California Department of Justice officials will not confirm whether they reviewed body-camera footage from Pelaez-Chavez death

The California Department of Justice would not answer a question this week about whether it had reviewed body-worn camera footage from the two Sonoma County deputies who pursued David Pelaez-Chavez.|

About the case

David Pelaez-Chavez, a 36-year-old farm worker, was shot and killed by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Dietrick about 10 a.m. Friday, July 29 after a 45-minute foot chase through rugged terrain near Geyserville.

Deputies had been called to the sparsely populated rural area earlier in the morning to investigate what appeared to be an abandoned car, which turned out to be registered to Pelaez-Chavez.

A short time later, two homeowners called 911 to report someone trying to break into their homes. In one case, authorities said a man identified as Pelaez-Chavez threw a rock through a window of a home but ran away after the homeowner threatened him with a gun.

At least one other homeowner in the neighborhood also pulled a gun, forcing Pelaez-Chavez to flee again.

This time he carjacked a pickup belonging to a workman at one of the homes. The workman tried to stop Pelaez-Chavez and was dragged about 20 feet before letting go. He was not injured.

Pelaez-Chavez then stole an ATV, which he later crashed into a creek.

After deputies came upon the ATV, they began chasing Pelaez-Chavez on foot.

Pelaez-Chavez, who had a prison record stemming from assault and weapons charges more than 10 years ago and had been deported at least once, was barefoot and armed with a large rock a two gardening tools.

According to police accounts, he was standing 10-15 feet from Dietrick and deputy Anthony Powers, who attempted to use his stun gun on him.

Investigators say that when the stun gun appeared ineffective, Dietrick fired three shots.

Dietrick has been with the Sheriff’s Office for five years. In 2016, while working as an officer in the Clearlake Police Department, he shot and killed a 46-year-old burglary suspect named Joseph Louis Melvin.

Authorities at the time said the shooting was justified because Melvin, who was found to be high on methamphetamine and armed with a gun, attacked Dietrick with a foot-long steel flashlight, causing the officer to fear for his life.

The incident was captured on body camera footage.

Both deputies in the July 29 incident have been placed on paid suspension in keeping with standard policy.

Members of Pelaez-Chavez’s family have criticized the sheriff’s office for their lack of transparency in the shooting and questioned why “they were hunting him like an animal.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Sheriff’s office released a video produced by a public relations firm showing selected excerpts from the body camera footage. That video shows deputies attempting to order Pelaez-Chavez to drop to the ground in Spanish.

His reply, in Spanish, was, “You’re going to kill me.”

The state attorney general’s office has declined to investigate the shooting. The local Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach has said it is cannot review the investigation until it is completed.

Officials with the California Department of Justice will not say whether the agency reviewed Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office deputies’ body-worn camera footage before declining to investigate the July 29 shooting of an immigrant farmworker near Geyserville.

Under state law that went into effect last year, the attorney general and the California Department of Justice are required to investigate deadly force by law enforcement officers against unarmed civilians.

In its initial statement, the agency said David Pelaez-Chavez did not appear unarmed. Law enforcement officials say he was holding a hammer, a gardening tool and a rock when he was killed after being pursued by deputies for 45 minutes across rough terrain.

The pursuit ended with Deputy Michael Dietrick firing three rounds from his pistol and killing Pelaez-Chavez as the fugitive bent over in what sheriff’s officials have indicated they believe was an attempt to pick up and throw a rock at deputies standing 10-15 feet away.

Family members, two police use of force experts and local community activists, have questioned whether a thrown rock was a threat necessitating deadly force. Pelaez-Chavez’s brother said his brother, who was barefoot, looked exhausted in the video, and questioned whether police could have subdued him without killing him.

Though the new state law requires the AG to investigate a death where the civilian is deemed unarmed, it does not preclude the department from investigating officer-involved shootings where that isn’t the case.

“We reviewed all available evidence,” a spokesperson from the Attorney General’s media office who did not provide a name wrote, when asked by The Press Democrat if the review had included the body-worn camera footage from the two deputies who chased Pelaez-Chavez, a convicted felon who had been deported from the U.S. at least once, according to federal court records.

But the spokesperson did not respond to a request for a direct answer about whether body camera footage was included.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Santa Rosa Police Department, the agency investigating the shooting, said the evidence they provided the AG’s office in the early days after Pelaez-Chavez’s death did not include body-worn camera footage because those records were still held by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

The city police department “did not provide them with any body cam footage and the (AG’s office investigators) didn’t ask for it either, is my understanding,” Sgt. Chris Mahurin said. Police department investigators had viewed the footage at that point, but control of it was left to the sheriff’s office, Mahurin said.

A sheriff’s office spokesperson did not answer a question about whether they had shared body-worn camera footage.

The state Department of Justice told The Press Democrat as early as Aug. 4, five days after the shooting, that it would not be investigating the incident. On the afternoon of Aug. 14, a Sunday, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office published selective segments of the footage in a highly produced 11 minute, 36 second video interspersed with narrative text and context about Pelaez-Chavez’s alleged crimes in the neighborhood before deputies began to pursue him.

Sheriff spokesperson Misti Wood said Monday there were more than 2.5 hours of relevant body-worn camera footage. The department has so far refused to release the entirety of the footage to The Press Democrat or to make it publicly available.

The sheriff’s office waived any reason to withhold the rest of the footage when it published Sunday’s video, David Loy, the legal director of government transparency advocacy group the First Amendment Coalition, said this week.

The attorney general’s spokesperson also did not respond directly to a question about whether the agency’s decision not to investigate the shooting was final.

“It's important to note that such a determination (not to investigate under the new state law) by our office should not be taken to reflect on any potential liability regarding the incident, whether that's administrative, civil, or criminal,” the spokesperson wrote.

“Bottom line: At this point, the matter is being handled at the local level,” the spokesperson wrote.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88

About the case

David Pelaez-Chavez, a 36-year-old farm worker, was shot and killed by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Dietrick about 10 a.m. Friday, July 29 after a 45-minute foot chase through rugged terrain near Geyserville.

Deputies had been called to the sparsely populated rural area earlier in the morning to investigate what appeared to be an abandoned car, which turned out to be registered to Pelaez-Chavez.

A short time later, two homeowners called 911 to report someone trying to break into their homes. In one case, authorities said a man identified as Pelaez-Chavez threw a rock through a window of a home but ran away after the homeowner threatened him with a gun.

At least one other homeowner in the neighborhood also pulled a gun, forcing Pelaez-Chavez to flee again.

This time he carjacked a pickup belonging to a workman at one of the homes. The workman tried to stop Pelaez-Chavez and was dragged about 20 feet before letting go. He was not injured.

Pelaez-Chavez then stole an ATV, which he later crashed into a creek.

After deputies came upon the ATV, they began chasing Pelaez-Chavez on foot.

Pelaez-Chavez, who had a prison record stemming from assault and weapons charges more than 10 years ago and had been deported at least once, was barefoot and armed with a large rock a two gardening tools.

According to police accounts, he was standing 10-15 feet from Dietrick and deputy Anthony Powers, who attempted to use his stun gun on him.

Investigators say that when the stun gun appeared ineffective, Dietrick fired three shots.

Dietrick has been with the Sheriff’s Office for five years. In 2016, while working as an officer in the Clearlake Police Department, he shot and killed a 46-year-old burglary suspect named Joseph Louis Melvin.

Authorities at the time said the shooting was justified because Melvin, who was found to be high on methamphetamine and armed with a gun, attacked Dietrick with a foot-long steel flashlight, causing the officer to fear for his life.

The incident was captured on body camera footage.

Both deputies in the July 29 incident have been placed on paid suspension in keeping with standard policy.

Members of Pelaez-Chavez’s family have criticized the sheriff’s office for their lack of transparency in the shooting and questioned why “they were hunting him like an animal.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Sheriff’s office released a video produced by a public relations firm showing selected excerpts from the body camera footage. That video shows deputies attempting to order Pelaez-Chavez to drop to the ground in Spanish.

His reply, in Spanish, was, “You’re going to kill me.”

The state attorney general’s office has declined to investigate the shooting. The local Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach has said it is cannot review the investigation until it is completed.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.