Multiple media reports over the weekend have noted that the president of the Vallejo police union is one of two police officers who has been suspended by the department, under investigation for destroying critical evidence in the shooting of Sean Monterrosa in June by Vallejo police.
Michael Nichelini is the union president and a lieutenant who oversees the patrol division. According to sources he has been placed on leave due to the destruction of a windshield police shot through to kill Monterrosa on June 2.
The union, led by Nichelini, has fought the issue of not disclosing the name of the officer. However, the media has been able to identify the shooter as Jarrett Tonn, a Vallejo police detective who has a history of firing his weapon—having done so on three previous occasions.
It is believed that Detective Tonn fired five times through the windshield in question, likely mistaking the handle of a hammer in the sweatshirt of Monterrosa for a gun.
“This guy is knee deep trying to misdirect the investigation,” John Burris, the attorney for Monterrosa’s family, told the Vanguard.
Burris believes that Nichelini is “the guy we have to hone in on” but “he has a considerable amount of power and influence.”
Not only is he the union president and 14-year veteran on the Vallejo police force, having joined in 2006 after beginning his career in Oakland. His father was Robert Nichelini, a longtime Oakland police officer who became the Vallejo Police Chief in 1995, having been hired because he had spent eight years in Oakland as deputy chief. Robert Nichelini retired as Vallejo’s chief in 2012.
“This department is never going to change culturally until people like him are gone,” Burris said. “They’re old guard people and they carry significant weight to the unit.”
“This might be the first step,” he said, adding, “It really speaks to the outlaw nature of many Vallejo police officers, who feel they’re above the law, that they can destroy evidence and not be held accountable.”
It is Nichelini who has fought to keep the shooting officer’s name secret. Media has reported that Tonn has been involved in three other shootings since 2015. On June 15, the Vallejo Police Officers Association, led by Nichelini, filed for a court injunction with the Solano County Court preventing the city from disclosing the name of the officer or others present to the public.
John Burris explained, “From my point of view, I wanted to see the windshield—I wanted to see what kind of condition it was in, so I can pin down where his shots were and then give it to my police practice expert reconstructionist to let me know if there is any significance attached to it.”
He explained, “Looking through the window at the time shots were fired you couldn’t see Monterrosa.” He said this becomes more important because there are no videos or photographs of the actual shooting. “There were no videos or photographs of what Monterrosa was doing at the time he was shot.”
There have been two different versions of the shooting, according to John Burris. The first version as described had Monterrosa surrendering with his hands in the air when he was shot.
The POA, again led by Nichelini, put out a press release dated June 5 in which they describe Monterrosa as “attempting to flee with others in a vehicle” and then, instead of continuing his escape, he “chose to engage the responding officers.”
As described by the POA: “Mr. Monterrosa abruptly pivoted back around toward the officers, crouched into a tactical shooting position, and grabbed an object in his waistband that appeared to be the butt of a handgun. At no time did Mr. Monterrosa make any movements consistent with surrendering. Fearing that Mr. Monterrosa was about to open fire on the officers in the vehicle, the officer was forced to fire multiple rounds through his windshield.”
However, it turns out that Monterrosa, a student living in San Francisco, was not armed with a gun and the officer mistook Monterrosa’s hammer for the butt of a gun.
A new video shows the aftermath of the shooting—his body, bleeding and lifeless as police officers attempt to cuff him.
At this point, Officer Tonn sees the hammer sticking out of the sweatshirt and, realizing the object was not a firearm but a hammer, he yells “stupid” along with a string of obscenities. Later, he says that “this is not what I needed tonight,” while a police captain consoles him, telling him “you’ve been through this before,” in apparent reference to his previous shootings.
Burris discounts their version of events.
“It doesn’t make any sense in light of the fact that the cops were in front of him,” he said. Moreover, “he didn’t have anything.” So why would he grab an object in his waistband that was not a firearm and simulate as though he were about to open fire? Burris queried.
Without the video of the actual moments leading up to the shooting, Burris wants to be able to get into the car to know what the officer can actually see at the time of the shooting—if anything.
“Maybe he just shot blindly,” he said.
He added, “The lieutenant must have thought it had significance because he destroyed it. And he’s an experienced police officer.”
“He should be prosecuted,” Burris added. “A high ranking officer like him should be prosecuted for obstruction of justice.”
Meanwhile, the new video doesn’t enlighten the situation much.
“The new video only shows the blood and guts of the aftermath of the shooting,” he said. “Nothing about how it started—where it was when he was shot.”
Burris said he still wonders if there wasn’t video that has been lost or destroyed, based on the initial account by the police chief which indicated that he appeared to be running and went to his knees in a surrendering position, putting up his hands when he got shot—“where did he get that?
“My view is the chief was told the first position or he saw the first position,” he said. “I don’t want to believe that the chief deliberately destroyed evidence.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9