Preliminary Hearing for Modesto Officer Who Shot and Killed 29-Year-Old Man

By Fatimah Patel and Audrey Sawyer   

MODESTO, CA – Former Modesto Police Dept. Officer Joseph Lamantia’s preliminary hearing for shooting and killing a 29-year-old victim on Dec. 29, 2020, will reconvene after Thanksgiving—it began Monday of this week in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Multiple witnesses testified in the prelim, where Lamantia was charged with felony voluntary manslaughter.

Three months after the shooting, Lamantia was fired and charged with voluntary manslaughter. The prelim will determine if the officer’s charges will be dismissed, or if it will move to a trial.

Lamantia is out of custody on bail. According to news reports, he was involved in five officer-involved shootings in his dozen years as a Modesto officer. Four were fatal. Prosecutors determined Lamantia and other officers’ actions were justified in the three other fatal shootings.

Witnesses in this hearing include the victim’s sister and responding officers, one of which interviewed Lamantia and testified to his account of events.

The victim’s sister testified the victim had told their family to leave their house, since he had bought a gun and was coming to their residence. No witness in this hearing, however, saw the victim with a gun.

The victim’s sister and mother called 911. Lamantia responded to the dispatch call.

Sergeant James Reeves, who interviewed Lamantia on two occasions, testified Lamantia said the victim was “hunting the family” and wanted to ambush or kill law enforcement officers. Lamantia saw it as his responsibility to apprehend the victim.

Reeves also stated as Lamantia was approaching the location of the victim, he made eye contact with the victim and believed the victim would shoot and kill him. It was at that point Lamantia pulled out his pistol.

Another officer received an update that shots had been fired and arrived at the scene when Lamantia was hiding behind a tree and the victim was on the ground. The officer noted at least three bullet wounds in the victim, obvious blood, and the victim’s gasps for air.

It is unclear whether the victim died at the scene or later at a hospital.
After around two and a half months of investigation into the shooting, Lamantia was terminated from the Modesto police department.

Testifying in this preliminary hearing, the victim’s sister recalls seeing a dispute between the victim and their brother, not at the residence. The witness said the victim made comments of concern, which led the witness to ask her mother—who was currently at their residence—to call 911.

The witness told the dispatcher to come to the house, saying, “My brother told us that he bought a gun the night before and he was coming to the house. He said to leave the house or that something bad would happen.”

The witness informed 911 that she and her mother were leaving their residence and going to a church for safety; 911 called back while they were at the church. Her mother had received a text that their front door was open, and that her brother was going to put nine holes in the wall.

The witness also testified that, shortly after, she saw her brother, the victim, walking around the corner across from the church, but lost sight of him as he walked toward another church.

The witness further explained that a dispatcher had recited information back to her during the returned 911 call but noted that some of the information was inaccurate.

Defense Attorney Roger Dale Wilson asked her about alleged statements made in an interview she did with an Officer Aaron Caldera, but the witness said she did not recall telling the detective that she was terrified, as Caldera claimed.

Modesto Police Officer Greg Booza referred to a safety bulletin for officers that he briefly looked at to see a picture of the subject. He then stated there was an update that shots had been fired. When he arrived at the scene, Lamantia had taken cover behind a tree, claiming that the victim had grabbed his rifle. 

In examining the victim’s wounds, Booza noted visible blood on the back of his underwear, with two bullet holes located on the chest. Another bullet hole was seen above the victim’s rear waistline, which Booza referred to as internal bleeding. Booza also recalled the victim speaking before gasping for air.

A group of officers arrived on the scene. Booza drove Lamantia back to the police station, then returned to the scene in case his assistance was necessary. He did not hear any shots as he approached.

Sergeant James Reeves was then called to the stand. Reeves was assigned to the internal affairs unit of the police department, and conducted two interviews with Lamantia. As such, he was able to testify as to Lamantia’s account of the events on Dec. 29.

Reeves first explained that Lamantia was assigned to the crime reduction unit, and members of this unit don’t typically respond to calls of service while completing their tasks, unless the calls are of high priority.

At the time of the incident, Lamantia’s task was a quality-of-life issue, however, he said he was available to respond to the dispatch call regarding the victim and his gun.

Lamantia could have checked the location of other responding officers through GPS and could have asked for their location through radio, said Reeves, as he said Lamantia has done so before.

Yet during this incident, the accused—Lamantia—did not inquire as to the locations of other officers.

Reeves noted Lamantia didn’t appear to know where the family was—a church or their residence—and was instead focused on where the victim was last seen.

When asked if they discussed any immediate follow up to the call, Reeves said that an officer safety bulletin regarding the victim was entered into the call, which officers can read on computers in their patrol cars.

Lamantia briefly “hit the highlights” of the dispatch, but said there was limited information in the beginning, mostly statements from the family about how the victim would come to their residence with a gun.

According to Reeves, the “highlights” Lamantia read included the victim “previously making threats toward law enforcement and saying something to the effect of ‘a good MPD cop is a dead cop.’” Lamantia also recalled the victim being a “self-identified motorcycle gang member” and seeing the victim’s photo on the bulletin.

Lamantia said he believed the victim was now out “hunting the family.” Reeves testified that Lamantia believed that the victim was “looking to ambush a law enforcement officer or wanting to kill one of the officers.”

Lamantia said he activated his body camera as he approached the church where the victim allegedly was. As he turned into the parking lot, Lamantia said he believed it was his responsibility to “find [the victim] now because he was… hunting the family and that he needed to apprehend [the victim].”

The road Lamantia took narrowed, at which point he believed the victim “got what he wanted.” The position—referred to as a “chokepoint”—was one in which he believed the victim would “ambush him while he sat in his patrol car.”

According to Reeves, Lamantia described “being very afraid,” and it was “at that point in the interview where he became a little bit emotional.”

Lamantia reportedly said he made eye contact with the victim as he approached the narrow point, describing the victim as being “hunched over.”

At that point, Lamantia said he thought the victim was going to shoot him, saying, “This is where it happens. This is where I’m gonna f**king die.”

He also said he “can’t just stop” and has to “make every effort and attempt to stop him before he gets to the family.” He said “I pulled out my pistol… I don’t remember if I set it down next to me, but I wanted to give myself a fighting chance.” In his vehicle, Lamantia believed he would not be able to move fast enough to escape an ambush.

Lamantia told Reeves he thought about an ambush before reaching the narrow alcove.

According to Reeves, had Lamantia stopped when he saw the victim in the alcove, the victim would have been “too close, and Officer Lamantia would not have had time to react to the threat…He was scared,” said Reeves.

According to Lamantia, the victim “had the tactical advantage of being on foot” and could shoot through the window, while Lamantia would be unable to react in his car. Lamantia referred to himself as a “sitting duck.”

Lamantia told Reeves the victim would “be able to shoot before he could respond.”

Lamantia said in the interview he continued driving a small distance to get out of that spot, exited his vehicle, and expected to have a confrontation with the victim there by his patrol car. That confrontation did not happen.

The prelim will proceed Monday, Nov. 28.

About The Author

Fatimah Patel is a Court Watch intern with The Davis Vanguard, and is currently a freshman student at UCLA pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English. She is passionate about social justice, the law, and is always trying to learn new things! Naturally, she aims to go to law school and pursue a career as an attorney. In her free time, she loves to read, bake, and spend time with friends and family.

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