In a letter dated February 4, 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice stated “After careful consideration, we concluded that the evidence does not establish a prosecutable violation of the federal criminal civil rights statutes. Accordingly, we have closed our investigation.”
The letter itself from the agency reveals little more than they do not believe the evidence rises to a prosecutable violation under federal law.
At this point, we have no idea what this federal investigation entailed. Previous follow-ups merely reviewed the investigation carried out by the Woodland Police Department and concluded that they did not abuse their discretion – a severely high standard.
Woodland Mayor Art Pimentel told the Daily Democrat that he “is hopeful the community can move on. He is pleased with the outcome of the federal Gutierrez investigation.”
“I’m glad a thorough investigation has been done by the state and the federal government on this particular issue,” he told the paper. “I know there was a lot of concern from the community regarding the unfortunate incident.”
Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin told the Sacramento Bee on Tuesday that the federal Justice Department’s investigation addressed only a narrow question.
“It just means the federal prosecutors don’t believe they could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers committed criminal acts,” he told the paper. “It’s a very low standard. You can have malfeasance without criminal culpability.”
The question now falls to the civil rights panel chaired by Cruz Reynoso. That panel last spring had unveiled critical new information in the case, however, their work became delayed when Justice Reynoso, a retired California Supreme Court Justice, was seriously injured in an automobile accident in Virginia.
Attorney Merin told the Bee, “If they come back and say the officers shot while Gutierrez was running away, that’s going to be a lot more trustworthy than anything prosecutors come out with.”
Sheriff Ed Prieto, however, calls that panel biased and says it lacks legitimacy. He told the Bee it was a self-appointed group and that he could appoint himself governor. While potentially true, the question is whether they can uncover new evidence and witnesses that may paint a different picture.
Reaction, for instance, on the comment section of the Woodland Daily Democrat site was extremely polarized, with those who believed the official count diverging widely from those who are skeptical. This report, with a lack of released findings, is unlikely to settle anything.
The Sheriff’s Department would like to believe that this will put the issue to rest, but too many questions remain unanswered.
Those who defend the actions of the Sheriff’s deputies point toward the fact that Mr. Gutierrez had a knife, he was on meth, and he was a gang member.
Vienna Navarro (no relation) testified that she was driving slowly on the overpass and saw the three deputies along with Luis Gutierrez. She never saw a knife but she said that Mr. Gutierrez exchanged punches with one of the officers.
She said, “I didn’t know they were officers until one of their jackets flew open and I saw the badge. And even then I wasn’t really sure, it didn’t click in my head that they were police officers.”
She described that he stopped and turned around. “He was doing this backwards jog type move. It kind of looked like he was turning to see where they were. He turned around and I heard three gunshots as he was doing a jogging motion.”
“I heard three or four or five shots, and I was looking in my rearview mirror and I saw him fall down on his side. When I saw that I took off down to Katie Lane.”
As we have noted, not one witness other than the Sheriff’s Deputies ever reported seeing a knife.
A driver of a vehicle said that while she saw the officer’s badge and gun, she did not see a knife in Gutierrez’s hands. She said, “I do not recall seeing anything on his hands.” She continued, “I saw the gun that the cop had, and I think that if he would have, if he would have had anything I think I would have seen it.”
She later said, “I think that if I was able to see a gun on the other guy’s hand, I am pretty sure I think I would have been able to see something on his hand, but I don’t recall seeing anything.”
The autopsy reports high concentrations of meth in Mr. Gutierrez’s system.
Rosalia Redones, an insurance broker, met Mr. Gutierrez-Navarro the day of the death. At 12:29 the application came in, the victim signed everything. He did everything necessary and appeared normal, in paying for auto coverage for 3 months in advance. He spent about 15 to 20 minutes with her.
The victim was lucid, and the witness saw nothing strange. This information called into question official autopsy reports claiming that Mr. Gutierrez-Navarro was under the influence of a large amount of meth. A worker at the DMV, where he had just passed the test for his driver’s license, has made similar claims.
Finally the claim is that Mr. Gutierrez-Navarro was a Sureno.
There is limited evidence that Mr. Gutierrez-Navarro was a Sureno. The statement of probable cause concludes, “Based on your affiant’s training, experience and conversations that your affiant had with other law enforcement Officers your affiant believes that Luis Navarro is a member of the Sureño criminal street gang, based on his tattoo’s and actions described above.”
The first piece of evidence is the tattoo. In the statement of probable cause it reads: “Sgt. Davis reviewed the pictures of Luis Navarro’s tattoos consisting of a single dot on his right index finger, a single dot on his left pinky finger, a single dot on his left ring finger, and a single dot on his left middle finger. Sgt. Davis told me that based on his training and experience, it is his opinion that the dot tattoos consisting of a single dot on one hand and a three dots on the other represent the number “13” which is a common symbol used by the Sureño Criminal Street Gang.”
More evidence of gang membership was that in May of 2007 Mr. Gutierrez was apparently in a case with a known Sureno Gang Member. Reads the affidavit, “Officer Christiansen noted that Luis Navarro was a passenger in a vehicle stop with Luis Santillan and noted that Luis Navarro was with a known Sureño Gang member (Santillan).”
From the DA’s report, “On June 1, 2009, Yolo Sheriff’s Office Deputy J. Lazaro contacted Rudolfo Ruiz Flores at Woodland Memorial Hospital. At that time, Flores was in the custody of the Yolo County Sheriff. Flores told Lazaro the person who died was known as “Indian Gutierrez” because he was a good knife thrower. According to Flores, the deputy was lucky not to get killed because Gutierrez, who is a Sureño gang member, is a dangerous person and had said he would not let the cops take him.”
“On June 2, Woodland Police Department Detective Ron Cordova reinterviewed Flores. Flores advised [him]he knew Gutierrez (Navarro) as a Sureño because since he (Flores) associates with Sureños. Gutierrez always carried a knife and was good with it. Gutierrez’s nickname was “Indio” because he was good with a knife. Flores knew Gutierrez used controlled substances and was considered dangerous.”
However, who Mr. Flores even is remains a mystery. We do know from the report of Frank Roman, the investigator for the Independent Civil Rights Commission, that it was not clear why Mr. Flores would even be in custody on June 1. Mr. Roman did find an arrest dated July 1, 2009 for possession of heroin. He also discovered a directive from the District Attorney’s Office to Decline to File charges for that possession offense (a suspicious action in and of itself for those familiar with the DA’s track record for prosecuting cases).
Mr. Roman also spoke to a parole officer who dealt with Mr. Flores. He was told by this parole officer that Mr. Flores had no known gang ties and spoke fluent English.
He also found out that Mr. Flores was deported to Mexico shortly after being released on July 2, 2009.
Mr. Flores’ report lacks a good deal of credibility anyway, as he describes him as a good knife thrower and yet Mr. Gutierrez-Navarro, at 26 years old, lacked any kind of meaningful criminal record.
His criminal record consists of three criminal cases involving the violation of Vehicle Code Section 14601, which is driving without a valid license, two of them from 2008 and one from 2009.
Between 2004 and 2009, there were 15 contacts between law enforcement and Luis Gutierrez-Navarro. There were other contacts that were identified but not verified. These include traffic stops, pedestrian contacts, vehicle code citations, and a warrant arrest.
The DA’s report tells us, “In the 15 verified contacts prior to April 30, 2009, there were no indications of any issues, conflicts, or confrontations between Navarro and officers. There is no record or indication of Navarro engaging in any type of resisting or assaultive behavior toward law enforcement or of Navarro being under the influence of a controlled substance.”
This piece of evidence, among all, should give us pause when we take the official accounts of the entire story into account. So he has no history in 15 contacts, not an insignificant number, of resisting arrest, attacking police officers, or being under the influence of a controlled substance. He has no real criminal record other than driving without a valid license. And yet we are to believe that he was a dangerous gang member?
In summary, the evidence that Mr. Gutierrez-Navarro is a gang member remains circumstantial and weak. It is contradicted strongly by his lack of criminal record. The evidence that he had meth in his system is a good deal stronger, but we cannot definitively claim he was high at the time he was shot. The evidence that he pulled a knife on the deputies rests entirely on their testimony.
The problem at this point is moving from suspicions about the official story, which seems to have huge holes that have never been resolved in a satisfactory manner, to a conclusion that the officers were involved in an unjustified shooting.
My guess, and this is sheer conjecture, is that the follow-up reports did not conduct their own fresh investigations, as we have not run into any witness who has talked to the Department of Justice, tso it may be hat they have simply reviewed the original report and concluded from those asserted facts that there is no evidence to support a prosecutable case.
Mr. Gutierrez-Navarro’s family undoubtedly will move forward with their lawsuit for wrongful death, which contains a far lower civil standard of proof and the civil rights panel will continue with theirs.
The Sheriff will view this as vindication, but few people in the community who had concerns about the incident will be assuaged of those concerns as the result of this statement by the DOJ.
—David M. Greenwald reporting