Orange County prosecutors announced Friday they will not file criminal charges against two Santa Ana police officers involved in the controversial shooting of an unarmed man four months ago.
Witnesses to the May 15 wounding of Santiago Valencia Ayala, 23, initially claimed that he took refuge inside a neighbor's home and was gunned down while trying to surrender empty-handed.
But an investigation by the district attorney's office found evidence supporting claims by officers that Ayala approached them holding a black flashlight that they mistook for a weapon, prosecutors said.
The probe concluded that Ayala appeared at first to surrender but then darted back inside the dimly lit home, only to reemerge wielding the flashlight like a pistol, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Ebrahim Baytieh.
"When the officers fired at Mr. Ayala, he was holding what reasonably appeared to them to be a weapon," Baytieh said. "The evidence does not indicate that the officers committed any crime."
Baytieh said Ayala--who had been due to return to jail the day of the shooting for using drugs while on probation--shouted at officers immediately after the shooting to "Kill me!"
District attorney's investigators recovered a metal flashlight from the hallway where Ayala fell wounded, Baytieh said. The light belonged to the family who lived at the home, he said.
Police officials welcomed the prosecutors' decision, saying they too had cleared Officers Rodolfo Reynoso and Cpl. Eric Rimat of any wrongdoing in a separate internal investigation.
But Ayala's attorneys disputed the district attorney's findings, saying that witnesses insisted Ayala was surrendering when police opened fire.
"It was unjustified," attorney Douglas Vining said of the shooting. "Had the police been trained better, they could have taken . . . him into custody without having to shoot him."
Five bullets struck Ayala in the chest, shoulder and head, Vining said. In the months since the shooting, Ayala faces roughly $1 million in medical bills, Vining added. A large portion of Ayala's stomach was blown apart in the shooting, and a bullet remains lodged in his skull.
Ayala and his family filed an excessive-force claim against the city of Santa Ana, but the city rejected it in June. Vining said they family plans to file a civil-rights lawsuit soon.
Ayala was shot the morning he was supposed to turn himself in to his probation officer so he could be returned to jail, according to prosecutors. The alleged gang member had tested positive three times for drug use while on probation.
According to Baytieh, Ayala begged his probation officer not to send him back to jail. The last time Ayala had been in jail, he was attacked by rival gang members and was afraid of being assaulted again, Baytieh said. But his probation officer was adamant.
Ayala never appeared for his 9 a.m. probation appointment. Instead, police said they spotted him a few blocks south of downtown, allegedly trying to buy drugs.
Officers chased Ayala through backyards, over fences and eventually into the home of Juan Martinez on Camille Street. There, Martinez watched the shooting unfold from his front porch.
In an earlier interview, Martinez told The Times that Ayala shuffled toward police with his arms by his side and nothing in his hands.
Officers screamed at him to put his hands up. Then the shooting began.
But Baytieh said Martinez's account does not necessarily contradict that of the officers.
Martinez, he said, told district attorney's investigators that he was looking at the officers--not at Ayala--when they opened fire.
Officer Leo Rodriguez had a better view of the shooting, Baytieh said.
Rodriguez told investigators that Ayala appeared to surrender but then quickly doubled back into the home and reemerged with the flashlight, Baytieh said.