Los Angeles, CA – Four Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LACSD) deputies have refused to testify in a coroner’s inquest into the shooting death of an armed suspect who reached for a gun while deputies were trying to take him into custody.
The coroner’s office determined Guardado’s death was a homicide, and ordered an inquest for an independent review “in the interest of public transparency,” according to the paper.
Retired Judge Candace Cooper held a hearing on Monday to help determine Guardado’s cause and manner of death.
Upon the advice of their attorneys, LACSD Deputy Miguel Vega, who fired the fatal shots, and his partner, Deputy Chris Hernandez, both refused to answer questions about the incident, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The same was true for two LACSD homicide detectives tasked with investigating the shooting.
Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson told the Los Angeles Times that the deputies’ refusal to participate in the inquiry is not unusual.
“I think you can take it for what it is: No one is volunteering from that sheriff’s office to cooperate in that inquiry,” Levenson said.
“I’m sure what they’re thinking is, ‘We don’t know where this is headed. We don’t know who this is going to target. We don’t know if they’re going to claim there’s some kind of cover-up. We don’t know enough not to assert our 5th Amendment right,’” she explained.
The fatal confrontation occurred at approximately 6 p.m. on June 18, after two deputies spotted a vehicle blocking the entrance to an auto body shop located on West Redondo Beach Boulevard, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Guardado, who was speaking to someone in the vehicle, allegedly pulled a handgun and took off on foot when he saw the deputies, investigators said.
Deputy Vega repeatedly ordered the fleeing suspect to stop, at which point he complied and turned around with his hands raised, according to Deputy Vega’s attorney, Adam Marangell.
Guardado was still armed at the time, Marangell noted.
He followed the deputies’ commands to place the gun on the ground and laid facedown with the weapon near his right hand, according to the attorney.
Deputy Vega holstered his duty weapon in order to handcuff the apparently compliant suspect, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“Don’t reach for the gun,” he ordered, just as Guardado began reaching for the weapon, according to Marangell.
Deputy Vega immediately drew his duty weapon and opened fire.
Guardado’s family claimed he was working as a security guard for the auto body shop when the incident occurred, but did not offer an explanation for why he ran from deputies.
The LACSD disputed that claim.
“Mr. Guardado was not wearing a security uniform clothing nor wearing any type of gun belt,” the LACSD told KABC. “He was not yet 21 years old, therefore he was unable to be legally employed as an armed security guard.”
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in August that the auto body business was known for selling nitrous oxide, which can be inhaled as a narcotic, KABC reported.
He described the .40-caliber handgun Guardado had been carrying as an unregistered “ghost gun,” according to the news outlet.
Riots erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting, as well as calls for Deputy Vega to be fired and criminally charged, according to KABC.
Critics also blasted Sheriff Villanueva for allegedly stonewalling law enforcement oversight processes and efforts to hold him and his department accountable, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But LACSD spokesperson Lt. John Satterfield argued the “overwhelming majority” of the information presented in Monday’s hearing had already been released by the department months ago, according to the paper.
“If +90% of what was learned today…was (publicly) actually released by the sheriff months ago, how is he stonewalling accountability?” Lt. Satterfield asked the Los Angeles Times during a text exchange.
Attorneys representing Deputy Vega and Deputy Hernandez have both insisted that the deputy-involved shooting was justified.
The inquest marked the second time the medical examiner’s office has made an unusual move related to the Guardado case, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In July, Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas released Guardado’s autopsy report to the media over the objections of Sheriff Villanueva.
“The unprecedented release of the Andres Guardado autopsy report today by the Medical Examiner-Coroner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, has the potential to jeopardize the investigation, the filing of the case, and any possible future criminal or administrative proceedings,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement after the autopsy was released. “This move will now force the Sheriff’s Department to use court orders to enforce security holds that exist for only one purpose – to prevent tainting witness testimony prior to interviews.”
The LACSD said Lucas had previously “acknowledged succumbing to pressure from the Board of Supervisors and the Office of Inspector General, and has now made the astonishing admission that he sacrificed the integrity of the investigation in a bid to satisfy public curiosity.”
Sheriff Villanueva’s office told the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 10 that he was supportive of conducting an inquest.
The sheriff “is committed to transparency. As such, he previously recommended and invites the process of a medical examiner’s inquest,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement. “This process can be beneficial in bringing to light facts to the public. Medical examiner inquests are conducted to determine manner and cause of death.”
Cooper did not make any findings on Monday, and it is unclear when the proceeding may resume or whether or not additional witnesses will be called to testify, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“When the facts are fully disclosed, we are confident that a jury will deliver justice that reflects how grossly the Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles County officials have failed Andres, his family and the people of the communities they have sworn to serve,” Guardado’s family’s attorney said in a statement on Monday, according to KABC.
The findings of the inquest will be turned over to the newly-elected Los Angeles district attorney, who will determine whether charges will be filed against any of the deputies involved in the incident, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Guardado’s family has also filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County, alleging civil rights violations and wrongful death, KNBC reported.