LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A Los Angeles police officer who fatally shot a developmentally disabled man and wounded his parents during a confrontation that erupted while the lawman was off-duty and shopping at a Corona Costco will not face criminal charges, Riverside County's top prosecutor said today.
``For all of us who handled this case, it's a horrific, tragic situation that occurred,'' District Attorney Mike Hestrin said during a news briefing at the D.A.'s headquarters in downtown Riverside. ``But we had to put our passions and emotions aside and marry the facts with the law. We don't pay attention to public outcries or social media rants.''
According to Hestrin, evidence collected from the June 14 shooting at the Costco on North McKinley Street, where 32-year-old Kenneth French was killed, was presented to a 19-member criminal grand jury on Sept. 9. After the jury completed its inquiry, the panel voted against indicting LAPD Officer Salvador Sanchez. The jury's decision was submitted to the D.A.'s office Tuesday.
Hestrin said he did not know how jurors voted. There must be at least 12 affirmative votes for an indictment. Hestrin said he will abide by the panel's decision and not independently file a criminal complaint against Sanchez.
``This was a fact-driven decision,'' the D.A. said. ``I would file charges if I thought there was a problem with the process. All the evidence we had was presented to the grand jury. I respect and stand by their decision. They did a great job gathering facts. They did what they were supposed to do.''
Dale Galipo, the attorney representing the dead man's parents, Russell and Paola French, has repeatedly stated his belief that the Corona Police Department and the D.A.'s office were treating Sanchez deferentially because he's a law enforcement officer, and if anyone other than an off-duty policeman had done the shooting, that person would have been charged at the outset.
``I categorically deny the officer has gotten special treatment,'' Hestrin said. ``This is viewed as an officer-involved shooting. Police officers have to respond (to an attack) as if they're on duty. ... The officer believed his life was in danger. He thought he was shot and was looking around for blood, feeling the back of his head.''
Hestrin said he was compelled to turn the case over to a grand jury because there were uncooperative witnesses, leaving the D.A.'s office without a complete picture of events, and he believed 19 members of the public impaneled to vet the evidence would come up with the appropriate decision.
Galipo has scheduled a news conference in Corona Thursday in response to the D.A.'s and grand jury's actions. The attorney released a statement saying the outcome ``highlights the unequal treatment of police officers compared to other citizens when they shoot people.''
``I am confident that we will get justice for Kenneth and his family in the federal civil rights action that will be filed in the near future,'' he said.
Corona police Chief George Johnstone said the shooting has ``weighed heavily on the community'' and his sympathies were with the French family. But after his detectives conducted a 12-day investigation, they could not come up with conclusive findings, other than Sanchez believed he was ``acting in self- defense.'' The case was submitted to the D.A.'s office on June 27.
Russell and Paola French, along with Galipo, spoke to the media on Aug. 26, urging the D.A.'s office to come to a decision. Russell French told reporters he ``begged (Sanchez) not to shoot,'' telling him ``our son is sick.''
Galipo said the parents and son were moving away from the off-duty cop when he opened fire. According to Johnstone, Kenneth French was shot once in the shoulder and twice in the back. Paola French was shot in the back, and her husband was shot in the abdomen, resulting in the loss of a kidney.
According to Galipo, the trio had been shopping for a half-hour when they stopped at a food sample booth in the store to nibble on sausages. Why Kenneth French turned physical with Sanchez, shoving him to the floor while the off-duty officer held his 18-month-old son, is unclear, Galipo acknowledged.
He said the decedent was a diagnosed schizophrenic and nonverbal, with no history of aggression.
Conflicting stories have emerged over the circumstances, with the officer's attorney, David Winslow, insisting his client responded appropriately.
Hestrin played a security surveillance videotape from the Costco that partially captured the deadly 7:45 p.m. confrontation. The clips mainly revealed the tail-end of the encounter between French and Sanchez, with the former appearing to be the aggressor, and Sanchez falling somewhere out of frame. Russell French is clearly visible, standing in front of his son to turn him back, at which point both men are struck by gunfire and collapse to the floor of the store.
Johnstone said 10 shots were fired by the off-duty lawman.
According to Winslow, Sanchez was knocked down and briefly lost consciousness. When he awoke, he found his son next to him, screaming. The attorney said his client ``had no choice but to use deadly force'' in self- defense.
Hestrin said there was no evidence that Sanchez ever lost consciousness. The lawman was not hospitalized, and his son was not injured.
Sanchez has been placed on paid administrative leave by the LAPD, where he has been a patrolman for seven years, most recently assigned to the Southwest Division.