Yolo County released records Friday of a bitterly disputed officer-involved shooting case from 2009, providing new details of three deputies recounting how a 26-year-old farm worker they encountered threatened one of them with a knife and forced them to open fire.
“He was trying to kill me,” Yolo sheriff’s Sgt. Dale Johnson told investigators looking into the April 30, 2009, shooting death of Luis Gutierrez Navarro.
All three plainclothes deputies were cleared of wrongdoing in the shooting at the time, and a federal court jury hearing a wrongful death case brought by Navarro’s parents also found in the deputies’ favor.
The case was controversial at the time, with hundreds of protesters marching to demand answers and questions about whether Navarro actually had a knife when he was shot.
Eventually, the state Attorney General’s Office cleared the three of wrongdoing, but the case spawned the creation of an independent civil rights panel that began studying allegations of abuse by gang enforcement teams in the county.
Friday’s release of 102 pages of transcripts and reports into the shooting mark the first disclosure of such records by Yolo County under SB 1421, the state’s new law requiring law enforcement agencies to make public records of officer-involved shootings or disciplinary cases against officers.
The release also highlights the legal battles still ongoing over the law, which took effect Jan. 1 and is being followed in different fashions by police agencies across California.
Yolo County released its records without any redactions, while the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office has released four cases with numerous names or, in some cases, entire pages blacked out.
The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times sued Sheriff Scott Jones to force release of the records, and Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steven Gevercer ruled last week that Jones’ office had violated the state’s public records act in responding to the new law.
Karl Olson, the attorney representing the newspapers, has since filed a proposed order with the court to declare that Jones’ office must release records sought under SB 1421 “forthwith without redactions.”
“If it were a Social Security number, that would be one thing,” Olson said in an interview Friday. “But to have widespread redactions that prevent the public from knowing what really happened in an officer-involved shooting, that is completely contrary in my view to the legislative intent to SB 1421.”
Redactions made by Jones’ office in the latest releases include blacking out the name of a suspect shot by deputies and hiding the names of investigating officers, firefighters who responded to a scene and a nurse who provided medical care.
One document included 6½ pages that were completely blacked out, and Sacramento County is arguing that some redactions “are mandatory.”
“I can see no argument to demand a crime victim’s identity or medical information,” Deputy County Counsel Peter Zilaff wrote in email to Olson on Tuesday. “In addition, attorney‐client and doctor‐patient privileges of the Evidence Code and protections of Art. I Sect. I of the California Constitution require redactions.
“The Court will also retain jurisdiction if any concerns to such redactions do arise.”
Yolo’s release of its records without any information being withheld provides the most detailed accounts to date of the shooting of Navarro as he walked on Gum Avenue near the State Route 113 overpass in Woodland.
Three plainclothes deputies working a gang enforcement effort – Johnson, Deputy Hector Bautista and Deputy Hernan Oviedo – saw Navarro walking and stopped to question him because “his clothing and shaved head is consistent with what is being worn by known gang members,” a June 29, 2009, report on the shooting states.
Johnson got out of the car and identified himself to Navarro, and Navarro began running, the documents say.
“When they made the initial contact, Navarro fled on foot and Sergeant Johnson and Deputy Oviedo pursued him on foot,” the documents say. “When Sergeant Johnson caught up to him near the top of the overpass, Navarro pulled a knife and tried to stab/slash Sergeant Johnson.
“Both Sergeant Johnson and Deputy Oviedo drew their handguns and fired at Navarro hitting him one time.”
The officers fired a total of six shots, and Navarro later was pronounced dead at Woodland Memorial Hospital. The documents say tests detected the presence of methamphetamine in his system and that he had a gang tattoo.
Navarro’s family told The Bee at the time that he was walking home from a DMV office after applying for a new driver’s license at the time and was only a block from home when he was killed while his mother waited to have lunch with him. They also said his only prior trouble with law enforcement involved speeding tickets.
“My son never hurt anybody,” his mother, Irma Navarro, said after her son’s funeral. “I just don’t understand any of this.”