As one-year anniversary of Pelaez-Chavez killing approaches, investigations drag on

Sunday marks 345 days since a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed David Pelaez-Chavez following a foot chase in the rural Knight’s Valley, and the public still does not know whether prosecutors will bring criminal charges against the officer who pulled the trigger.|

Sunday marks 345 days since a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed David Pelaez-Chavez after a foot chase over rugged terrain in the rural Knight’s Valley, and prosecutors still have not indicated whether they will bring criminal charges against the officer who pulled the trigger.

Though the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office received control of the investigation in January, it has yet to announce whether prosecutors believe Deputy Michael Dietrick broke any laws when he shot three times at Pelaez-Chavez. Dietrick killed Pelaez-Chavez — an undocumented immigrant farmworker who was on methamphetamine and acting erratically — when he and Deputy Anthony Powers cornered the man following a 45-minute pursuit in which he ran barefoot through creek beds and over ridges.

The DA is well outside of its own suggested guideline of taking 90 days to conclude criminal investigations into civilian deaths at the hands of local law enforcement officers. Detectives from the Santa Rosa Police Department, which handled the initial investigation, handed the file over to the DA’s office on Jan. 4 — the department passed 180 days on July 1.

Powers fired his Taser at the same time that Dietrick pulled the trigger of his handgun. Dietrick shot Pelaez-Chavez in the left side of his head and chest. There was a third graze wound on his left arm but the coroner did not conclude whether it was a third bullet or the same bullet that struck his chest.

Deputies were called to the area after Pelaez-Chavez broke the window of a rural home and stole a truck. Body camera footage from the chase shows him appearing to be in the grips of severe drug intoxication or a mental health crisis or both, as he waved his arms and shouted his fear that the pursuing officers would kill him.

Department leaders this week reiterated that they are actively at work on the case, even as they declined to provide any comprehensive updates about its timeline. “I can’t guess at when our analysis will complete,” Assistant District Attorney Brian Staebell wrote in an email.

DA Carla Rodriguez said she would like to finish “as soon as possible,” and that prosecutors were moving fast but did not want to rush.

The delay is trying for the dead man’s family, both here and in rural Mexico, said his brother, Jose Pelaez of Healdsburg.

“We’re asking for answers. That’s what we continue to wait for because right now we have nothing,“ Pelaez said in an interview Friday night.

“It’s a horrible feeling because we want justice and we’re waiting for justice and to this day there hasn’t been any,” he said. He did not imagine the judicial processes would last a year, he said.

In Mexico, Pelaez-Chavez’s mother has struggled to grasp his death, Pelaez said, often remarking to him that she kept expecting her other son to walk in the door for dinner. Pelaez-Chavez’s daughter, 5, and son, 9, often struggle, with the boy breaking into tears.

DA officials have informed the family’s attorney, Izaak Schwaiger, that the department has brought in an expert in police use of force to review the case, he said. Schwaiger told The Press Democrat that he did not know who the expert was but questioned the value of such a move, saying that attorneys can often shop for the expert witness that will give them the testimony they want. He added that in his view, the retention of such an expert does not justify the delay.

“I don’t know all the inner workings of what is going with that investigation but I don’t see any obvious reason why it shouldn’t have been concluded months ago,” Schwaiger said.

Rodriguez confirmed she had brought in an outside expert in an interview Thursday but declined to name that person.

Kelsey Vero, a volunteer with the North Bay Organizing Project’s Police Accountability Task Force, said the long delay showed the county still had work to do to deliver transparent law enforcement oversight. “We’re just left in the dark for long periods of time, and there isn’t any transparency,” she said.

“Many parts of this have been slow,“ she said, noting that it took SRPD almost six months to deliver its investigation to prosecutors. The delay in both criminal and administrative investigations left community members to wonder if any changes were being made in the wake of a death captured on body camera footage.

“To us it's a clear case. We watched it on video; we saw what was said and done,“ she said, adding that reform advocates still hoped Rodriguez would file charges against Dietrick.

Slow resolutions of criminal investigations into law enforcement killings is a statewide problem. California Attorney General Rob Bonta, for example, has been criticized for the length of time that his office has taken to resolve the cases it investigates.

The California Department of Justice, which Bonta leads, is responsible for investigating law enforcement uses of force that result in death or serious injury of a civilian who is not armed with a deadly weapon.

Some of those state investigations have stretched on for more than a year after the incidents in question, according to reporting by the nonprofit news outlet CalMatters.

“It’s more important to get it right than fast, but the goal is to get it done right and fast,” Bonta told a CalMatters journalist in May.

Bonta decided the relevant state statute didn’t apply to the Pelaez-Chavez case, saying the man was holding a rock, which his office has labeled a deadly weapon, when Dietrick fired. Family members have disputed that Pelaez-Chavez posed any kind of threat or even that he held a rock at the time of the shooting.

Both former Sonoma County DA Jill Ravitch and the state lawmaker behind the legislation criticized that decision.

Administrative reviews underway

In Sonoma County, family members and the North Bay Organizing Project are planning a vigil for Saturday, July 29, in Old Courthouse Square. The event, which is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m., serves to both mark the one-year anniversary of Pelaez-Chavez’s death as well as to apply pressure on the DA and other law enforcement officials to reach conclusions, Vero said.

“Public pressure and an awareness of these situations is essential to moving cases along and maintaining their importance, because otherwise they can get swept under the rug,“ she said.

Pelaez-Chavez’s family is suing the county and Sheriff’s Office in federal court, alleging wrongful death and excessive use of force.

While the two parallel cases proceed separately, Schwaiger said the delay in the criminal case is beginning to impede progress in the civil lawsuit. For example, he would like to take Dietrick’s deposition but said the deputy would invariably invoke his right against self incrimination in an open criminal case and decline to answer questions.

“We’re getting to the point now where this will start impacting the progress of our case,” Schwaiger said.

Meanwhile, a pair of administrative investigations into whether Dietrick or Powers violated any department policies are also ongoing. Both the sheriff’s department’s internal affairs investigators and the Sonoma County Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach opened concurrent administrative investigations after the 90-day threshold passed.

IOLERO was able to open its investigation in May, after the county reached an agreement with two unions representing sworn staff in the Sheriff’s Office: the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and Sonoma County Law Enforcement Association. The agreement brought the county back in line with the oversight structure envisioned by champions of Measure P, a ballot measure overwhelmingly backed by voters in 2020 to bolster civilian review of the Sheriff’s Office.

Before that April agreement, IOLERO was only allowed to begin investigations after the sheriff’s department concluded its own administrative review, further delaying the results of an independent audit.

Under the new rules, IOLERO could begin its investigation “concurrently” to the sheriff. IOLERO Director John Alden told The Press Democrat in late May that they had already begun investigating the Pelaez-Chavez shooting. IOLERO cannot bring criminal charges but can issue reports providing independent findings, suggestions for policy changes and an outside view into whether the sheriff’s office thoroughly reviewed the actions of its own deputies.

Alden declined to provide updates on the civilian oversight probe as well. “That might spoil the investigation itself,” he said.

Officials from the sheriff’s office had previously told The Press Democrat the agency would not open its administrative review until the criminal investigation finished. Asked again this week, however, department spokesperson Deputy Rob Dillion said internal investigators had opened an investigation alongside IOLERO, per the agreement between the two agencies. He did not offer a timeline for completion.

“Essentially, it takes as long as it takes to do a complete and thorough job” Dillion said in an email Friday.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

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