Why Denver Cops Who Killed Wrong Suspect Were Suspended, Not Fired

An image from body-camera footage taken during the fatal shooting of Steven Nguyen.
An image from body-camera footage taken during the fatal shooting of Steven Nguyen.
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More than a year after officers Susan Mercado and Austin Barela were cleared of criminal wrongdoing for Steven Nguyen's fatal shooting in March 2018 amid a tragic case of mistaken identity, the Denver Police Department has opted to give them a ninety-day suspension for, among other things, shooting into a moving car — a violation of DPD rules put in place following the 2015 gunshot death of seventeen-year-old Jessie Hernandez — rather than terminating their employment.

Why? A departmental order of disciplinary action authored by Deputy Director of Public Safety Mary Dulacki contends that "while Officer Mercado's belief that she was in a situation that permitted her to use deadly force was not reasonable, her belief that she was engaging a violent, dangerous felon was. This belief, taken in the context of a rapidly evolving situation, warrants a penalty in the mitigated range." Other than a pronoun change, the language is identical in the order for Barela.

Department of Safety records administrator Andrea Webber notes that Officer William Bohm, a third cop who fired at the scene, "was not disciplined because his actions, detailed in the letters, were found to be within policy."

The long delay over these decisions is not without irony. After all, the City of Denver released an edited version of body-camera video from the shooting (some segments were removed to prevent identification of undercover officers) more quickly than usual, in October 2018, under what was then a brand-new video-evidence procedure, which allowed officials to make the clip publicly available before the internal investigation of the officers' action was completed.

This seeming nod to transparency didn't extend to the disciplinary orders, which are dated February 10 but weren't provided to Westword until this week, after the Denver Post received copies under an open-records request.

The narrative of Mercado's order begins on the morning of March 19, 2018, when Mauricio Venzo-Gonzalez, a man suspected of trying to kill a police officer the previous November, escaped from Denver Sheriff's Department deputies who'd transported him from the city's downtown jail to Denver Health Medical Center. The cops immediately suspected Venzo-Gonzalez's girlfriend, Samantha Adams, of having helped him get away, and before long, her home in Aurora was placed under surveillance with the assistance of the Aurora Police Department.

Cut to 6:20 p.m. that evening, when a stolen GMC Acadia occupied by two men circled Adams's home several times. The front-seat passenger had his sweatshirt pulled over his head in what was seen as an attempt to hide his identity. Two different detectives from the fugitive unit concluded that he was Venzo-Gonzalez, and their theory seemed to be confirmed when the vehicle returned 25 minutes later and Adams climbed into it.

They were wrong. Aside from Adams, the occupants of the Acadia were Nguyen and Rafael Landeros Jr., both of whom had active warrants in their names. Their decision to flee after a failed traffic-stop attempt by Aurora officers was likely also motivated by two other items in their ride: a box of methamphetamine that the cops mistook for a gun after they tossed it out a window, and an actual 9 mm Beretta that none of them used despite what happened next. The action was caught in this video. (Warning: Its content may disturb some readers.)

As detectives and officers from Denver and Aurora chased after the Acadia, others joined the pursuit, including Barela and Bohm in one squad car and Mercado in another. Before long, the Acadia, which had been traveling at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, failed to negotiate a curve on the 4100 block of Albion Street and "went off the road, crossed the sidewalk and traveled onto the embankment leading downward to a storm drainage ditch filled with large rocks," the narrative states.

At that point, Barela stepped from his patrol vehicle and repeatedly yelled, "Show me your hands" while approaching the rear of the Acadia. When he thought he saw the passenger door open slightly, he told investigators that he feared the occupants were about to jump out and begin shooting — so he started pulling his own trigger as the vehicle began rolling down the hill toward the ditch. Bohm joined in as well, under the belief that the pair were under fire, and so did Mercado, who bailed from her SUV and began squeezing off shots at the moving Acadia.

The post-investigation analysis calculated that Barela unleashed 34 rounds, Bohm twelve and Mercado two.

Nguyen died as a result of bullets to the brain and lung, while Landeros sustained injuries but lived. During a later interview recounted in the discipline order, he "admitted to knowing Venzor-Gonzalez, but he denied he and Nguyen were near Adams's home to aid Venzor-Gonzalez in his escape. He said they were in the area trying to retrieve a cell phone from a woman and that they were circling the block when they began noticing what they believed to be numerous undercover police officers in the area. Because they both had outstanding warrants and were driving a stolen car, they decided to leave the area rather than risk getting stopped by the police."

And Landeros quoted Nguyen's last words: "Foo, they fucking shot me."

The order includes several passages apparently intended to show that Nguyen wasn't a solid citizen, including a text exchange between him and the mother of his child that included lines such as "I got 2 full clips for em bitch" and "I put that on my grandmas grave im ready to die today." But in the end, he didn't shoot at any of the cops, and that proved key to Dulacki's consideration of Mercado's case. In her words, "There was no deadly force being used against her or other officers when she fired. It is specifically prohibited to fire at a moving or fleeing vehicle unless deadly force is being used against an officer or other person."

Nonetheless, both Mercado and Barela will remain Denver police officers after serving their suspensions, and Venzor-Gonzalez is behind bars. He was recaptured five months after the shooting and is currently serving a 36-year jolt for attempted murder and an escape that had deadly consequences.

Click to read the Denver Police Department discipline order for Officer Susan Mercado and Officer Austin Barela.

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