Sonoma County Sheriff’s Oversight Committee pushes for state investigation into fatal shooting

Members of a citizens’ panel advising the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Oversight Office are asking prosecutors to investigate the July 29 fatal shooting of a 36-year-old man by a sheriff’s deputy in response to an attempted break-in near Healdsburg.

In a unanimous vote on Monday, members of the Community Advisory Council, part of the county’s Independent Law Enforcement Review and Outreach Office, agreed to send a letter to the Attorney General’s office in the State requesting the investigation.

The vote was 7-0 with advisory members Dora Estrada and Evan Zelig absent.

David Pelaez-Chavez was shot three times by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Dietrick, who along with Deputy Anthony Powers chased him for 45 minutes over rough terrain. The 36-year-old Lake County resident, who was barefoot, had fled into the woods after attempting to break into a home and stealing two vehicles in Knights Valley.

Peléaz-Chavez was holding a hammer and tiller when deputies caught up to him and he appeared to be bent over when Dietrick shot him. Officials say Pelaez-Chavez had picked up a rock and may have made a move to throw it. Other observers dispute that he attempted to throw a rock, and the video is not definitive.

“We need to reassure our public that an independent, impartial and transparent investigation is going to be carried out,” said Nancy Pemberton, a member of the advisory board.

Santa Rosa police are conducting a criminal investigation into the shooting, but advisory board members said it would be more appropriate for an independent agency to take over.

“We urge you to exercise your responsibility under (state law) to conduct an independent investigation into the murder of David Pelaez Chavez,” read a copy of the letter posted on the Agenda of the board meeting.

Under state law that took effect last year, the California Attorney General and Department of Justice are required to investigate lethal force by law enforcement officers against civilians unarmed.

Santa Rosa Police spokesman Sgt. Chris Mahurin said his department informed state officials about the case.

“We followed up with the Department of Justice to let them know about the investigation and see if they wanted to launch their own investigation, and at that point they said it didn’t meet their criteria,” Mahurin said.

In mid-August, the attorney general’s office told The Press Democrat it would not investigate the shooting, but did not respond to requests for clarification whether that decision was based on reviews of camera footage bodies of law enforcement. State officials concluded that Pelaez-Chavez was not unarmed, citing a law that describes lethal weapons as including everyday objects used in a way that could result in death or serious injury.

While audio captured on body camera footage on the day of the shooting indicates that deputies expected officials from the attorney general’s office to arrive on the scene, no one from the office came, said Mahurin on Tuesday.

Last week, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office confirmed that the images of the body were reviewed after the sheriff’s office made them public, but not before the office made its initial decision not to investigate. The sheriff’s office released an 11.5-minute video of some body camera footage on August 14, but withheld more than five hours of raw body camera footage until September 1.

Officials and community members acknowledged the effort may be futile, but argued they should try to overturn the decision of the attorney general’s office.

Nathan Solomon, a member of the advisory board, alleged that the attorney general’s office based its decision on written reports that did not match what actually happened on July 29.

“So for me, that alone is the basis for the AG to reconsider it again,” he said.

Solomon said the decision to push for a state investigation echoed the community’s desire to demand an independent review of the case.

Seven community members spoke in favor of the letter at Monday’s meeting.

“The greater the pressure from the community and the harder we try, the better,” said one participant, Josette Brose-Eichar.

Advisory board members who called for the state review pointed to the shooting of Andy Lopez, a 13-year-old who was shot by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy in October 2013. also being investigated by the Santa Rosa Police and Advisory Board. Members said on Monday that the investigation lacked transparency.

“Santa Rosa might just be doing what they’re doing and they can do a good job and we have no idea,” Pemberton said of the ongoing investigation. “What we do know is that when Andy Lopez was killed, the Santa Rosa Police Department did a terrible job. That they came in with a very biased attitude.

Mahurin said the police department “conducted a thorough investigation” into Lopez’s murder and forwarded its findings, including interview tapes, to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

“We don’t make any discoveries, we’re just fact-gatherers,” Mahurin said. “Only the district attorney’s office can make a finding.”

You can contact editor Colin Atagi at [email protected] On Twitter @colin_atagi. You can reach editor Andrew Graham at [email protected]