Police stand by ac­tions lead­ing to fa­tal shoot­ing

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Sa­longa and Ju­lia Prodis Sulek Staff writ­ers

SAN JOSE » When four San Jose police of­fi­cers opened fire early Christ­mas morn­ing on a white Toy­ota ram­ming a pa­trol car after a high-speed chase, they thought they were aim­ing at sus­pects from a shoot­ing across town.

Turns out, they were chas­ing the wrong car, police ac­knowl­edged Thurs­day. The driver, who was killed, and pas­sen­ger, who was wounded, were both young women — and un­armed. Now, the fam­ily of the driver, Jen­nifer Vasquez, is de­mand­ing jus­tice.

“We feel ev­ery­thing is un­fair,” Vir­ginia Vasquez, Jen­nifer’s aunt, said out­side San Jose police head­quar­ters fol­low­ing a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day. “It was a dif­fer­ent car and dif­fer­ent per­son. We want this to go far­ther, more in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Dur­ing the news con­fer­ence, Police Chief Ed­die Gar­cia said the shoot­ing was tragic but his of­fi­cers had lit­tle choice but to fire: The women were in a stolen car, led police on a high- speed

chase and, after the ve­hi­cle crashed into a fence, re­fused to get out and sur­ren­der. In­stead, police say, the driver put of­fi­cers in mor­tal dan­ger when she drove into the pa­trol car they were tak­ing cover be­hind.

“We have to look at the to­tal­ity of the cir­cum­stances here,” Gar­cia said. “Had these in­di­vid­u­als just com­plied with the of­fi­cers, and would have stopped, this would have ended very dif­fer­ently.”

He wouldn’t say how many times Jen­nifer Vasquez, 24, was shot. She died from her wounds. Her pas­sen­ger, Linda Car­mon­aBruno, 28, was shot once and treated and re­leased from a lo­cal hos­pi­tal be­fore be­ing booked into the Santa Clara County jail on an out­stand­ing mis­de­meanor war­rant.

Police would dis­cover after the shoot­ing that both women had had run-ins with police in the past. In par­tic­u­lar, Gar­cia said, Vasquez had been in­volved in other police pur­suits in­volv­ing a stolen ve­hi­cle. Re­cent mugshots of both women were briefly dis­played at the news con­fer­ence.

Vasquez’s fam­ily mem­bers say they don’t know why Vasquez fled, but her cousin Con­seula Con­tr­eras spec­u­lated she must have been fright­ened.

“She was scared. She was scared, for sure,” she said. “You know, when things hap­pen, you don’t think.”

She also said that Jen­nifer had bor­rowed the car from a friend.

Fam­ily mem­bers said Vasquez was re­turn­ing home to West San Jose — where she pe­ri­od­i­cally lived with her par­ents — after hav­ing Christ­mas Eve din­ner in Los Banos in the Cen­tral Val­ley.

“She was very kind, she had a lot of friends, al­ways smil­ing,” Vir­ginia Vasquez said, adding that her niece would of­ten ac­com­pany her fa­ther to lo­cal flea mar­kets to sell cloth­ing and other goods. “She was a warm per­son, al­ways mak­ing you feel wel­come.”

Vasquez’s par­ents, Maria Elena Vasquez and Je­sus Ramos, told re­porters after the news con­fer­ence that they are de­mand­ing a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the im­me­di­ate re­lease of footage from police body cam­eras, which were in use at the time.

The pur­suit be­gan after 2 a.m. Christ­mas morn­ing, Gar­cia said, when San Jose police re­sponded to re­ports of gun­fire near Story Road and Cle­mence Av­enue in East San Jose. There, they found two peo­ple suf­fer­ing gun­shot wounds and a wit­ness point­ing to a white car driv­ing down the street that sup­pos­edly car­ried the sus- pects.

As of­fi­cers fol­lowed the driver, who re­fused to pull over, they looked up the li­cense plate and de­ter­mined the car was stolen. Police con­tin­ued the five- mile chase from city streets onto In­ter­state 280 be­fore the car ex­ited onto Leigh Av­enue and crashed into a chain­link fence at the corner of Fruit­dale Av­enue next to a play­ground.

Gar­cia said the oc­cu­pants re­fused or­ders from police to get out of the car and sur­ren­der. In­stead, he said, the car rocked back and forth to dis­lodge from the fence, and when the of­fi­cers took cover be­hind one of their pa­trol ve­hi­cles, the driver rammed the cruiser. That’s when four of­fi­cers opened fire. More than a dozen gun­shots can be heard on a wit­ness’s video shared with KGO-TV.

“Given the cir­cum­stances … it was rea­son­able and jus­ti­fied for the of­fi­cers to feel that their lives were in dan­ger,” Gar­cia said. “They weren’t the in­di­vid­u­als re­spon­si­ble for the shoot­ing … but had they not been in a stolen ve­hi­cle, had they not led of­fi­cers on a high­speed pur­suit, had they not tried to ram of­fi­cers’ car, we wouldn’t be here to­day.

“At what point ex­actly they fig­ured out it was a fe­male driv­ing,” Gar­cia said, “I do not know.”

Raj Jayadev, di­rec­tor of the watch­dog group Sil­i­con Val­ley De-Bug, ac­com­pa­nied the Vasquez fam­ily to the police sta­tion Thurs­day. He said that driv­ing a stolen ve­hi­cle should not amount to a death sen­tence.

“Law en­force­ment mis­takes can be lethal mis­takes,” he said. “What con­sti­tutes an of­fi­cer feel­ing the need to use lethal force has to be the high­est of bars.”

At the site where the women were shot — near Sher­man Oaks El­e­men­tary School near San Jose City Col­lege — mourn­ers on Thurs­day brought can­dles, flow­ers and photos and set them along the bro­ken fence.

All four of­fi­cers who opened fire Tues­day were placed on paid ad­min­is­tra­tive leave, which is rou­tine after an of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ing. The Santa Clara County District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice and the San Jose Police Depart­ment’s homi­cide unit are con­duct­ing a joint crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the case is be­ing mon­i­tored by the depart­ment’s in­ter­nal af­fairs unit, the city at­tor­ney’s of­fice and the Of­fice of the In­de­pen­dent Police Au­di­tor.

Tues­day marked the city’s sixth of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ing in San Jose this year, and the sec­ond fa­tal in­ci­dent.

After Thurs­day’s news con­fer­ence, Gar­cia met with the Vasquez fam­ily to of­fer his con­do­lences.

“I can sup­port and de­fend the ac­tions of my of­fi­cers,” he said, “while still hav­ing em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion for a mourn­ing mother.”

J. Vasquez

ARIC CRABB — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

A me­mo­rial stands Thurs­day along Leigh Av­enue in San Jose where Jen­nifer Vasquez was fa­tally shot by police Tues­day. Police said that after a high-speed chase, Vasquez used the stolen car she was driv­ing to ram a police ve­hi­cle.

PHOTO BY JU­LIA PRODIS SULEK

Maria Elena Vasquez holds a photo of her daugh­ter, Jen­nifer Vasquez, who was killed Christ­mas Day dur­ing an en­counter with San Jose police.

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