HUNTINGTON PARK — These are accounts of five of the 30 brutality claims filed against the Huntington Park Police Department in 1984 and 1985. During those two years, the 30-member department had the highest frequency of brutality claims among 11 municipal police departments in the Southeast/Long Beach area.
He was 82 years old, hard of hearing and wore glasses with thick lenses.
So Joseph Ezequiel Aviles may not have realized that the two men yelling at him through his front door on the night of Aug. 26, 1985, were police officers.
Aviles came to the door in red-striped pajamas, carrying a .38-caliber pistol. He had bought the gun after his house had been burglarized four times, family members said. Earlier that evening, family members said, Aviles had fired the gun at a man he believed was a prowler.
Fired Into Ground
This time, according to an eyewitness, the old man fired a shot into the ground before he died in a burst of police shotgun and revolver fire.
"We're convinced that had he (Aviles) heard a bullhorn or seen a red flashing light, he would have welcomed the police in," grandson Thomas L. Carrillo said in an interview.
On April 24, family members filed a $5-million lawsuit against the city in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. The suit also names as defendants Police Chief Geano Contessotto, City Atty. Elwayne E. Smith, Administrative Officer Donald L. Jeffers, Mayor Herbert A. Hennes Jr. and three police officers, William J. Lustig Jr., Dale E. Shields and Ronald Beason.
The events that were to end in a police fusillade began when neighbor Juan Vento went next door to borrow a ladder from Aviles. But when Vento approached Aviles' door, the old man did not recognize him and fired a shot at him, said Juan's brother, George Vento. Juan called the police.
Aviles, who lived alone, liked to drink medium-dry Paul Masson sherry, George Vento said. Once, Vento said, after Aviles had been drinking, he had fired a rifle several times in his backyard. Police came and took the gun from Aviles, George Vento said. The night of the killing, Juan Vento summoned police, believing that they would again disarm Aviles without hurting him, George Vento said. Juan Vento declined to be interviewed.
Another next-door neighbor, Francesca Hernandez, 16, was there on the night of Aug. 26 and said she saw Aviles fire a shot at a man who ran away.
"I asked (Aviles) what happened and he couldn't hear me," she said in an interview. "He went inside. . . . "
Looking Out of Windows
When police arrived, Hernandez and her mother, Maria, and brother Juan, 15, were looking out of their windows.
The police told them to go inside, the three said in interviews. Francesca Hernandez said she asked police what was going on and they told her, " 'It's none of your business, get inside the house.' "
Police did not use a bullhorn or siren, four neighbors said.
Crouched on either side of Aviles' four-foot-long front porch that night were two uniformed officers: Shields, who held his revolver, and Lustig, armed with a shotgun, according to police records. A third officer was in Aviles' front yard and a fourth was in a neighbor's yard.
Shields rattled the front screen door and Lustig shouted, "Aviles, come to the door. Police officers. Come to the door," according to police records. When Aviles came to the door, Lustig said, "He's got a gun in his hand."
Lustig told Aviles to put the gun down and identified himself, according to police records, and Aviles replied: "Who is it?" or "What do you want?" before firing one shot.
'Leave Me Alone'
An eyewitness, who was standing across the street during the shooting, said in an interview that when police ordered Aviles to come to the door, he said, "Go away, leave me alone" several times. When he came to the door, he opened it part way, stuck his gun out, and fired it, pointing toward the ground.
The officers fired.
The shots tore seven holes in the screen door, and 17 in the living room wall, opposite photos of Aviles' four children, his late wife, and his favorite President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Aviles, a short, slight man at 5 foot 2 and 110 pounds, fell back against his open front door and slumped to the floor in a sitting position.
An autopsy report issued May 7 said that Aviles was struck twice in the chest and once in the stomach by .38-caliber bullets and once in the chest by a shotgun blast.
In an interview, Contessotto said the officers believed that Aviles had fired at them. The chief defended his officers: "They didn't have the luxury of discussing different alternatives and this individual's idiosyncrasies.
"I can't project what was in his (Aviles') mind at the time," the chief said. "I don't know whether the old man had a death wish."
Chief Says Officers Cleared
The chief said his officers had been cleared both by an internal investigation and one by the district attorney's office. However, a spokesman for the district attorney's office said the investigation has not been completed.
The coroner's office reported a blood-alcohol level of 0.02% in Aviles, below the 0.1% legal standard for being too intoxicated to drive.
In interviews, family members and neighbors described Aviles as a meticulous, generous man who liked to cook chili for his family and neighbors and who went to swap meets to buy old radios and appliances that he would fix and give away.
Aviles was "the nicest dude," George Vento said. "Everybody borrowed stuff from him all the time. He fed my dogs all the time. It (his death) is just madness."