Written by Brett Kelman and posted at “the Desert Sun”. Brett sent this to me with the hopes of getting some more eyes on it as this civil case heads to trial. It’s a crazy story of officers who claim to be concerned with public safety, but jump into a moving vehicle and then shoot the guy for escalating the situation! Read Brett’s write up, you can’t make this stuff up, such a tragedy.
by Brett Kelman
More than two years after a fatal police shooting in Palm Springs, newly unsealed law enforcement documents reveal that the aggressive behavior of one officer left his partner with “no choice” but to pull the trigger, ultimately sealing the fate of a High Desert Marine.
This revelation comes directly from the statements of two bicycle officers who shot Cpl. Allan DeVillena II on Nov. 10, 2012. Police interviews with these officers were made public for the first time this month, showing that the officers escalated the confrontation with DeVillena to a matter of life and death.
DeVillena, 22, was shot six times while attempting to flee from officers Mike Heron and Chad Nordman in the public parking garage in downtown Palm Springs. DeVillena, a drunk driver, ignored officers’ commands to stop, and allegedly struck Heron with the front bumper of his car.
The two officers were cleared by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office last year. However, the D.A.’s review only examined whether the officers committed a crime during the shooting and did not measure the quality of their police work.
The newly released documents show that the confrontation with DeVillena became dangerously escalated when Nordman attempted to stop the Marine’s car by jumping through the passenger-side window. According to the new documents, Heron did not see his partner jump through the window, so he assumed Nordman had been pulled into the car against his will and was under the mistaken impression that Nordman was being attacked. As a result, Heron opened fire.
“The way he was in the car, I thought for sure that they were going to kill him,” Heron said, according to a police interview transcript. “You know, I had no choice.”
The discovery that Nordman’s jump into the car prompted the shooting comes from a Desert Sun analysis of more than 1,000 pages of law enforcement documents, obtained exclusively by the newspaper through the cooperation of the D.A.’s office. After reviewing these documents, the newspaper asked three national law enforcement experts for their opinions on the officers’ actions.
All three experts agreed that Nordman’s dive into the fleeing car made the confrontation worse, not better. If the officer had not jumped into the car, putting himself in danger, it is unlikely a shooting would have occurred at all, the experts said.
“If someone is leaving, the last thing you do is stand in front of the car or leap into it,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a deadly force expert at the University of South Carolina.
The DeVillena shooting was an extreme example of “officer-created jeopardy,” Alpert said.
The classic example is an officer who reaches into a suspect’s car to cut the engine, exposing himself to attack, ultimately making a routine traffic stop more dangerous for everyone. Reaching through a car window is a mistake that cops make time and time again, Alpert said, but the DeVillena shooting was the first time that he has ever heard of an officer jumping through a car window.
“It’s a horrible situation the police officer is in because I’m sure he wants to stop this guy from driving away drunk, but unfortunately diving in the car makes the situation worse,” Alpert said. “And at the time the officer pulled the trigger, he may have had a reasonable fear for his life, but with that said, it was his actions that created the jeopardy.”
But diving into the fleeing car was completely unjustifiable, said David Thomas, a senior research fellow at the Police Foundation, a Washington D.C. nonprofit.
“If this had been a rape in progress, or a major felony where life is in danger, then I could see somebody making the decision — which is still poor — to jump into that car,” Thomas said. “But this isn’t a felon. There is no violence here. At worst, the guy is a drunk driver.”
Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, took his criticism a step further. O’Donnell said he could not imagine “any rationale” for Nordman to jump through the window, however he also said the officer’s first mistake was drawing his gun at all.
Police cadets are trained not to pull their pistol unless they expect to use it, O’Donnell said. No police officer should approach a drunk driver expecting to use deadly force, O’Donnell said.
“When the initial approach is initially bad, it can lead to a crescendo of bad events after the initial missteps,” O’Donnell said. “As a peace officer, you have to use sound judgment not to make things worse. This is a bit of a freak ending, but in some ways, the initial missteps foreordained the ending.”
Although law enforcement experts were critical of Nordman’s aggression, it is unknown whether the officer was disciplined for jumping into the fleeing car. An administrative investigation into the shooting — which examined whether the officers followed police policy — has been kept private.
Even if the officers were disciplined, it is clear they weren’t fired. As of today, both Nordman and Heron continue to work for the police department.
Neither officer would consent to an interview. William Hutchinson, president of the Palm Springs police union, said the officers are unwilling to speak to The Desert Sun about the shooting.
“When the time is right, we will tell the story with the true facts in our own media forum and not through your or the Desert Sun’s forum,” Hutchinson wrote in an email.
Although the DA’s office has cleared Nordman and Heron of all criminal culpability, the DeVillena family has sued the officers and the Police Department in federal court, arguing the shooting was unjustified.
Palm Springs paid out a $52,500 settlement in a discrimination lawsuit as a result of the 2009 Warm Sands sex sting, in which Nordman went undercover to bait gay men into exposing themselves in public. The city also paid $125,000 to Benjamin Meza, a bystander who was accidentally shot after Nordman and two other officers opened fire on a fleeing suspect in January 2013.
“Why’d you jump in that window?”
Although Nordman and Heron declined to be interviewed, the statements they gave police in the wake of the shooting are now public.
The documents released by the D.A.’s office include police reports, witness statements and transcripts of interviews with both officers, conducted shortly after the shooting.
Neither officer has ever spoken publicly about DeVillena’s death, so the transcripts offer the first glimpse into what each officer was thinking in the moment they decided to use deadly force.
You can read Heron’s entire police interview below:
In separate interviews, both Nordman and Heron said the night of the shooting began as a normal patrol. They rode their police bikes throughout downtown Palm Springs, checking on bars and making routine arrests.
The police officers first encountered DeVillena shortly after 1 a.m. outside of Village Pub, a popular bar near the parking garage. DeVillena was with another Marine, Pfc. Clinton Harris. Both Marines appeared drunk, the officers said, but while Harris was belligerent — shouting and cursing at the officers — DeVillena was polite and apologetic. Eventually, the officers let the two Marines go, assuming they would sleep off their drunken evening at a local hotel.
About 1:40 a.m., the officers rode their bikes into the basement of the parking garage, which is frequently a problem area when the bars close.
In the garage, Nordman and Heron spotted the two Marines again. This time, DeVillena was sitting in the driver’s seat of a black Chrysler 300, with the engine running. Harris was standing outside the passenger-side door, chatting up a group of women from a bachelorette party.
As the officers approached, Harris hopped into the passenger seat and DeVillena began to pull away. Both officers pulled their guns and shouted for DeVillena to stop the car. Ignoring their orders, DeVillena made a three-point turn, then began to drive slowly back toward the officers, as if attempting to leave the garage.
As the car finished the three-point turn, Nordman dove through the passenger-side window. He landed sprawled across Harris’ lap, with his gun “poking” DeVillena in the face and his feet sticking outside the window.
After the shooting, investigators asked Nordman why he jumped in the window. The officer response was this:
You can read Nordman’s entire police interview below:
As Nordman dove in through the side window, Heron was approaching the car from the front. During his own interview, Heron said he stood about six feet from the car, pointed his gun at the driver and shouted “Stop the car!” At first, DeVillena stopped, as if to surrender. Then the Marine suddenly accelerated.
“It just looked like a demon took over his face,” Heron said. “It was like he was on a mission, not a purpose. … Soon as I see that, I start to jump out of the way and he’s stepping on the gas and the front bumper of the car hit my left knee.”
Although Heron was struck in the knee, he says it wasn’t why he shot at the car. According to his interview transcript, Heron dodged the car, then turned around to see Nordman’s legs sticking out of the window of the fleeing vehicle. Heron assumed his partner had been yanked through the window.
“I felt like I had no choice but to start shooting, just to try and stop them, ’cause I didn’t know what was gonna happen to Chad,” Heron told investigators. “They could have got out on the road; they could have ended up anywhere, took his weapon. I didn’t know if they had any weapons in the car, and that’s why they tried to pull him in the car or what.”
At this point, Heron started shooting, firing as many as four bullets toward the car as it drove away from him. One shot shattered the back left window.
Back in the car, Nordman heard the shots and saw the window shatter. Afraid that DeVillena would “panic,” Nordman felt he had to shoot the driver to protect himself. Nordman shot DeVillena at least two more times, both at point blank range.
“A drunk guy in a panic being shot at is gonna drive even more insane,” Nordman told investigators. “So I thought it was now or (never). … I gotta stop this guy here or else I’m gonna die. And so I shot him as well.”
Seconds later, the car crashed into a column near the parking garage exit. Nordman pulled Harris out of the car and handcuffed him, then ran around to the driver’s side door and handcuffed DeVillena, who was bleeding and gasping for air. The Marine died there, sitting in the driver’s seat.
Harris and Nordman were unhurt. The extent of any injury to Heron’s knee is unknown.
The Palm Springs Police Department refused to answer questions about the DeVillena shooting.
Doug Holland, an attorney for the city of Palm Springs, said the department can’t comment on the shooting because the DeVillena family is suing the city in federal court. The Police Department is also currently under a court order not to release any information about any police shootings. That order stems from a different lawsuit in which the police union has taken the city and The Desert Sun to court in an effort to halt the release of public information about local police officers.
Attorneys for the DeVillena family did not respond to requests for comment.