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AG’s Office declines to investigate deputy’s fatal shooting of Lake County man

The California Attorney General’s Office will not investigate last month’s fatal shooting of a Lake County man by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy.

According to a statement issued this week by the state agency, the July 29 killing of David Pelaez-Chavez does not meet the criteria established by a new law that permits the attorney general’s office to investigate a local officer-involved shooting.

“Given the totality of the circumstances, our office determined the (Pelaez-)Chavez matter did not qualify for our review under AB 1506,” an email from the agency’s press office said in response to an inquiry from The Press Democrat.

The measure, which took effect last year, specifically addresses cases where a law enforcement officer has killed an unarmed person, which is legally defined as someone without a deadly weapon in their possession.

In its statement declining to review the Pelaez-Chavez shooting, the attorney general’s office said loaded firearms, switchblade knives and metal knuckles are considered deadly weapons under the law. Everyday items used in a manner that could result in death or serious injury also fall into that category.

Examples of such objects include knives, screwdrivers and rocks, the office added.

According to police accounts, Pelaez-Chavez had rampaged through a rural neighborhood, carjacked a truck and dared a frightened neighbor to shoot him before leading the deputies on a 45-minute vehicle and foot chase.

Deputies Michael Dietrick and Anthony Powers eventually caught up to him in a forested area on private property about a mile from a home in the 5600 block of Thomas Road in Geyserville.

They “could hear him screaming and yelling, rambling words and phrases, and they were trying to communicate with him to drop his weapons,” said Sgt. Chris Mahurin, a spokesperson for the Santa Rosa Police Department, which is conducting a criminal investigation into the shooting.

Powers tried to stun Pelaez-Chavez but it had no effect. Authorities said it was unclear if the darts of the stun gun struck the 36-year-old farmworker .

A Lower Lake resident, Pelaez-Chavez was holding a hammer, a garden tool — similar to a pickax — and appeared to be preparing to throw a large rock at deputies when Dietrick shot him from about 15 feet away, Mahurin said.

Other reviews ongoing

While state prosecutors have declined to investigate the shooting, other local probes into the incident, including Sonoma County’s independent law enforcement watchdog office, are either underway or expected in the future.

Mahurin said Santa Rosa police investigators will forward their findings to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

From there, prosecutors will review the information and determine whether deputies were justified in their use of force.

The police department’s investigation includes gathering background information about those involved in the shooting, conducting interviews with other deputies and any other witnesses, as well as collecting the medical examiner’s report for Pelaez-Chavez, Mahurin said.

The Marin County Coroner’s Office is compiling that piece of the investigation for this case, he added.

Critical incidents should be investigated within 90 days, according to county protocol, though additional time could be needed in unique circumstances.

“I know this is a priority case right now ... but usually it does take a while since the autopsy and toxicology report, those take time to come in,” Mahurin said.

An internal administrative review into whether the deputies followed Sheriff’s Office policies and procedures, is also underway, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Misti Wood said.

A more thorough probe

A June agreement between Sonoma County and two unions representing Sheriff’s Office employees permits the county’s law enforcement oversight agency, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, to conduct its own investigation into a use-of-force incident once the administrative review is done, said Garrick Byers, the watchdog agency’s interim director.

This was granted to the oversight agency in 2020, when Sonoma County voters passed Measure P.

The measure promised both an expansion of the office’s powers and resources, though the state’s Public Employee Relations Board rejected parts of the measure in June 2021 after finding they violated the collective bargaining rights of Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies.

While the agreement, earlier this summer, between the county and the unions clears a way for the voter-backed expansion of civilian oversight, Robert Edmonds, a local police accountability activist, said the deal doesn’t reflect what was initially envisioned by voters: investigations by the county’s watchdog agency that happen concurrently with the criminal and administrative reviews of deputy-involved shootings.

“(The agreement) effectively gutted one of the major provisions of Measure P, what the intent of it was,” Edmonds said. “They can’t have any active part in the, sort of, helping or informing the investigation while it’s in process.”

Byers said that in reaching this most recent deal, the county agreed with the unions’ interpretation of Measure P’s language, which OK’d an independent investigation but only after the completion of an internal review by the Sheriff’s Office.

While the watchdog agency already conducted reviews of cases that involved deputies who used deadly force prior to the passage of Measure P, Byers said an independent investigation would allow the office to conduct a more thorough probe of these kinds of incidents.

“If (the watchdog agency’s) investigation indicated what the Sheriff’s Office did was complete and sufficient, there’s no reason for us to investigate something further. If we doubt if it’s complete, we would go forward.”

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for releasing body-worn camera footage and audio recordings of the incident per a law that went into effect in 2019.

Assembly Bill 748 requires those disclosures after critical incidents involving force by an officer that results in death or great bodily injury, or whenever an officer fires their firearm. The information is to be made public within 45 days unless doing so “would substantially interfere with an active investigation,” the law says.

Wood, the Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, did not specify a time frame for when the release would occur, though records personnel with the Sheriff’s Office indicated the agency hoped to publish the footage within the next two or three weeks.

Both deputies activated their body-worn cameras, which were on throughout the incident, Wood said.

They remained on administrative leave as of Wednesday, Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Juan Valencia said.

“We need to review and redact private information from witnesses, victims, etc. before we can release the footage publicly,” Wood wrote in an email. “This takes time.”

Staff Writer Matt Pera contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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