Earlier this month, eighteen-year-old Christian Valdez was killed by a California Highway Patrol officer following a high speed chase. California authorities subsequently portrayed the incident as a "suicide by cop" that ended the life of a dangerous prison escapee.
But Valdez's father disputes that. He feels his son, who was originally incarcerated for marijuana use, was essentially executed.
"I feel it was an execution," says John Valdez, who lives in Las Vegas, "because he had five or six policemen chasing him, and they were all there when he attempted to get out of the car. Now supposedly they thought he was reaching for a weapon -- but if it really looked like that, all of them would have shot my son. And only one of them did."
One of CJ's school photos.
At the time of our original post, Colorado officials declined to give additional information about Valdez, including his conviction record and details about the facility from which he escaped. Why? Even though he was an adult when he died, he had been a juvenile at the time of his incarceration. But John, who calls his late son CJ, says the boy's jailing wasn't as a result of violence, but due to his fondness for marijuana.
"We were living in Monte Vista, in the San Luis Valley, and he got caught smoking pot," John says. "So they put him on probation, and as part of his probation, he had to keep doing urinalysis tests -- and he kept failing them because he wouldn't stop. Finally, they said, 'If you fail one more, we're going to put you in jail.' And when he failed another one, they did."
Valdez was placed at Ridge View Academy in Watkins, and while the setting can't be compared to that of a penitentiary, he chafed under his confinement. "Last year, he had three weeks or a month to go when he got a weekend pass," John recalls. By then, John and his wife were living in Las Vegas, where they'd moved to be closer to his elderly parents -- "so CJ would visit my wife's sister every weekend, for the family support. But he took off in her car. They caught him three months later and brought him back to Colorado and said, 'You're going to get a year for escaping,'
"In this time frame, CJ enrolled at a community college in Denver, and he was working at a Sonic in Littleton," he continues. "I thought he was finally getting his act together, and he only had until May before he would go on parole. But the kid who was with him" -- Jose Herrera, nineteen -- "left the day before CJ did. And then CJ left, too."
During the pair's period of freedom, "I don't know where they went," John says. "From what I heard, they went up and down California, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and to Las Vegas," where they allegedly evaded capture in a chase that prefigured their final ride. "And I don't know where they were headed when this all came down."
Page down to continue reading about Christian Valdez, and to see a video of the police chase. According to authorities in Butte County, California, highway patrol officers tried to pull over a silver Buick for a speeding violation at about 5:40 p.m. on March 11. But Valdez, who was behind the wheel, took off instead. The car had been stolen, apparently in Colorado.
Valdez's drivers license.
What followed was a 21 mile chase, with Valdez gunning the Buick up to 120 miles per hour -- and in police surveillance video shown at a March 16 press conference, he appears to have swerved in the direction of vehicles going the other direction in an effort to get away from CHP pursuit.
The Buick eventually drove over a spike strip that flattened at least two of its tires. In the end, Valdez veered into the parking lot of a Chevron station in a community called Paradise, where a witness claimed that he had been smiling, as if he was having a good time. Police also say that at one point, Valdez pointed a digit at them in what they call a "finger gun" pose.
After striking a couple of vehicles, the Buick came to a halt, and police surrounded it, weapons drawn. At first, Valdez appeared to be on the verge of surrendering, but when he reached back into the vehicle, one of the highway patrol officers opened fire.
Later, Herrera, who was uninjured, reportedly told officers that Valdez had said during the chase he would rather force the cops to shoot him than be placed in custody. But John Valdez isn't convinced. "Did he have a lawyer with him? How scared was he?" he asks.
In John's mind, "there are all kinds of inconsistencies in the police's story. They had him trapped, so why couldn't they use a Taser? Why couldn't they use beanbags? The chase was 21 miles, and he was going twenty to thirty miles an hour after he ran over the spike strips, so they had plenty of time to prepare. And if they were going slow enough for people to say they could see him smiling, why couldn't they see they were dealing with kids? Level-headedness should have taken over by then, not adrenaline. To justify it as suicide by cop is just to sweep it under the rug."
John plans to consult with a lawyer to weigh his options. In the meantime, though, he wants people to know that CJ wasn't the wanton outlaw he's been made out to be. "Anyone who knew him knows he was a good kid," he says. "He wasn't a habitual pain in the ass. He just went the wrong way and it snowballed -- and he got killed for it."
Look below to see a KHSL-TV report on the aforementioned press conference, featuring video of the chase.
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More from our Follow That Story archive: "Juveniles prosecuted as adults: Colorado's hardline approach not working, report says."