Relatives of man fatally shot by Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy near Healdsburg demand answers
When David Pelaez-Chavez left his hometown in southern Mexico for Lake County about a year ago, his sights were set on realizing the American Dream.
For him, that meant earning enough money to provide for his two young children who live with their mother in Putla Villa de Guerrero. The town is located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where Pelaez-Chavez, 36, was born and raised, his family said Wednesday.
The youngest of seven brothers and a sister, Pelaez-Chavez told his family that he was living in Lower Lake and had found good work as a farmworker, said Jose Pelaez, his brother.
Though he was far from his native home, family was nearby. One of his brothers and his sister live in Clearlake. Jose Pelaez and another brother call Sonoma County home, Pelaez said.
“From what we knew, he was fine,” Pelaez said of his brother. “He always spoke with us. He never commented about anything (bad in his life).”
Pelaez-Chavez’s life was cut short Friday morning.
He was shot and killed by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who was responding to an 8:20 a.m. report of an attempted break-in at a home on a vineyard property east of Healdsburg.
Pelaez-Chavez was holding a hammer, a rock the size of a cantaloupe and a garden tool similar to a pickaxe when the deputy fired three shots at him from 10 to 15 feet away shortly after 10 a.m., authorities said.
The deputy fired on him after an attempt to subdue Pelaez-Chavez with a stun gun was unsuccessful, authorities said.
Pelaez-Chavez was pronounced dead about 30 minutes later at the site of the shooting.
On Wednesday, the Santa Rosa Police Department, which is investigating the incident, identified the Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who shot Pelaez-Chavez as Michael Dietrick. He’s a five-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office who previously worked for the Clearlake Police Department.
It was while working for that agency that Dietrick shot and killed a burglary suspect accused of attacking him with a steel flashlight in 2016. The Lake County District Attorney’s Office determined a year later that Dietrick was justified in firing his weapon.
Both Dietrick and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Powers, who deployed the stun gun against Pelaez-Chavez and was with Dietrick at the time of the shooting, remained on paid administrative leave Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office said.
The shooting leaves Pelaez-Chavez’s siblings and other relatives mourning his loss and questioning the chain of events that led to his death. Jose Pelaez described his youngest brother as a friendly man driven by the aspirations he had for his family.
“He wanted to give his family a better life,” Jose Pelaez said.
Relatives are skeptical of the official police account of what led up to the shooting, Jose Pelaez said.
Pelaez-Chavez was described as behaving erratically in the moments leading up to and during his encounter with deputies, but he had no history of mental illness or substance abuse, Jose Pelaez said.
If he was in distress, Aurora Castro, Jose Pelaez’s wife, asked why was it necessary to shoot and kill Pelaez-Chavez.
“Why were they hunting him like an animal?” Castro said. “We want to know what happened.”
A call from a homeowner in the 5200 block of Tre Monte Lane set off the search for Pelaez-Chavez, who authorities suspect of using a rock to smash a pane of glass on a door leading into the home.
The homeowner confronted Pelaez-Chavez with a handgun and told him to leave. As Pelaez-Chavez moved away from the home, he got into a pickup that belonged to a worker on the property and drove off, authorities said.
Pelaez-Chavez drove through several vineyard gates on the property and eventually crashed into a ditch in the 5600 block of Tre Monte Lane. Someone in a nearby home then saw him go near a back door while he carried large rocks, prompting that person to confront Pelaez-Chavez with a gun and tell him to leave the property.
Pelaez-Chavez told that person to shoot him, authorities said. At some point, he left and stole a Gator-style farm utility vehicle from a nearby storage building.
He used the vehicle to drive through dirt roads in the neighborhood before crashing again and continuing on foot, police said. Meanwhile, deputies followed his path across steep hillsides and through creeks for about 45 minutes as they attempted to catch up to him.
Deputies eventually encountered him in the area of Franz Creek, where they said he was holding a rock, hammer and pickaxe-style tool, according to the Santa Rosa Police Department, which is investigating the shooting.
Pelaez-Chavez was screaming, yelling and rambling words as deputies told him to drop the items in his hands, police said. Jose Pelaez said his brother did not speak English.
Powers fired his stun gun but it was unclear whether the darts struck him, Sgt. Chris Mahurin, a Santa Rosa Police Department spokesman, said Wednesday.
In the moments before he was shot by Dietrick, Pelaez-Chavez “started making the motions to throw” a rock at the deputies but the rock never left his hand, Mahurin added.
Izaak Schwaiger, a Sebastopol-based lawyer who has filed lawsuits in several police brutality cases in Sonoma County, said the information released by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office and the Santa Rosa Police Department about the shooting so far leaves many unanswered questions.
Schwaiger said he thinks the omissions are telling.
“If the facts of the case justify the use of deadly force, we'd know more than we do now,” Schwaiger said. “I think that the absence of certain information speaks more loudly than the information that they've given us.”
Based on his experience representing the families and victims of multiple excessive force cases in Sonoma County, Schwaiger added “the best indicator of the future is usually the past.”
Pelaez-Chavez’s family has turned to the community for monetary help to send his body back to his mother and children in Oaxaca, where they hope to bury him. One of Pelaez-Chavez’s nephews started a GoFundMe to collect donations.
A vigil for Pelaez-Chavez is planned for Friday at Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square. It is being organized by the North Bay Organizing Project’s police accountability task force and religious leaders caucus, said Karym Sanchez, the nonprofit’s executive director.
Jose Pelaez said several of his relatives, including a brother who lives in Fresno, plan to attend.
“We will have some faith folks out to offer prayer,” Sanchez said. “We want to keep it as a vigil so it feels safer for the family to come and share their stories.”
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