Federal officials said Thursday that they have launched a separate criminal investigation into the fatal shooting last month by Huntington Beach police of an 18-year-old with a toy gun.
FBI agents contacted Orange County Sheriff's Department investigators Wednesday as they sought to determine whether police violated Antonio Saldivar's civil rights when he was gunned down on a dark street in the city's Oakview area.
The announcement of the FBI's probe follows revelations this week that contradict the original police version of the May 5 shooting, which has ignited anti-police protests in the predominantly Latino neighborhood.
At first, police said a Huntington Beach officer saw Saldivar peering into a car, began chasing him and finally shot him when the teenager pointed what turned out to be a toy rifle. But now investigators believe the officer was chasing another man, lost him briefly and then came across Saldivar holding the toy.
In another development, sheriff's officials said Thursday that investigators were unable to find any fingerprints on the toy rifle.
Forensic experts said exams of weapons often fail to find fingerprints. But the announcement led relatives of Saldivar and others to again question the police account.
"As the Huntington Beach Police Department's version of events evolves, it seems less and less likely that Mr. Saldivar at any time had a toy gun, much less pointed it at an officer," said Timothy Black, an attorney for Saldivar's mother.
Huntington Beach police acknowledge that their original account of the shooting was mistaken. But a department spokesman also cautioned against jumping to conclusions that officers acted improperly.
"The fact that there are no fingerprints on the gun is not indicative of any kind of conspiracy," said Huntington Beach Police Lt. Chuck Thomas. "We need to wait until the conclusion of the investigation."
Meanwhile, sheriff's officials said the lack of fingerprints was hardly a surprise. The surface of the toy gun is rough, making it less likely that prints will be left, they said. And, they added, there is no evidence that any prints were erased, which probably would be detected by forensic tests.
"It's a porous, weathered surface," said sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino. "Not even the kid who the gun belonged to had prints on it."
Sheriff's investigators are expected to give the results of their probe to county prosecutors in the next few weeks. Prosecutors then will determine whether the shooting was a justified homicide. To make this finding, they must conclude that the officer feared for his life.
Federal investigators, meanwhile, probably will spend much longer reviewing the case. They will try to determine if Saldivar's federal civil rights were violated and if police officers should be held criminally responsible.
Last month, the U.S. attorney's office asked the FBI to investigate what happened in Huntington Beach, said U.S. attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek.
"We don't have any particular evidence that there are any civil rights violations in this incident," Mrozek said. "However, we do think that there is enough to warrant federal scrutiny."
According to the latest police account of the shooting, Officer Mark Wersching and a patrol partner were driving along Ash Street about 1:40 a.m. when they saw Brigido Mendez, an alleged gang member, peering into a parked car.
Without recognizing Mendez, Wersching jumped out of his police cruiser, called for Mendez to stop and then chased him, police said. The pursuit took the pair through nearby backyards and over fences until the officer eventually lost sight of Mendez.
It was while Wersching was walking back to where the chase began, police now say, that the officer first spotted Saldivar crouching with what appeared to be a rifle and fired.
Since the shooting, tension between police and residents has grown in the Oakview neighborhood, one of the city's poorest.
Some residents have complained of police heavy-handedness. Others question why police shot Saldivar, a farmhand from Mexico who had no criminal record.
The Orange County Human Relations Commission has formed a task force devoted to soothing community relations. But commission officials acknowledge that distrust remains.
"There is a certain level of fear" among residents, said the commission's executive director, Rusty Kennedy.
Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this report.