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SWAT Team Said at Fault in Death

Oxnard: The D.A.'s office also blames the victim's behavior for the tragedy, but says officers lacked training and communicated poorly.

March 15, 1997|SCOTT HADLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A "tragic misinterpretation of events" by police officers and "contentious behavior" by Larry Pankey led an Oxnard SWAT team marksman to shoot and kill Pankey outside his home in January, according to a report issued Friday by the Ventura County district attorney's office.

The 31-page report ruled that Senior Officer Scott Hebert was justified in shooting Pankey, who had told a negotiator he would not hesitate to fire on police and had reached for his waistband just as officers were attempting to make an arrest.

But the report also states that Hebert mistook shots his fellow officers fired from a nonlethal weapon for an exchange of gunfire between Pankey and the police. The report criticized the SWAT team's lack of training in the use of such weapons and the poor communication that day.

The Jan. 13 shooting ended a four-hour standoff, which started when officers responded to a call from Pankey's 8-year-old son that his parents were having a heated argument in which a window was broken and household items were thrown.

Hebert, a 31-year-old sharpshooter with the SWAT team, had been stationed across the street providing cover for the officers trying to make the arrest.

Although Pankey, 36, was unarmed, officials from the district attorney's office said Hebert had fired his weapon because he believed Pankey, who had brandished a gun at officers early in the incident, was still armed and engaged in a gunfight with officers.

"This misinterpretation of events was due, in part, to less than precise communication between the police officers at the scene and Mr. Pankey's refusal to submit to lawful orders by the police," said the report, written by Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. James Ellison.

"The evidence shows that Officer Hebert acted lawfully when he shot and killed Mr. Pankey," Ellison concluded in the report.

Victor Salas, a lawyer for the Pankey family, agreed that the Jan. 13 shooting was a result of "miscommunication," but he said the report also begs the question of why the stand-off escalated to the point that officers felt Pankey had to be killed.

"We agree with the conclusion that Officer Hebert can't be found criminally negligent," Salas said. "He's not guilty of murder. But the report does not give the reason for the escalation."

Salas has filed a $1.5-million claim against the city on behalf of Pankey's wife and three sons.

Oxnard police officials must still conduct an internal review of the incident to ensure that procedures were properly followed. This marks the second time in a year that the district attorney's office has investigated an Oxnard SWAT officer for a fatal shooting. The prosecutors' report on Sgt. Dan Christian's March 13 shooting of fellow team member Jim Jensen in a botched drug raid also criticized SWAT team planning and training.

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After the Pankey shooting, family members said he was merely waiting for police to leave. He did not surrender because he was afraid the police would beat him, they said, and he had remained on the front lawn so that officers would know that he was unarmed and not a threat.

During the standoff, though, he had moved several rifles and a handgun into the cab of his pickup truck.

Transcripts of a phone conversation Pankey had with a police negotiator just before the shooting show that he was adamant about "standing his ground," because he felt he had done nothing wrong and that the police had wronged him in the past and would do it again.

"My rights are I can defend my property, and nobody can come on my property that I don't [want] on my property. Now that's the law," Pankey said to Officer Mindy Morter, a negotiator during the stand-off. "I have not pointed a gun at nobody or nothing else. "

Pankey didn't want to give up because he said he couldn't trust what police were saying to him.

Although Pankey kept telling the negotiator that he did not have a gun on him and that the weapons in his truck were unloaded, he also repeatedly made ominous sounding threats.

Hebert, the report said, fired a single shot from his covered position across the street, striking Pankey in the chest and killing him.

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