A break-in, a chase and a tragedy: Bodycam videos capture drama of fatal shooting in Sonoma County

The complete Sonoma County Sheriff’s body camera footage from David Pelaez-Chavez’s death may not dramatically change the public’s understanding of what happened on the morning of July 29, but it provides new details from the perspectives of at least 10 officers on the ground and in the air.

The 11 videos and five audio files were made public Thursday by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and include two angles of the fatal moment when Deputy Michael Dietrick fired three shots at Pelaez-Chavez, who appeared to be bending down to pick up a rock.

The videos begin at 8:37 a.m. on July 29 with Dietrick interviewing a homeowner near Knight’s Valley who’d had a window broken by Pelaez-Chavez, and they end a little more than three hours later as detectives begin to interview residents about the initial call that brought deputies to area.

They also include footage from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s Henry 1 helicopter, as well as from deputies in support roles at staging areas near the scene after the shooting.

The footage shows how all three men — Pelaez-Chavez, Dietrick and Deputy Anthony Powers — were worn out by a long chase of nearly 45 minutes over rough terrain. The videos and accompanying dispatch audio capture the scale and difficulty of the pursuit, as well as the communications problems the deputies experienced in such a remote area.

The audio files indicate that deputies early on considered it likely that Pelaez-Chavez, at the time an unknown suspect, was suffering a mental health crisis. They considered him armed with hand tools and rocks, but did not believe he had a gun.

According to audio from one 911 call, Pelaez-Chavez had asked to be killed. But Pelaez-Chavez also tried to convey to the property owner, in poor English, that “he was being hunted or that someone was coming after him,” according to audio of the call.

“And I said, ‘Who?’” the caller said he responded. “He wouldn’t tell me. He was barefoot.”

Before the foot chase begins, one of the responding deputies discusses with the dispatcher whether the person they’re pursuing could be “5150,” a police code for someone who can be involuntarily committed for being a danger to themselves or others.

A sergeant, other sheriff’s deputies and the crew of Henry 1 all had difficulty tracking the pursuit because of poor reception in the remote ranch land which is in rugged and unfamiliar terrain.

The length of the pursuit is contrasted by the brevity of the final standoff, as the two deputies succeed in flanking Pelaez-Chavez and halt his flight. After a foot chase that lasts close to 45 minutes, only 30 seconds pass from when Dietrick first trains a gun on the visibly exhausted but highly agitated Pelaez-Chavez to when he fires.

The footage from Powers’ body camera explains why Dietrick approached Pelaez-Chavez with a gun drawn instead of his Taser. Toward the end of the chase, as the two deputies moved downhill toward a stream bed near where they would eventually corner the fleeing man, Powers offers to use his Taser and tells Dietrick to rely on his pistol.

“You be my lethal cover,” Powers says in a transmission time stamped at 9:49 a.m., more than an hour and 12 minutes after the first video, from Dietrick’s body camera, begins.

The newly released videos do little to clarify a short, edited video released by the Sheriff’s Office on Aug. 14. In that video, Dietrick and Powers appear to use their respective lethal and nonlethal weapons simultaneously, contradicting initial reports that Dietrick shot only after Powers’ Taser appeared to have been ineffective.

From Thursday’s footage, it does not appear that Dietrick waited on the Taser deployment before firing his pistol, and his recorded comments at the scene offer no clarity.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick declined to comment on the new videos beyond what he has already said about the shooting.

“As I have previously stated, this is an active investigation, and I don’t want my comments to jeopardize the integrity of the independent investigation,” he said

The Santa Rosa Police Department is investigating the shooting, but interviews with both deputies are not likely to be released until the investigation is complete. Investigators are waiting on the medical examiner’s report from the Marin County Coroner’s Office, said a spokesperson, Sgt. Christopher Mahurin.

The videos capture the entire chase, as well as the critical moments after Pelaez-Chavez was cornered.

Dietrick stands on an embankment above a stream bed, using his radio to guide Henry 1 to their location before descending to follow Powers.

Powers, walking along the stream, catches sight of Pelaez-Chavez at 9:58 a.m., according to the time stamp on his body camera video, and wearily attempts to reason with him despite their language barrier.

“Aqui, por favor,” the deputy says, “no problemo.” At that moment, he does not appear to be holding his Taser or pistol as he gestures for the fugitive to drop the tools in his hands.

Pelaez-Chavez, meanwhile, standing barefoot in the stream, waves his arms at the helicopter above and screams unintelligibly. At times he bends over with his hands on his knees in what appears to be an attempt to catch his breath.

Izaak Schwaiger, a Sebastopol-based civil rights attorney who is representing Pelaez-Chavez’s family in a wrongful-death lawsuit, said after reviewing footage that he believes Powers appears to have been taking steps to de-escalate by using what police call “time, talk and tactics.”

Despite a language barrier and a disadvantage being in the creek bed, Powers was attempting to speak to Pelaez-Chavez in Spanish, keeping distance from the subject and using time as an advantage, Schwaiger said.

After about 50 seconds, according to the video, Pelaez-Chavez turns and begins to move away. He briefly stops his retreat for their one successful communication. “Familia?” Powers shouts at the retreating man.

Pelaez-Chavez stops and turns. “Si,” he answers warily. After a brief and unsuccessful exchange, Pelaez-Chavez, a father of two, resumes walking away.

He stops again to wave his arms and pick up a rock.

Powers curses and backs away. The deputy leaves the stream bed and moves along a bank, where Pelaez-Chavez and Dietrick come into camera view.

“Drop it now!” Dietrick yells at Pelaez-Chavez repeatedly, along with “put it down!”

Pelaez-Chavez again raises his arms toward the sky and the helicopter, and yells a phrase in Spanish that can be translated either as “they want to kill me” or “you (all) want to kill me.”

After the flurry of shouting, Pelaez-Chavez bends over, and Dietrick fires a few seconds before 10:01 a.m.

Officials say Pelaez-Chavez had picked up a rock and may have made a motion to throw it. Other observers dispute that he made any attempt to throw a rock, and the video does not appear to show him making a throwing motion.

Powers appears to fire his Taser at the same time if not slightly after Dietrick fired.

Schwaiger said it was misleading for the Sheriff’s Office to claim that the Taser had been ineffective in its initial accounts of the shooting, because the two weapons went off almost simultaneously.

“But the biggest take-away here is there were two very different approaches to police work,” he said. “And one did not involve the use of deadly force, and one did.”

At least one independent law enforcement professional, after viewing the sheriff’s curated video three weeks ago, had serious concerns about the use of lethal force. He was asked to review the new footage by The Press Democrat.

“Nothing has changed,” said Roger Clark, a retired 27-year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department who, in more recent years, has offered expert testimony in dozens of court cases.

Clark praised much of the deputies’ approach during the pursuit.

“There’s good coordination, good radio communications back and forth,” he observed. “Dietrick waits for his partner, and off they go on foot.”

It’s clear from the audio, Clark said, that both helicopter support and a canine unit were on the way, and that Powers and Dietrick felt the suspect had little chance of escaping through the woods.

“They know he’s not gonna get away from them,” Clark said. “He hasn’t attacked anybody. He’s not armed, other than what he can pick up with his hands. Nobody’s hurt. Nobody’s crying for help. He’s probably considered a burglary suspect.

“So is this gonna rise to the level of lethal force? Not per se. Not without him becoming a credible threat to life.”

The body camera footage from both deputies shows Dietrick fired three times. He runs over to the fallen farmworker, rolls him onto his chest and puts handcuffs on his wrists, as Powers asks for rubber gloves.

“Hey, let’s not cuff him yet. Let’s (expletive) work on him first,” Powers says, but the handcuffs are already on. Powers checks the man’s pulse and then directs Dietrick to take the handcuffs off so they can move Pelaez-Chavez’s arms to his side and perform CPR.

They attempt resuscitation for at least 20 minutes, before medical personnel arrive via helicopter. Powers desperately attempts to revive Pelaez-Chavez, at one point screaming, “Come on, come on, let’s go!” as he pumps on his chest.

They believe, momentarily, that they’ve gotten his heart started again. When a medic arrives, Dietrick tells him he believes he shot Pelaez-Chavez in the chest and arm, but that he is also bleeding from his head. The medic does not find a pulse.

In one body camera video, Dietrick is shown sitting on the ground, winded and resting with his arms across his knees, when the medic and other deputies who have arrived on the scene call the time of death for Pelaez-Chavez at 10:29 a.m.

Both deputies’ exhaustion from the pursuit is evident. In the final minutes of Dietrick’s body camera footage, before he was taken out by helicopter, the deputies and a sergeant discuss the difficulty of that chase.

The sergeant explains that other law enforcement officials in the area did not know where the foot chase had led. “We had no (expletive) clue,” where Powers, Dietrick and Pelaez-Chavez were moving, the sergeant says.

Dietrick and Powers do not appear to interact as more deputies arrive on the scene.

At different points in each of their videos, a sergeant cuts the deputies off from discussing what happened which, according to two independent law-enforcement experts interviewed by The Press Democrat, is standard police procedure in order to preserve the integrity of the investigation and to preserve the deputies’ rights.

After investigators instruct the two deputies to turn off their body cameras and turn them over, the deputies are individually flown from the scene using a harness.

One brief video posted from an unidentified deputy’s body camera shows Powers after he has arrived at a staging area not far from the scene. He says little as other deputies discuss “sequestering” him until he is formally interviewed.

In the last video of the sequence, which begins at 11:47 a.m., roughly three hours after the first video started, deputies discuss logistics of getting the keys to Powers’ and Dietrick’s patrol vehicles. Someone off camera mentions that Santa Rosa police are expected to arrive around 12:30.

Another voices says, “And DOJ,” meaning Department of Justice.

A voice asks why DOJ.

“Unarmed,” was the only reply.

Press Democrat reporters Colin Atagi and Nashelly Chavez contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88