‘You are going to kill me’: Family, experts criticize Sonoma County Sheriff's Office handling of fatal shooting

At least one police use-of-force expert, a prominent local civil rights attorney and the dead man’s brother all criticized the events captured in the video, as well as the decision to release a polished version without publishing the full, unedited body camera footage.|

As two Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office deputies pursued David Pelaez-Chavez the morning of July 29 through remote and rough terrain outside Geyserville, the immigrant farmworker shouted in Spanish that he feared the officers.

“You are going to kill me!” he yelled at one point as the two deputies pursued him up a ridge line, according to body camera footage released Sunday night by the county.

Five minutes later, Deputy Michael Dietrick shot Pelaez-Chavez three times with his pistol. Almost simultaneously, fellow deputy Anthony Powers deployed his stun gun.

Pelaez-Chavez was bent toward the ground at the time of the shooting.

In the video, sheriff officials say he had dropped one rock and was bending down to pick up a second. But Pelaez-Chavez’s brother, Jose Pelaez, told The Press Democrat Monday it looked to him as if his brother, who was barefoot, was bent over in exhaustion after a 45-minute pursuit through the hilly and at times overgrown area.

At least one police use-of-force expert, a prominent local civil rights attorney and the dead man’s brother criticized the events captured in the video, as well as the decision to release a polished version without publishing the full, unedited body camera footage.

“I don’t want them to cut the video,” Pelaez said. “I want to see it all.”

Fatal shooting

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, 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.

This summary has been updated to clarify the position of of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.

He added that the two deputies should have been able to subdue Pelaez-Chavez without shooting him and accused them of taking the “easy” way out by killing Pelaez-Chavez.

“They killed him cowardly,” Pelaez said, “like an animal.”

A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office said Monday the agency will release the entire body camera footage, minus redacted personal information, but would not provide a timeline.

The agency Sunday released an edited 11½ -minute video containing select footage and produced with the help of a public relations firm. The Sonoma County Sheriff contracts with the Vacaville company for creating critical incident videos, among other matters, according to contracts and other public records obtained by The Press Democrat.

The incident is under investigation by the Santa Rosa Police Department, but the Sheriff’s Office maintains decision-making power on the public release of records, Santa Rosa Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Chris Mahurin said Monday.

The Sonoma County District Attorney will decide whether Dietrick’s use of force was justified, after the California Attorney General declined to make its own review as state law allows.

The Press Democrat has filed public records requests for the complete body camera footage and other records. The agency waived any reason to withhold the complete footage any longer, with the exception of minor redactions allowed by public record law, when it published Sunday’s video, said David Loy, the legal director of government transparency advocacy group the First Amendment Coalition.

“The public has a right to the full truth, not just the selections or the spin,” he said.

A company called Critical Incident Videos helped sheriffs’ officials produce the video, agency spokesperson Misti Wood told The Press Democrat. The department contracts with that company and another firm associated with the same consultant, Laura Cole, to edit video, “provide nonlegal advice regarding production,” and also to review the agency’s messaging around “critical incidents or controversial topics” before publication, according to a January 2020 contract.

In this case, the body camera footage is preceded in the video by text and graphics outlining how Pelaez-Chavez stole a truck, rammed through gates, stole an ATV and was yelling at a homeowner to kill him before deputies located him.

It includes audio from segments of a distressed area resident calling 911 to report a break-in, capturing some of the fear that Pelaez-Chavez generated in the area, though no one was injured, according to officials.

“The man was up here with three big boulders in his hand, and he was asking me to kill him,” one caller tells a dispatcher.

But Izaac Schwaiger, a Sebastopol-based lawyer who has filed lawsuits in several police brutality cases in Sonoma County, criticized the time the video spent on the dead man’s actions before deputies engaged him.

“These kinds of things — all of them — they really have very little to do with the ultimate use of force,” Schwaiger said. “But they do serve a purpose. And that is to vilify and dehumanize the victim before anyone gets to know what happened.”

Schwaiger called the video “propaganda,” and said the public should question taxpayer funds going toward its production and the hiring of public relations consultants generally. Schwaiger, a former Sonoma County prosecutor turned civil rights lawyer, said seeing the limited video indicated “a bad shoot any way, you look at it.”

“I don't normally, but I would go so far as to say this is a criminal event,” he said.

Wood countered that the department creates the edited footage as “a more … understandable way to get information to the public.”

“It’s more digestible for the public to get the info they want rather than wading through hours of bodycam footage and dispatch recordings,” she said. But the agency was not yet ready to release the complete footage for the public to assess on its own, she said, because it was still under review.

It took two weeks to produce Sunday’s video, she said.

Wood declined to discuss the shooting itself, citing the ongoing investigation. But she said the events leading up to an officer’s use of force are relevant information to the public’s understanding as well as the investigations themselves.

“Everything that happens leading up to it is information that a deputy has about whether or not he or she needs to use force,” Wood said.

Policing experts contacted by The Press Democrat had mixed reactions to the video.

The difficult circumstances of the deputies’ pursuit must be taken into account, said Ian Adams, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. He noted that burglary is a serious crime, one that local residents would want addressed, and that the rugged terrain added to the challenges.

“There’s a situation in there where one of the deputies is confronting the suspect in a riverbed,” said Adams, who is also a former police officer.

“You can see the deputy lose his footing. That is a dangerous situation for officers. If you’re slow to respond, it could have terrible consequences. Everything about this situation is extraordinarily difficult.”

More importantly, it would be rash to make a determination based solely on bodycam footage, Adams said. He wants to see, hear and read more about this shooting.

“I think it’s too early to offer opinions,” he said. “We don’t know which resources were or weren’t on the way. You have to be especially careful when applying urban policing lessons to rural settings. I was a city officer. My backup was always 30 seconds to a minute away. In these settings, you’re gonna have to handle it on your own.”

Robert Weisberg, law professor and faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, also empathizes with the deputies as they pursue Pelaez-Chavez in the video.

But it’s questionable whether this qualifies as a justifiable shooting under a law passed in California in 2019, Weisberg said. The new statute, which replaced the old “fleeing felon law,” states that officers must have a reasonable fear that a suspect is threatening deadly force against them or others.

“There certainly is no visual evidence (Pelaez-Chavez) had a gun,” Weisberg said. “Dietrick is really pretty close. I don’t know if it’s 12 feet or 20 feet. But even in this video, which the sheriffs released, I don’t see a lot of basis for thinking he had a gun. Indeed, the action that precipitates the shooting is clearly picking up a rock.

“Then the issue becomes, if there’s no reason to think it was a gun, is it reasonable to believe the throwing of the rock could pose a fatal threat. And that’s a hard one.”

The deputies’ pursuit of Pelaez-Chavez was clearly handled properly, at least from what is evident in the video, Weisberg said. But he wonders if they could have done more to de-escalate.

“There’s a point where the police are doing something nonfatal and clearly legal,” Weisberg said. “If at that point they realize continuing this perfectly legal action could put them in a situation where they have no choice but to shoot, maybe they should forbear taking that action. At least then you don’t kill the guy.”

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, was even more emphatic.

“I don’t see a credible threat to life based on what’s presented,” Clark said. “He’s barefoot. They’ve gone over a mile. It has to be dry, hot. And it’s not pleasant for them to chase him through the woods. But that’s what we do.”

Pelaez underscored that his brother looked tired and afraid following the foot pursuit, in which Dietrick had pointed his firearm at Pelaez-Chavez.

“They were following him and who isn’t going to be afraid with a gun (pointed at them)?” Pelaez said. “Wouldn’t you be afraid if they pointed a gun at you?”

It’s unclear whether Pelaez-Chavez’s shouted fears during the pursuit would have landed with the officers, whose Spanish in the video is limited to yelling single words and phrases that in one case were are not grammatically correct.

At one point, Powers calls up a slope to Pelaez-Chavez with the word “abajo,” which means “down.” From Powers’ gestures, it appears he may have been directing the suspect to drop his weapons. But that might been confusing to Pelaez-Chavez, said Renee Saucedo, director of the Graton Day Labor Center.

“The point of the video where the sheriff kept saying ‘abajo, abajo,’ it’s important that he said this word while at the bottom of a hill. And Mr. Pelaez is at the top of the hill,” Saucedo said.

She has spent parts of her childhood in both the United States and Mexico, and has done translation work in the community for more than 30 years.

“To a Spanish speaker, that could have meant ‘come down, come down.’ And (Pelaez-Chavez) immediately responded, ‘No, because you’re gonna kill me.’ He was afraid.”

Other directions given in haphazard Spanish, like “aqui” (“here”) and “no mas” (“no more”), also may have contributed to the chaos, rather than cutting through it, Saucedo said. With no other verbiage to explain Powers’ intent, they would have been meaningless.

Pelaez said that in the moment leading up to the gunfire, the video showed that his brother was crouched down and was most likely unable to fight back two deputies.

“There, the deputy had a chance to get on top of him,” Pelaez said. “But, no, he said, ‘It’s easier to shoot him and that’s that.’”

Pelaez said neither he nor his siblings were warned that the Sheriff’s Office would release footage of his brother’s death Sunday.

The Sheriff's Office did not inform the family and does not have a policy about contacting next of kin before releasing such videos, Wood said.

Seconds before he is shot, Pelaez-Chavez looked up at the sky and waved his hands in an apparent attempt to get the attention of Henry 1, the Sheriff’s Office helicopter hovering nearby. He again yelled that officers wanted to kill him, as Dietrick’s body-worn camera shows him pointing his firearm at Pelaez-Chavez.

A caption in the Sheriff’s Office video states that Powers fired his Taser at Pelaez-Chavez, “which seemed ineffective.” Officials have previously said the fatal shots followed the use of the taser.

In the agency’s first news release about the incident, officials wrote that “after a standoff with multiple commands to drop the weapon, one deputy deployed his Taser, but it appeared ineffective; the second deputy shot the man.”

The footage released to date is far less clear. Though the footage is shaky as the deputies move around, Powers’ use of his stun gun and Dietrick’s pistol shots appear to happen nearly simultaneously.

This was at least the second time Michael Dietrick had fatally shot a suspect in the line of service. In 2016, while working as Clearlake Police Department officer, he killed a 46-year-old man who attacked him with a flashlight. That shooting was ruled justifiable because Dietrick feared for his life.

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

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