Last October, DRCNet reported on the shooting death of elementary school student Alberto Sepulveda during a raid by the Modesto, California, SWAT team as it executed a federal search warrant in a methamphetamine trafficking investigation (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/156.html#policeshootings). No drugs or guns were found, but the boy's father, Moises Sepulveda, was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.
Now, after three separate investigations by Modesto police and the city attorney, Modesto police can say only that it was an accident. Investigations by the county attorney and the California attorney general, which could result in criminal charges against police shooter David Hawn, are pending.
Hawn, a veteran member of the Modesto SWAT team, shot and killed young Sepulveda as the boy, following Hawn's barked commands, lay prone on his bedroom floor. At a January 10th press conference called to announce the result of the department's investigations, Police Chief Roy Wasden said Hawn's Benelli shotgun could have misfired, Hawn could have accidentally squeezed the trigger, or Hawn's equipment, particularly a knife on his belt, could have accidentally caused the gun to discharge.
This wasn't the first time Hawn had problems controlling his weapon. According to the Stockton (California) Record, a year before he shot Alberto Sepulveda, he accidentally shot a dead man. The man had killed himself during a SWAT raid in which Hawn participated. Hawn was cleared of any wrongdoing in that incident.
Facing scathing criticism from a shocked community, Chief Wasden put Hawn on paid leave after the Sepulveda shooting, but he is now back on the job, although he is restricted to investigative functions.
Wasden, however, pointed the finger at the federal law enforcement agencies -- DEA, FBI, and IRS -- at whose behest the Modesto SWAT team executed the warrant. According to the department's investigation, Wasden said, DEA agents requesting help from the Modesto SWAT team told Modesto police that Moises Sepulveda was suspected of belonging to a meth trafficking enterprise and that he should be considered "armed and dangerous." Only during the post-shooting investigation did Modesto police learn that Sepulveda's name came up only at the end of an 18-month federal investigation. They also learned that the DEA had little information about Sepulveda or his home, with the result that SWAT team members forced their way in on the mistaken assumption that no children were present.
In fact, three children were in the home. Alberto, his 8-year-old sister Xitlalic, and his 14-year-old brother Moises, Jr. Police officers attempted to blame Moises for his brother's death, saying that the youth repeatedly tried to stand up after being rousted from his bed and ordered to the floor at gunpoint. The SWAT team leader stood on the boy's back while another officer attempted to handcuff him, the report said, and it was during this commotion that Hawn shot Alberto Sepulveda.
Arturo Gonzalez, attorney for the Sepulveda family, angrily denies the police version. "Moises was nowhere near the officer who fired the weapon," Gonzalez told reporters after the chief's press conference. "He only tried to get up after hearing the shotgun blast. He did nothing to contribute to his brother's death."
Chief Wasden told the press conference that as a result of the investigation, his department will no longer assist federal anti-drug agencies based only on "good faith." Instead, Wasden said, federal agencies must now provide the department with detailed information to justify the high levels of force they typically request.
Wasden also evinced frustration with the feds. "What are we gaining by serving these drug warrants?" he asked. "We ought to be saying, 'It's not worth the risk. We're not going to put our officers and community at risk anymore.'"
Wasden did not address the question widely raised in the community about why Sepulveda could not have been arrested when he left the house to go to work instead of relying on the riskier and more confrontational forced entry raid by the paramilitary-style SWAT team.
The Sepulveda family was unimpressed. In remarks to reporters after the chief's press conference, Gonzalez spoke on behalf of the family, whose members were too distraught to talk to the press.
"We're quite disappointed at what we received," said Gonzalez. "We intend to fight for this little boy until we get all the answers."
Gonzales has already filed a wrongful death claim against the city, and he told reporters that the family would file similar suits against the federal agencies involved. He also vowed to file another lawsuit against federal agencies demanding that pre-dawn SWAT team raids such as the one that led to Alberto's death be banned.
"You've heard of Ruby Ridge and Waco," Gonzales said, "you can add Modesto to that list. What happened here is a tragedy."
Neither are other critics satisfied. Latino activist Miguel Donoso told the Modesto Bee that the report contained little that could not have been determined within days of the shooting and that it did not go far enough.
"I want for the police to come out and say the guy blew it and shot the young boy," said Donoso. "A person with 21 years experience and all that training couldn't make a mistake like that."
The shooting has divided the community, with flurries of letters to the editor staking out opposing positions. Some police supporters have gone as far as blaming "all drug users" for Sepulveda's death, while critics reprised arguments against excessive police force and the war on drugs in general.
As for the boy's classmates, they, too, have been scarred. "I don't like cops anymore," said 12-year-old Melissa McConnell, who lives down the street from the Sepulveda home. "I don't think it was an accident. Nobody I know thinks it was an accident," she told the Modesto Bee.
School counselor Chris Fallentine told the Bee students were upset and distraught. "We heard a lot of questions like, 'Can we trust the police?,'" she said.
|Issue #169, 1/19/01 Cops and Robbers: Exposés Find Ashcroft Encouraged Constitutional Violations in Missouri Asset Forfeiture Cases, Police Agencies Kept Funds Intended for Schools | AIDS Activists Storm Ashcroft Hearing, Denounce Needle Exchange Record | And the New Drug Czar is...? | Implementing the Initiatives: Nevada Medical Marijuana Fight Moves to Legislature as AMR Eyes Bigger Targets | As Anti-Ecstasy Offensive Intensifies, US Attorney in New Orleans Indicts Rave Promoters | Follow That Story: Modesto Police Fail to Find Reason for Shooting 11-Year-Old in Drug Raid, More Investigations Pending | Massachusetts: Local Victories on Marijuana Questions in November Start to Have an Impact on Beacon Hill | Calling All Activists: Ashcroft, Hemp | The Reformer's Calendar: LA, Philly, Portland, New York, DC, SF, Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Fort Bragg, Miami, Amsterdam, New Delhi | Editorial: A Message to the Incoming President||
Send us feedback on this article
This issue -- main page
This issue -- single-file printer version
Drug War Chronicle -- main page
StoptheDrugWar.org: the Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet)