually in their vehicles, or who had just exited following a chase, according to a Washington Post database that tracks deadly police shootings. Thirty-six of the fatalities during that period were in Texas.

Experts say shooting at a moving vehicle is tactically dubious. Trying to stop a car – or truck – with a gun seldom works, said Geoff Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina. "Shooting at a moving vehicle is incredibly difficult," he said, adding that trying to puncture tires with a bullet is a successful strategy only in the movies.

In its Use of Force training materials, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, the state agency that certifies Texas peace officers, identifies a half-dozen concerns with shooting from or at a moving vehicle. They range from the difficulty of hitting the target, to ricocheting bullets and “Liability from what may happen when suspect is disabled and control of suspect’s vehicle is lost.”

Legally, officers may shoot at moving vehicles only in limited circumstances. In 1985 the U.S. Supreme Court concluded gunshots should be used to prevent an escape only if "the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."

For subscribers: In this undercover operation, it was the booze police who got stung

Many police departments have policies mirroring that language. Houston police can't shoot at a fleeing car unless a person inside "is immediately threatening the officer or another person with deadly force," according to department rules. Austin police may use deadly force against a moving vehicle only "when it is reasonably perceived that the vehicle is being used as a weapon against the officer or others."

It’s rare for police to face consequences for judgment errors in fatal car chase shootings. A DPS trooper who in 2012 shot at a fleeing truck in Hidalgo County from a helicopter, killing two people hiding in the bed, was not criminally charged. But last year Roy Oliver, a former police officer in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for fatally shooting 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, a passenger in a car driving away from him. Although Oliver said he feared for his partner’s safety, video showed the officer wasn’t in immediate danger.

A burst of automatic gunfire

Cantu said when he heard the shooter's vehicle described as "gray" he thought "silver."

"My wife had a gray silver truck. When the call came out I was looking for the color of my wife's truck," he said.

A review of incident radio traffic shows the truck’s license plate number was broadcast, as well.

The sheriff said he heard gunshots before he saw Reyes’ truck come into view. “I had only 10, 15 seconds before he got to me,” Cantu said. He said the way Reyes drove — fast and suddenly changing lanes — made it appear as though he was being chased. “I’ve been in 40, 50, 60 pursuits,” the sheriff said. “And the way people who are fleeing drive, there’s something about it you can tell.”

Reyes has said he swerved to give the officers he spotted on the side of the road more room.

Cantu said he fired a short burst from his gun, which he described as a fully automatic assault rifle. He said it was only a few seconds later that the gray truck drove by.

Kimble County Judge Delbert Roberts said one of the shots hit Reyes in the right side of his torso, and that his injuries were relatively minor. "I don't want to say it was superficial," he said. "It was a gunshot. But it missed all the vital organs. Went around his stomach and missed the heart, lung, liver, kidneys and so on."

“I went up to him and said, ‘Are you alright?’” the sheriff recalled. “He said, ‘My side hurts.’” Reyes was taken to a local hospital, then transferred to a larger San Angelo facility where he underwent surgery.

Bobby Garcia, a McAllen attorney the family recently hired, said Reyes’ injuries were much more severe. (He declined to make Reyes available for an interview or provide medical records.) He said Reyes was hit by several bullets and suffered two collapsed lungs and an injured liver. Villarreal said her husband spent several days in the hospital. She said he only recently was able to return to work.

Although the sheriff’s shooting of Reyes was clearly a mistake, Roberts said he wouldn’t characterize it as an accident. “The sheriff did it on purpose,” he pointed out.

Academics who study law enforcement use-of-force said officers have shot civilian bystanders during gunfights. In chaotic situations, they also have mistaken good guys with a gun — responding off-duty officers, say — for armed bad guys. Last year, police in Alabama shot and killed a young man carrying a gun who they thought was responsible for a chaotic mall shooting, but wasn’t.

But deliberately aiming at and shooting an incorrect target in broad daylight is rare, the experts added. "I know of no good data on aiming at the wrong person," said Franklin Zimring, a University of California-Berkeley law professor who studies police shootings.

Making a split-second decision about whether to use deadly force in an adrenaline-charged confrontation can be difficult, especially when an officer hasn't personally observed the suspect's threatening behavior, said Pete Blair, executive director of the Advance Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University, which provides active shooter training for police.

But "we always teach people to make sure the person they're about to engage is a bad guy," he said."You make sure what you're about to shoot is what you intend to hit."

Blair said officers are trained to rapidly read a suspect. Shooting at a person inside a speeding vehicle complicates that assessment, he said, because you can’t easily observe signs such as aggression.

Shooting the wrong vehicle entirely, added University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor and use of force expert David Klinger, is “inexcusable.”

"A conspiracy of silence"

The Texas Rangers investigated the incident, but the Department of Public Safety said it would not release the report yet. District Attorney Tonya Spaeth Ahlschwede said she presented Cantu's mistaken shooting of Reyes to a local grand jury in May. It declined to indict the sheriff on any criminal charges.

Roberts, the Kimble County Judge, said Reyes hasn't filed a lawsuit against the county, but he anticipates one. "There's going to be something; there has to be," he said. "Let the chips fall where they may."

Garcia confirmed he intends to sue the sheriff and county in federal court. In addition to Reyes' physical injuries, Garcia said that when he was taken to the hospital nobody told staffers he was an innocent victim, so he was greeted as a cop-shooter.

Reyes “got treated like hell,” he said.

Villarreal said her husband’s truck was a complete loss. She said they had incurred more than $250,000 in medical bills, much of it not covered by their insurance. No one from the county ever contacted her to ask if they could help with the treatment costs, she said.

“Now creditors are coming after us,” she said.

Just as bad, added Garcia, is that no one bothered to apologize. "It was radio silence after it happened," he said. "It was a conspiracy of silence. Everybody was quiet about it."

That included mandated communications with state regulators.

In 2015, legislators passed a law requiring that all police shootings be reported to the Office of the Attorney General within 30 days.

As of mid-August, six months after Cantu shot Reyes, the only report from Feb. 20, 2019, was one from the Department of Public Safety, for the trooper who fired at the gray pickup driver as he sped away. (Sharrod Moore, who was fleeing a murder he'd committed in El Paso, pulled off the highway at the exit past Sheriff Cantu and killed himself.) After Hearst Newspapers inquired, Sheriff Cantu filed his report the following day.

Lawsuits even in mistaken police shootings are not slam-dunks. In a 2010 high-speed chase outside the Panhandle town of Tulia, Israel Leija was just about to drive over spikes police had placed across the road when Department of Public Safety Trooper Chadrin Mullenix, who had stationed himself on an overpass, decided to shoot the vehicle’s engine block. He hit Leija instead, killing him.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded Mullenix could not be held liable for Leija's death. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, writing that the court was supporting a troubling "'shoot first, think later' approach to policing."

Roberts said Sheriff Cantu was not disciplined for the incident. Cantu said if he had to do it over again, his behavior wouldn’t change.

"If the same exact circumstances came up on the day after, I would do the same thing," he said.
1 - 1 of 1 Posts
This is an older thread, you may not receive a response, and could be reviving an old thread. Please consider creating a new thread.