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Witness says victim of deputies' shooting did not pose threat

The woman says she saw the killing from her window and that the victim's hands were on his head when he was shot, not reaching toward his waistband.

November 28, 2012|By Wesley Lowery, Los Angeles Times
  • Estefani says she saw from her bedroom window sheriff's deputies shoot a man. "I know what I saw," she says. "His hands were on his head when they started shooting."
Estefani says she saw from her bedroom window sheriff's deputies… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

An 18-year-old woman who witnessed an officer-involved shooting of a Culver City man has told investigators that the victim was standing with his hands on his head when deputies shot and killed him.

Her account contradicts Los Angeles County deputies' statement that they fired only after Jose de la Trinidad, an unarmed 36-year-old father of two, seemed to reach for his waistband.

The witness told The Times she watched the Nov. 10 shooting — and the events that led up to it — from her bedroom window. She has been interviewed twice by sheriff's investigators, telling them that De la Trinidad complied with the deputies' orders to stop running and raised his hands to surrender. She contends that two deputies opened fire seconds later, seemingly without provocation.

"I know what I saw," said Estefani, who asked that her last name not be used out of fear of being harassed by media outlets. "His hands were on his head when they started shooting."

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department maintains that the deputies opened fire only after De la Trinidad appeared to reach for his waist, where he could have been concealing a weapon. Authorities did not comment on Estefani's account other than to say it would be included in the final report on the shooting.

Estefani, who lives directly across the street from where the shooting occurred, said that just after 10:20 p.m. Nov. 10, the sound of a car screeching to a stop jerked her attention away from music she was downloading at her small desk.

She turned to the bedroom window and pulled back her dark green curtains.

Then, she said, she saw an unarmed man, a handful of sheriff's deputies and, suddenly, the shooting that remains vivid in her mind.

Two sheriff's deputies had attempted to pull over De la Trinidad and his brother for speeding as they were leaving a family quinceañera. De la Trinidad's brother was driving the car and fled for a few blocks before the car came to a sudden stop in the 1900 block of East 122nd Street in Willowbrook, a residential neighborhood tucked just off the 105 Freeway.

According to the deputies' account, De la Trinidad jumped out of the passenger seat.

His brother, 39-year-old Francisco de la Trinidad, took off again in the car. One of the four deputies on the scene gave chase in his cruiser, leaving Jose de la Trinidad on the sidewalk and three deputies standing in the street with their weapons drawn.

The deputies said Jose de la Trinidad then appeared to reach for his waistband, prompting two of them to fire multiple shots into the unarmed man. He died at the scene.

Unknown to the deputies at the time, Estefani sat perched in her bedroom window, directly overlooking the shooting.

Estefani said De la Trinidad did jump out of the car after it came to a sudden stop. After he ran toward the deputies a few feet, they ordered him to stop and turn around — which he did immediately, she said.

Seconds later, the deputies opened fire, she said.

Estefani said that, frozen in shock, she did not count the number of shots fired by the deputies.

"As soon as I saw him hit the floor, I couldn't look up any longer," Estefani said. "Then I ran downstairs and started to cry."

She was still crying half an hour later when two sheriff's deputies canvassing the area for witnesses came to her door, Estefani said.

The deputies, she said, repeatedly asked her which direction De la Trinidad was facing, which she perceived as an attempt to get her to change her story.

"I told them, 'You're just trying to confuse me,' and then they stopped," she said.

Sheriff's Department officials initially denied speaking to Estefani or any other potential witnesses that night.

But officials now acknowledge that deputies did interview the woman on the night of the shooting, attributing previous denials to a lack of information flowing between various deputies and lieutenants involved in the investigation.

"They conducted a canvass the night of the shooting and two uniformed deputies did speak with her," said Lt. Dave Coleman of the department's homicide division. No other witnesses have been identified, he said.

Investigators re-interviewed Estefani last week.

As with all deputy-involved shootings, De la Trinidad's killing will be subject to investigation by the district attorney, sheriff's homicide and internal affairs bureaus and the Sheriff's Executive Force Review Committee.

The De la Trinidad family plans to pursue litigation against the Sheriff's Department, pending the release of the coroner's report as well as the Sheriff's Department investigation, which must be completed within 90 days.

A private investigator who examined De la Trinidad's body concluded that he was hit with at least seven bullets, said Luis A. Carrillo, the family's lawyer.

The witness said she remains hesitant to venture across the street, where droplets of red candle wax from the makeshift memorial remain caked on the sidewalk and a for-sale sign bears three bullet holes from the shooting.

"My mother told me that this could have been us, our family," she said. "And we would have wanted someone to come forward."

ALSO:

Homicide Report: Jose de la Trinidad

Family of man shot by deputies calls for FBI probe

Widow of man slain by L.A. County deputies defends him

wesley.lowery@latimes.com

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