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Suit in Fatal Police Shooting Is Settled

Huntington Beach will pay $2.25 million to the family of man mistaken for suspect. City could have resolved case for far less, attorney says.

August 15, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla and Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writers

Huntington Beach has agreed to pay $2.25 million to the family of a young man fatally shot by police two years ago in a case of mistaken identity. The settlement is the final chapter in a case that fueled tension between police and the city's Latino community.

Antonio Saldivar, 18, was killed in May 2001 after police confused him with a crime suspect they were following. After spotting a man looking into a car window in the Oakview area about 1:30 a.m., police gave chase and ultimately came across Saldivar, who was allegedly holding a toy rifle. Police said they told the young man to raise his hands, but Saldivar, a farm worker, instead pointed the gun at the officer, who shot him.

A federal jury in May awarded Saldivar's family $1 million for the loss of life, $1 million for loss of comfort and $100,000 in lost financial support and reimbursement for funeral expenses.

Four motions in the case were to be heard next week, including motions for a new trial and a request to reduce the verdict by $1 million. The family was expected to request additional money for attorney fees and accrued interest.

Instead, the city settled the case and tacked on $150,000 to the jury's verdict.

"It's a mixed bag," said Ray Brown, attorney for Epifania Huertero, Saldivar's mother. "No amount of money could ever make up for the loss of Mrs. Huertero's son.

"But given the realities of the legal system, they're very satisfied with the outcome," he said.

Assistant City Atty. Scott Field said the city is satisfied with the settlement but remains disappointed in the jury decision. "The shooting was reasonable," Field said. "When someone points a rifle at an officer at close range, he has to react. We thought the jury would see this from the officer's point of view. Obviously, they didn't."

Brown said the city could have resolved the case before the verdict for a fraction of the money it will now pay. In April, the family offered to settle the case for $990,000, he said, and would have accepted $500,000. However, the city remained adamant in its refusal to offer money, Brown said. Field would not comment on whether the city could have settled the case for less.

The officer who shot Saldivar, Mark Wersching, was cleared of wrongdoing by the Orange County Sheriff's Department, the FBI and an internal police investigation.

Wersching was named in two other police misconduct allegations, which ended in settlements totaling $450,000. An officer since 1995, he has been transferred to a desk job.

Brown said Saldivar's family, which moved here from Puebla, Mexico, wants the officer removed from his job.

The shooting set off protests in the Oakview neighborhood and highlighted friction between police and residents of the community. Two years later, those emotions have cooled.

Daniel Cardoza, 17, was a neighborhood friend of Saldivar and remembers him as a funny, hard-working young man who was trying to save money to build a home in Mexico.

"I used to think it was the cops' fault," he said of Saldivar's death. "But I don't blame anybody anymore."

Cardoza has wanted to be a police officer since he was a little boy and even his friend's death at the hands of the police has not tarnished his dream. He said he wants to help his troubled neighborhood, a community he said was outraged after Saldivar's death.

"When it happened, people were mad," said former resident Armando Contreras, 28. "They were saying they wanted justice and if they couldn't trust police, who could they turn to?"

But that rage has subsided, he said, even as the memory of Saldivar's death lingers.

"You don't hear about [the shooting] anymore," he said. "I'm sure they haven't forgotten, but people are living their lives."

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