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DA Rules Fatal Officer-Involved Shooting of Santa Maria Man is ‘Justifiable Homicide’

Investigation says Javier Garcia Gaona was acting erratically before stand-off with Santa Maria police, had methamphetamine in his system

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office investigated the fatal shooting of Javier Garcia Gaona by Santa Maria police officers and called it a “justifiable homicide.”
The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office investigated the fatal shooting of Javier Garcia Gaona by Santa Maria police officers and called it a “justifiable homicide.” (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

Santa Maria police “acted reasonably in their use of deadly force” on July 20 when they fatally shot a man 14 times while he wielded a knife, told them to shoot him and lunged toward officers, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office said in its review of the incident.

A report was released Tuesday regarding the circumstances leading to the officer-involved shooting of Javier Garcia Gaona, 31, after a stand-off with police at the intersection of Enos Drive and South Broadway.

The Sheriff’s Department investigated the shooting, with the District Attorney’s Office then reviewing the report before deeming it “a justifiable homicide.”

“The District Attorney’s duty in reviewing this homicide is to determine whether the shooting of Javier Garcia Gaona was lawful,” the report said. “We also feel it is our responsibility to provide a detailed explanation, to the public, about the facts and the law in that regard.”

The full report can be found online here.

Investigators revealed several odd incidents involving the erratic man before his fatal encounter with police that morning and toxicology tests conducted later showed “a significant amount of methamphetamine” in Gaona’s system, according to the report.

While critics claimed police didn’t try to talk with the man, the report says a trained negotiator was among officers communicating with the man in an effort to get him to drop the knife and surrender safely. When talks broke down, police fired less-lethal rounds.

“When officers deployed less-lethal rounds on the suspect, the rounds had little effect on him,” the report said. “When the suspect ran towards officers holding a knife pointed at them, officers fired lethal rounds, striking the suspect, causing him to fall to the ground and die.”

Officers were dispatched at 8:44 a.m. on July 20, 2016 when an employee at CoastHills Credit Union reported a suspicious man, wearing all black and carrying two black bags, attempting to open the doors at the closed financial institution on the corner of South Broadway and Stowell Road.

Yolanda Garcia and Javier Garcia Villalobos, the parents of Javier Garcia Gaona, hold his picture during a press conference in Santa Maria in August 2016. Click to view larger
Yolanda Garcia and Javier Garcia Villalobos, the parents of Javier Garcia Gaona, hold his picture during a press conference in Santa Maria in August 2016.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

The employee described the man as having “a dead stare in his eyes.”

A second caller reported seeing the same subject holding what appeared to be an 8-inch kitchen knife, saying the man put the weapon in his pants and walked out of Wells Fargo bank at 1450 S. Broadway.

Officers Kevin Cota and Matthew Holton first encountered the man in the center median on Broadway, where Gaona pulled the knife from his pants, according to the report.

Speaking in both English and Spanish, Gaona told Holton to shoot him, before walking toward the northwest corner of Broadway and Enos near a Foods Co. sign.

“Based upon Gaona’s behavior, Officer Holton was concerned for the safety of the citizens in the parking lot. Officer Holton ran past Gaona in an effort to contain Gaona as well as prevent him from hurting anyone,” the report said. “At that point Gaona was holding the knife to his throat. He was also highly agitated, yelling and demanding to be shot by the officers.”

Several members of the Crisis Negotiation Team arrived with Detective Felix Diaz, a fluent Spanish speaker, who took over the negotiation and attempted to establish a rapport by talking about the man’s family, but Gaona was said to have responded, “I have no family, they all left me. I have nothing.” 

Officers continued to talk to the man, who eventually made a gesture as if he was zipping his lips closed and refused to continue interacting with officers.

Now-Lt. Russ Mengel, who along with other officers noted Gaona looking behind him and around the sign, ordered officers to use less-than-lethal beanbag rounds to subdue him.

Less-than-lethal rounds did not subdue Gaona.

“Throughout, he maintained control over the knife. Gaona next took the knife and attempted to stab himself in the abdomen. He then attempted to cut his throat, yet no visible blood appeared in either location,” the report noted.

A memorial was set up near where Javier Gaona, 31, of Santa Maria was fatally wounded by Santa Maria police officers after a standoff on July 20, 2016. Click to view larger
A memorial was set up near where Javier Gaona, 31, of Santa Maria was fatally wounded by Santa Maria police officers after a standoff on July 20, 2016. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

“Gaona next charged directly at officers with the knife in his hand, and pointed it in their direction. In a matter of seconds, Gaona ran approximately 25 feet towards officers with the knife,” the report said. “The first lethal rounds were not fired until Gaona took this action.”

Fourteen lethal rounds struck Gaona, who fell to the ground between 13 and 14 feet from where Officer William Jackson was standing when he began firing his gun.

During their private individual interviews, Jackson and officers Gabriel Alvarez and Ernest Salinas said they feared themselves or a partner would be seriously hurt or killed by Gaona.

Immediately after the shooting, police administered CPR to Gaona.

An autopsy also revealed 14 gunshot entrance wounds in addition to a number of number of superficial knife wounds on his neck, chin, chest and abdomen, according to Dr. Manuel Montez, a forensic pathologist for the Sheriff’s Department.

Levels of methamphetamine in Gaona's system “could cause aggressive behavior, irrational thinking, hyperactivity, hallucinations, inability to focus, and confusion,” the report said.

During the stand-off a large crowd gathered at the intersection with hostile members calling police “murderers” and accusing them of killing an unarmed man.

Gaona’s family has filed a federal lawsuit against the city and several officers involved in the incident and one of their attorneys said the new report does not impact that civil case.

“We are far more concerned with the unwarranted use of 'less-lethal' force at a time when, per their own admission, the SMPD had nothing but unvarnished speculation that Mr. Gaona was preparing to flee,” attorney Eric Schweitzer said.

“Not only is it well known that these rounds can cause extreme injury or death, in mental health crisis situations like this one, they forseeably cause increased agitation,” he said.

“We know that Mr. Gaona was having a mental health crisis. So did the Santa Maria Police Department.”

The attorneys contend the Police Department failed to follow established procedures for dealing with a static mental health crisis, saying Gaona had been at the same location for approximately an hour.

“When the use of 'less-lethal shotgun rounds is limited by law, as it is, to situations where someone's life is in immediate danger, it falls to us to vindicate the rights of the decedent and his immediate family,” Schweitzer said.

“They must now live with the results of SMPD's failure to train, supervise and discipline those responsible for this unreasonable application of force and Mr. Gaona's resulting death.”

 Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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