LOS ANGELES — The family of a 31-year-old Azusa man fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy four years ago won a $2 million judgement this week in a wrongful death suit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Efrain Lara Gutierrez died at the scene of the shooting, which took place about 1 a.m. Oct. 2, 2009 near Renwick Road and Rockvale Avenue in an unincorporated county area just south of Azusa. He lived with his parents, Eva and Dionicio Gutierrez, at a nearby home.
“They feel like they obtained some justice on behalf of their son. It’s very emotional.” said Woodland Hills-based attorney Dale K. Galipo, who is representing the Gutierrez family.
The judgment came only two days before the fourth anniversary of Efrain Gutierrez’s death.
Sheriff’s officials have maintained that the deputy who fatally shot Efrain Gutierrez, identified in court documents as David Salazar of the sheriff’s San Dimas Station, fired his weapon out of fear for his safety. But Woodland Hills-based attorney Dale Galipo, who is representing the Gutierrez family, argued in a federal civil rights lawsuit that Efrain Gutierrez did not pose an immediate threat to the deputies when shot.
Sheriff’s officials said deputies confronted Efrain Gutierrez and tried to detain him and another man on suspicion of breaking into cars in the area.
When cornered, Gutierrez “lunged towards the deputy with a knife in his right hand,” officials from the Sheriff’s Headquarter’s Bureau said the day of the fatal shooting. “Fearing for his safety, the deputy fired several shots at suspect (Gutierrez), striking him.”
But Galipo said four key factors contradicted the sheriff’s version of events.
“We proved the distance was at least 28 feet when the first shots were fired,” the attorney said.
Gutierrez was shot five times, Galipo said. “The shots all had a back-to-front trajectory, with two shots in the back.”
Five shots were fired by the deputy, and all five struck Gutierrez, Galipo added. In addition to the two gunshot wounds to his back, he was shot in the shoulder, neck and side.
A 20-foot blood trail at the shooting scene led from the spot where Gutierrez was first shot toward a gate, Galipo said, indicating he was moving away from the deputy when shot, not toward the deputy as stated by the sheriff’s department.
And in Salazar’s depositions, Galipo said, the deputy testified that he saw an object in Gutierrez’s hand when he opened fire, but could not identify it.
A knife was recovered from the scene of the shooting, investigators said.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department strongly disagreed with the jury’s decision.
“We are right now preparing post-trial motions,” he said. “We’re also going to look at all the legal options, and they very well may include an appeal of this decision, which we disagree with entirely.”
“We stand behind our deputies and their actions,” Whitmore said.
Gutierrez, who was armed with a knife and had methamphetamine in his system posed a threat to both deputies and the public, he said.
“They did what they had to do,” Whitmore said. Not only were the deputies endangered by Gutierrez at the time of the shooting, “although this was a tragic result, and it is, they may have saved lives,” Whitmore said.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office reviewed the shooting and determined not to file any criminal charges against Salazar.
“We conclude that LASD Deputy David Salazar was placed in reasonable fear of imminent danger of death or great bodily injury by (Gutierrez’s) actions and acted lawfully in self-defense when he used deadly force,” Deputy District Attorney Amy Pellman Pentz wrote in the D.A.’s office findings. “We are therefore closing our file and will take no further action in this matter.”
Galipo acknowledged that Efrain Gutierrez had methamphetamine in his system, but said the amount of the drug found in his system was low.
The four-man, four-woman jury deliberated for a day and a half before unanimously deciding in favor of the Gutierrez family and awarding them $2 million in damages, Galipo said.
Gutierrez, who was unmarried and had no children, was working as a gardener at the time of his death, Galipo said.
PHOTO of Efrain Gutierrez courtesy of the Dale Galipo Law Offices