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Orange County

Man Killed by Cop May Have Held Toy Rifle

Crime: Huntington Beach officials decline to confirm whether an 18-year-old farm worker brandished a real gun before an officer shot him.

May 07, 2001|DANIEL YI and JASON SONG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A day after a Huntington Beach police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old farm worker, investigators were trying to unravel the chain of events that led to the shooting--including whether the dead man had brandished a firearm or a toy.

Huntington Beach police initially said Antonio Saldivar pointed a rifle at officers about 1:40 a.m. Saturday, moments before one of the officers opened fire. But they declined Sunday to identify the weapon or say whether it was real.

"We are not confirming whether it was a toy gun," Huntington Beach Police Lt. Chuck Thomas said Sunday when asked about published reports that a neighbor's son's toy rifle was confiscated by police at the scene.

Saldivar was shot after a brief foot chase that began in the 17100 block of Ash Street in Huntington Beach, less than a mile from his apartment, police said.

Investigators said Saturday that two officers spotted Saldivar clad in dark clothes peering into a parked car. Saldivar began running, and when "the officers were able to catch up to the subject, they saw he was armed with a rifle. The subject pointed the rifle at one of the officers."

On Sunday, however, Thomas backed away from the earlier statement and would not say whether the rifle was real or a toy. He described it only as "20 inches long, with a blue steel barrel and wooden stock."

Sgt. Steve Doan, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, which is investigating the shooting, also declined to comment Sunday. Police departments routinely refer investigations of shootings involving their officers to other agencies to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Saturday's incident was the third fatal shooting by Huntington Beach police officers since January 1999, Thomas said.

Thomas also declined to name the officer who shot Saldivar, citing department policy and "personal reasons for the officer's sake."

Courts have consistently ruled that such reasons do not outweigh the public interest of full disclosure when a law enforcement officer kills someone. Thomas said he was unaware of such a requirement and added that the officer, who was off-duty Sunday, was expected to return to work.

Saldivar's relatives and friends gathered Sunday at the two-bedroom apartment he shared with six relatives. They described him as an affable, quiet young man who had no criminal history. They said he dropped out of Westminster High School recently to work in strawberry fields in Tustin.

"He's never given us any trouble," his aunt Maricruz Huertero said as she sat next to a small circle of burning candles Sunday. "Most of the time he would watch TV or baby-sit the children. He wanted a simple life. He wanted to get married and have children."

Relatives were baffled by the shooting and said they did not believe Saldivar owned any weapons. They said Saldivar, who habitually left for work at 5 a.m., usually went to bed early. But Friday, just as Saldivar was sitting down for dinner about 9:30 p.m., visitors knocked on the apartment window and beckoned Saldivar to go outside. The relatives did not know who the visitors were.

Saldivar went out, promising to be back soon, family members said. He left his work clothes spread on a cot in the room he shared with his sister and her two young children. When he did not return, they began searching for him.

About 8 a.m., police arrived and told the family that Saldivar was dead, they said.

"It's bad enough they shot Antonio, but it's worse that nobody told us what happened until it was too late," Huertero said. He "died alone."

Saldivar was shot multiple times in the upper torso, Thomas said, and died a short time later at UCI Medical Center in Orange. An autopsy is scheduled for today.

City officials on Sunday cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

"It is always a tragedy for everyone involved, not just the person [who was shot] but for the officer as well," said Councilwoman Debbie Cook, who was informed of the incident by the Police Department on Saturday. "It is terrible to play Monday-morning quarterback in a situation like this."

Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.

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