The fatal shooting of Santa Maria police Officer Albert Covarrubias Jr. by a fellow officer earlier this year was ruled a justifiable homicide Tuesday afternoon by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley.
Covarrubius, 29, was shot in the early morning hours of Jan. 28, as two supervisors in the Santa Maria Police Department attempted to arrest him for allegedly having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old member of the department’s Police Explorers program.
Three rounds from a .45-caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun fired by Officer Matthew Kline struck Covarrubias, according to an 18-page report released by Dudley. A later autopsy determined that Covarrubias died from a shot that struck him in the neck, the report indicated.
(See Dudley’s full report at the bottom of this story.)
The shooting happened as Covarrubias was among a group of officers who were breaking down a DUI checkpoint at McElhany Avenue and Broadway at about 1:20 a.m., when Sgt. Chris Nartatez and Sgt. Mark Norling attempted to take him into custody.
“Sgt. Nartatez and Sgt. Norling walked direclty toward Officer Covarrubias,” according to Dudley’s report. “As they did so, Officer Covarrubias backed away from them. Sgt. Nartatez reached toward Officer Covarrubias. As Sgt. Nartatez grabbed for him, Officer Covarrubias pulled his gun out.”
As Nartatez struggled to control Covarrubias, the report states, Covarrubias fired a single shot, which did not hit anyone. In the ensuing struggle, as Nartatez tried to disarm Covarrubias, Kline move in closer to the battling men.
“Sgt. Nartatez was on top of Officer Covarrubias and continued to yell for help,” according to the report. “It appeared to Officer Kline that Sgt. Norling was in the vicinity of where the firearm was being pointed. Officer Kline moved in and fired three rounds.”
“Officer Kline, a friend of Officer Covarrubias, saw a life-threatening situation unfold in front of him,” Dudley wrote in her report. “Fearing for the safety of others, and believing he needed to act immediately to preserve the sergeants’ lives, he shot and killed Officer Covarrubias.”
Covarrubias was declared dead on arrival at Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria.
The investigation of the officer-involved shooting was conducted by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, which turned over its findings to Dudley’s office in early May.
The department’s handling of the investigation into Covarrubius’ alleged relationship with the teen — and the way in which they attempted to arrest him — have come under scrutiny in the city of Santa Maria.
Police had been tipped off to the alleged relationship by a friend of the victim earlier in the week, according to Santa Maria Police Chief Danny Macagni, and interviewed the teen in the presence of her parents the evening of Jan. 27. She had been present at the DUI checkpoint, but had been called home on the pretext of a family emergency.
As part of their investigation, investigators had the victim phone Covarrubias less than an hour before he was killed, according to Dudley’s report. In the course of this “pretext call,” Covarrubias allegedly admitted having sexual contact with the teen, expressed suspicion that the call was a set-up, and asked her not to tell anyone about it, according to the report.
He also said words to the effect that “I’m not going to be taken in. I’m going to kill myself,” according to the report.
At that point, the decision was made to go to the DUI checkpoint and arrest Covarrubias, the report said.
Dudley’s report goes into great detail about the series of events that led to Covarrubias’ death, recounting in chronological order how the investigation unfolded, which officers were involved, and who in the police leadership was making the decisions at various points. Conspicuously absent was any indication of what Macagni’s role was as chief of police; his name is never mentioned in the report.
Asked late Tuesday what involvement Macagni had in the decisions that were made, Dudley said, “I don’t know.”
Reached Tuesday afternoon, Macagni said he could not comment on Dudley’s findings, pending the completion of an independent investigation ordered by the city. He referred all questions to City Manager Rick Haydon, who issued a statement noting that “the city intends to continue its investigation into this incident and include this information in the ongoing administrative review currently being conducted by outside independent investigators.”
Haydon urged the public to be patient while this process continues, and said city officials are “precluded from making any further comments at this time.”