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Mother of teen fatally shot by DEA calls for policy changes

August 22, 2013|By Jill Cowan
  • Carol Champommier with her son, Zachary, who was shot by law enforcement officers in 2010.
Carol Champommier with her son, Zachary, who was shot by law enforcement…

The mother of a high school graduate slain by drug enforcement agents in 2010 said after a federal court hearing Wednesday that policies allowing authorities in plainclothes to debrief in public should change.

It was during one such meeting in a Studio City parking lot that Carol Champommier's son, Zachary, was shot after driving into a sheriff's deputy.

"Debriefing in parking lots: bad idea," she said. "Debriefing in plainclothes: bad idea. Driving unmarked cars: worst idea."

At the hearing, U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald awarded $2 million to Champommier and another $1 million to Zachary's father, Eric Feldman, but also determined authorities were not negligent in their actions.

The 18-year-old's slaying sparked outrage among the teenager's family and friends, who described him as a "band geek" and not someone who would intentionally confront authorities.

The parents had alleged in a wrongful death and battery lawsuit that the agent and deputy recklessly shot at their son, who they said posed no reasonable threat.

Zachary Champommier saw men dressed in street clothes scuffling with a friend he'd come to meet in the parking lot. He accelerated out of a spot -- how quickly is in dispute -- striking the deputy.

In the lawsuit, which was tried earlier this year, Champommier's parents claimed their son was trying to escape danger. Law enforcement officials have said he intentionally struck the deputy.

The men turned out to be members of a multiagency task force, fresh from serving a search warrant. They had suspected his friend of attempting to break into cars.

In the heat of the moment, Fitzgerald said while summarizing his verdict, federal Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Peter LoPresti and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Brewster could have reasonably believed Brewster was in grave danger.

But the judge determined the two should not have fired their weapons at Champommier's car because shooting at a moving vehicle would not have helped their predicament.

Carol Champommier told reporters that though she was pleased with the verdict, the loss of her only child overshadowed the legal victory.

"I miss my son," she said. "I feel a sense of relief because this part is over, but it's never going to be enough for me."

One of her attorneys, Gary Dordick, said that had the trial been heard by a jury, the outcome may have been different.

Because the U.S. government was the only named defendant in the lawsuit, the case went to a bench trial, meaning it was decided by the judge.

"Judge Fitzgerald is an extremely bright judge," he said. "But no matter how smart a judge is, he can't do justice to the emotional loss."

But Zachary's longtime close friend, Kenzie Bakr, said she felt validated by the ruling.

"We've been waiting three years for answers," she said. "I'm usually a pessimist, so it was great to be proven wrong."

Officials with the U.S. attorney's office are reviewing the ruling and may consider an appeal, Central District of California spokesman Thom Mrozek said.

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jill.cowan@latimes.com

Twitter: @jillcowan

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