Several websites, including this one, have likened Greeley resident Jacinto Zavala's death in an August police shooting to the violent death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri -- an incident that led to riots and a national dialogue about race and law enforcement. Zavala, a former soldier said to suffer from PTSD, was holding a BB gun at the time he was killed, but his family has disputed that he was aiming it when officers pulled their triggers.
Now, the Weld County District Attorney's Office has issued a report about Zavala that reveals he actually mentioned Brown in the context of saying, "I'm not going to shoot the cops." Yet other factors led the DA's office to deem the officers' actions justified. Photos, details and the decision letter below.
At 2:47 a.m. on August 13, according to the document, Weld Count police communications received a 911 call from Anthony Erebia, who said his cousin, Zavala, was outside a Greeley residence in possession of "two or three guns." He added that Zavala was drunk, "had previously been in the military," suffered from PTSD, believed he was in Afghanistan and was "shooting bullets."
Police rushed to the scene, 1304 4th Street. The area is captured in the following interactive graphic; if you have problems seeing the image, click "View Larger Map."
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Shortly thereafter, dispatchers were able to reach Zavala on the phone "in an effort to reason with him," the letter maintains. The report reproduces comments over a twenty-plus minute period that are frequently contradictory, with some remarks qualifying as threats and others constituting denials that he wanted to hurt anyone. Here's the rundown:
2:54: Zavala told the dispatchers that if the cops come over they are going to have a shootout. The dispatcher asks him to repeat what he just said, and he again stated "if the cops come over they are going to have a shootout." When asked why, Zavala replied "because the cops are d____ and they are taking away our rights.
2:57: "I don't have a gun, I have a Taser."
2:58: Zavala claimed not to have been in the military
3:04: Zavala stated he is not going to shoot anyone. He then said that if anything happened to him, "you'll have a civil war on your hands."
3:05: "I'm not going to shoot anyone because it's wrong"
3:09: Zavala claimed that he was not going to shoot civilians or innocent people.
3:10: The dispatcher repeatedly asked what kind of gun he had, and he refused to tell her.
3:13: When asked if he will put his hands up and go outside, Zavala said "no."
3:14: "I'm not the only one that is going to get shot up." Zavala then said that when the cops shoot, his team is going to shoot.
3:15: Zavala claimed that he was out front with his hands up, but then stated that the gun is pointed down.
3:16: The dispatcher asked Zavala where the gun was. He said "in my right hand." He then remarked that he was not going to put the gun down, and repeated that he had it pointed down.
A family photo of Zavala.
Also of note: Zavala is said to have made "repeated references to Mike Brown, the young man who was shot by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, saying he was an innocent man who refused to put his hands in the air."
As for Zavala, he allegedly ignored requests by the dispatcher to put down the gun he was holding.
Another portrait of Zavala.
Finally, at 3:19 a.m., the transcript cites Zavala "yelling profane words across the street...in response to the initial challenges by a Greeley Officer," although he apparently believed "he was yelling at a neighbor." In addition, an officer can be heard ordering Zavala to "get on the ground," after which "gunshots are audible."
An autopsy subsequently revealed that Zavala had been struck by eight bullets (of fourteen fired), witth hits to his scalp, various extremities, his chest and his abdomen. His blood alcohol level was calculated at .220, nearly three times the legal limit.
Other portions of the document specify the "profane words" reportedly delivered by Zavala, including, "What, motherfucker? If you come over here, I swear to God, I'll fuck your shit up, old man." The report also maintains that Zavala raised and pointed his gun in the direction of officers, prompting them to open fire.
This last assertion contradicts claims of family members who spoke with 9News. They said the gun was aimed down, just as he'd said it was earlier in his conversation with the 911 operator. But Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck sides with the officers in the decision letter. An excerpt reads:
When verbal challenges were issued by an officer across the street, they were sufficiently loud that officers to the east, Christopher Holthusen, and Zavala himself could hear them. Rather than comply with the officers' commands, a command also repeatedly given by the dispatcher, to drop the gun and show the officers his hands, Zavala pointed the rifle at officers across the street. This action reasonably caused Officers One, Two and Three to believe that their lives, and the lives of fellow officers, were in immediate danger, causing each of them to fire their weapons.
Based on the facts gathered during this investigation and the legal analysis outlined above, I find that Officers One, Two and Three were justified in using deadly force against Zavala because they reasonably believed that it was necessary to defend themselves and others from Zavala's threatened use of physical force.
Here's a formal portrait of Zavalal in uniform, along with the complete shooting decision letter.
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