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Report declares officer's fatal shooting was justified

In January, a Santa Maria police officer killed a fellow officer during his arrest. An investigation has concluded the death saved two sergeants' lives.

June 23, 2012|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • Associated Press
Associated Press (lyn603pd20120622231842/600 )

It happened so quickly, according to a report by prosecutors: A shot, a flash and a struggle as two Santa Maria police sergeants tried to subdue an officer they were trying to arrest.

Alberto Covarrubias Jr. knew he was under investigation for an alleged sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. While working a DUI checkpoint, he backed away from the two sergeants who had come to arrest him, fired a shot, and, in the fight that followed, was fatally wounded by fellow officer Matthew Kline — the best man at Covarrubias' wedding just three weeks earlier.

After a five-month investigation, Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Joyce Dudley concluded that Covarrubias' death on Jan. 28 was legally justified as a measure "to preserve the sergeants' lives."

The report, issued Tuesday, was denounced as a whitewash by an attorney for Covarrubias' relatives, who have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Santa Maria and its Police Department.

"To conclude that executing a fellow police officer at a DUI checkpoint was justified is an outrage," attorney Gilbert Alvandi said in a written statement that expressed skepticism over the Police Department's need for urgency in making the arrest.

In the report, 29-year-old Covarrubias was portrayed as suicidal. He had urged the teenager to deny any relationship with him and told her he would rather kill himself than go to jail.

Suspicion about Covarrubias began to emerge Jan. 26 with a call to police by a friend of the girl's family. The girl met Covarrubias while volunteering with a youth group, the Police Explorers, according to the friend. He would drive her home and text her often, and he gave her a bracelet. At the request of police, another family friend got her to admit "an inappropriate relationship" with the officer.

The next day, Covarrubias was inadvertently alerted to an investigation involving the Explorers by a lieutenant who, overlooking the request of an investigator, revealed it during a routine briefing. That evening, Covarrubias and the girl exchanged anxious text messages: "I'm nervous too baby," he wrote. "Have you said anything?"

Hours later, investigators had the girl call Covarrubias as he was working the checkpoint and say, falsely, that he had made her pregnant.

"Just say you don't know whose it is," he told her. "But like I said, if it gets out that it's mine, if you tell anybody, or this is a setup … I'm done, girl."

As Covarrubias was helping to dismantle the checkpoint at about 1:30 a.m., two sergeants approached him, according to the report. One of them was his cousin, Chris Nartatez, who had questioned the need for an immediate arrest but volunteered to help.

When Covarrubias fired, the sergeants tried to grab his gun. Kline, a traffic officer who had been working the checkpoint, heard Nartatez yell for help and saw the sergeants wrestling someone he didn't immediately recognize. He fired three shots, including two directly into Covarrubias' neck.

"He believed it was the only way he could prevent someone else from getting shot," according to the report.

Only afterward did he realize that the man he killed was his friend.

"What happened?" he asked repeatedly, according to investigators. "What is going on?"

Dudley's decision eliminates the possibility of criminal prosecution in Covarrubias' death. However, the family may still prevail in their lawsuit.

Meanwhile, in the wake of a public outcry, Santa Maria city officials asked the Office of Independent Review, a Los Angeles-based police watchdog group, to conduct an examination of the department. That investigation is ongoing.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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