Jason T. Gomez was shot and killed last December after officials say he pulled what looked like a gun on a Denver Police Officer. It turned out that the only thing in the 33-year-old’s hand was a plastic lighter.
Last week, Gomez’s family filed a $5 million lawsuit against the city.
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The possibility of a lawsuit was first revealed by Westword in the April cover story "Target Practice," which examines the role of racial bias in police shootings. The story also looked into the circumstances behind Gomez’s death and the ultimate decision of the Denver District Attorney’s office to not file charges against the shooter, officer Timothy Campbell.
Was the shooting justified? Read some of the excerpts from the story by clicking "More." Click here for a slideshow of other police-involved shootings in Denver. -- Jared Jacang Maher
At 2:10 a.m. on December 19, Denver police officer Timothy Campbell was standing in the middle of the street in a west Denver neighborhood, his gun pointed at a man. The patrolman had been driving north on Irving Street when he'd passed a 1997 Saturn that seemed suspicious. When Campbell made a U-turn, the Saturn quickly sped down a side street and pulled into a driveway. As the officer drove up, a man — he looked to be in his early thirties, Hispanic, wearing a light, baggy jacket — jumped out of the car and ran. Campbell followed him on foot, through back yards and over fences. The man reached the 3200 block of West Ada Place, where he slipped on a patch of ice. He got up and continued down the street, falling twice more. By now Campbell had closed the gap, and when the man got up again, the two were facing each other, less than ten feet apart. Campbell had his service pistol drawn: a .45-caliber semi-automatic Glock.
The man reached into his pants pocket, put his hand behind his back, then started moving his hand forward. Campbell saw the glint of something metallic. He fired two rounds, paused, then fired four more. The man fell onto a pile of dirty snow.
When paramedics arrived just after 2:15 a.m., they found 33-year-old Jason T. Gomez, hit in the shoulder, stomach and legs, mortally wounded. Near his left hand, they spotted a white Bic lighter with a silver rim.
A lighter on the pavement where there should have been a gun — that sight can make even the most hard-boiled law-and-order types queasy. And the image of a dying, unarmed man, a minority shot by a cop, can rip open a city's carefully patched-together image. When news broke that Gomez had been pronounced dead at Denver Health, readers began leaving online comments comparing Gomez's lighter to the soda can that Frank Lobato reportedly was holding when he was shot and killed in his home by a Denver officer in 2004. Or the kitchen knife that Paul Childs had in his hand when the mentally disabled teen was shot and killed by cops the year before. The posters reached back nearly a decade, to the death of Mexican immigrant Ismael Mena, shot by SWAT officers in a botched drug raid.
"[Gomez] was not a perfect person, but [he] did not deserve to have an entire clip of bullets emptied into him for pulling out a lighter," said one.
"Again, Denver cops are exterminating Blacks and Mexicans," wrote another
Gomez had an arrest record dating back to 1993 on charges of burglary, vandalism and assault, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Out on parole since February 2007, he was wanted again for a previous parole violation by last December, when Campbell spotted his Saturn moving erratically on Irving Street. A seven-year veteran of the force, Campbell decided to execute a U-turn and get the license-plate number, but the car made a quick move to the right and into a driveway.
As Campbell pulled up, a man exited the car and ran. After radioing dispatch, the officer gave chase. When he caught up with the man, he was "bobbing kind of like a fighting cock," Campbell later said. "He was prancing all around...jerking back and forth...bobbing his head." Along with making aggravated motions, the man also shouted, "I'm going to kill you" — loud enough so that the threat was heard by nearby residents inside their homes — and "GKI! GKI!," referring to the west-side gang Gallant Knights Insane. Campbell said he had his gun drawn when he observed the man pulling his arm from behind his back, and metal flashed. Campbell pulled the trigger twice. "Is that all you got?" the man yelled, and moved toward him, saying, "I'm going to kill you." Campbell shot him four more times before he fell.
Although several residents said they heard the commotion and the gunshots, only eighteen-year-old Max Alderton said he witnessed the incident.
In a statement given immediately after the shooting, Alderton said he was in bed when he heard screaming outside his window. He looked out and saw a "bald man," identified as Campbell, standing with another man, who was kneeling. "The bald guy was shouting, 'I'm gonna fucking kill you!'" Alderton said, adding that when the other man got up to run, "the bald man withdrew a gun, began chasing him and fired five to seven shots at him." But Alderton changed his version in a later video testimony, when he said the bald guy fired one shot after the other guy ran. At that point, Alderton said, he ran to tell his roommate to call 911 and heard more shots.
Investigators discounted Alderton's accounts because they didn't match up with autopsy results that showed all the bullet entry wounds being anterior rather than posterior. If Gomez had indeed been running away when Campbell fired, the bullets would have struck him in the back rather than the front. The autopsy also showed that Gomez had crack cocaine, marijuana and alcohol in his system at the time of his death.
The DA's office decided not to charge Campbell in connection with the unarmed man's shooting. "The fact that Gomez made his verbal and physical threats to kill Campbell while possessing a lighter, rather than a firearm or edged weapon, is of no consequence under the facts of this case," the DA's report concluded. The OIM concurred with the DA's determination that Gomez's death was "suicide by cop." (The Manager of Safety has not yet released his report.)
Padilla, who is considering another lawsuit against the city in connection with Gomez's death, is skeptical of both Campbell's account and the subsequent investigations. "I think this raises very serious issues of the [DA's office] discounting the ear- and eyewitnesses to what they say occurred in this case," he says. "And to claim that this was suicide by cop belies common logic."
Gomez's sister, Cynthia Pacheco, says the behavior described by Campbell doesn't sound like anything her brother would do. "If this was in a different neighborhood, I think they would've taken steps," she says. "They could have Maced him, they could have Tased him, something like that. There are certain procedures they should follow instead of just shooting at people and killing them."