Officers bend over Jesus Morales moments after a Sept. 28, 2021, officer-involved shooting in San Diego. Photo credit: Screenshot, San Diego Police Department, via YouTube
Ten local law enforcement officers have been cleared of criminal liability in seven separate police shootings, two of which were fatal, according to reviews released Friday by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.
The shootings date from 2019 to 2021, and include incidents in San Diego, El Cajon, La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Vista.
Among the fatal shootings reviewed was the July 23, 2021, shooting of 22-year-old Jesus Veleta, shot by San Diego police officers Greg Bergman and Anthony Guerra.
Veleta and three other men were in a vehicle that was stopped by police following investigations into two shootings that occurred earlier that night: one at Belmont Park and another near a Food4Less store on University Avenue. No one was injured in the Belmont Park shooting, but a man was shot four times in the University Avenue shooting.
According to the DA’s Office review, the suspects’ vehicle was stopped, but Veleta ran out of the car while armed with a gun.
Bergman and Guerra gave chase and at some point, the DA’s Office says Veleta fell to the ground. When the officers ordered him to drop the weapon, he raised the gun towards the officers and was shot in the back, the review states.
The DA’s review concluded that Veleta ignored multiple commands to drop his gun, made no indications that he was going to surrender and the officers reasonably believed he would shoot them unless they fired.
The other fatal shooting reviewed was the Aug. 19, 2021, shooting of 38-year-old Setha Phangdy by El Cajon police Sgt. Kevin Reilly.
The DA’s Office says Phangdy shot an employee at a business, then ran from the scene. When Reilly drove to the area and encountered Phangdy, the DA’s review states that Phangdy began shooting at him. Four bullets struck Reilly’s patrol car.
Reilly responded by driving his car into Phangdy, then getting out of the vehicle and ordering him to drop the gun.
The DA’s review states that Phangdy continued trying to reload his gun, then was shot four times by Reilly.
In its conclusion, the DA’s Office said Phangdy ignored commands to drop his gun and continued trying to reload his firearm after being struck by the officer’s vehicle.
“It was reasonable for Reilly to believe Phangdy intended to continue firing at him or anyone he encountered,” according to the DA’s review, which states that non-lethal options were “not feasible given the immediacy of the threat posed by Phangdy.”
The other five shootings resulted in wounded suspects.
— Daniel McKibben, who was shot by La Mesa police officer Roberto Nava on May 2, 2019.
Police were initially called for a report of a man who refused to leave a home.
When officers arrived, McKibben told them, “Please stay back. I’m armed,” according to the DA’s review, which states that McKibben kept his right hand hidden from the officers’ view. He told the officers, “Shoot me in the heart,” then “suddenly” drew his hand from behind his back, prompting Nava to shoot McKibben in the shoulder.
After McKibben was shot, Nava saw that he was carrying a knife, which he threatened to throw at the officers, the DA’s review states. Officers told McKibben to drop the knife or he would be shot with a beanbag gun or tased.
He refused, told the officers to “shoot to kill” and attempted to throw the knife, but Nava shot him in the hand.
The DA’s review concluded that Nava was justified in opening fire due to McKibben’s sudden movements after initially telling officers that he was armed.
It was later discovered that McKibben was suspected in the stabbing death of his mother, Heidi Green, in Ocean Beach, which occurred a few days before the police shooting.
McKibben later pleaded guilty to murder, with special circumstance allegations of killing Green in the commission of torture and a robbery. He was sentenced last year to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
— Omar Rojas, who was shot in Vista by sheriff’s deputy Justin Williams on Sept. 28, 2021.
Williams initially responded to reports of a man “acting erratically,” brandishing a knife and slashing another person’s car tires.
When Williams encountered Rojas, Rojas ran and the deputy chased him into a backyard of a home.
The DA’s review states that Rojas found a BB rifle in the backyard and began pointing it at another deputy. Rojas then exited the house, at which point Williams ordered him to drop the gun. The DA’s review states Rojas pointed the rifle at Williams, then the deputy shot him in the right hand and back.
In a subsequent interview, Rojas said he intentionally pointed the gun at deputies so they would shoot him, according to the DA’s Office.
Though the rifle turned out to be a BB gun, the DA’s review states that it “had no visible markings that identified it as a BB gun” and that it was reasonable for Williams to open fire after Rojas pointed the rifle at him.
— Jesus Morales, who was shot by San Diego police Officer Justin Hibbard on Sept. 28, 2021.
The DA’s review states that Morales was riding a motorcycle that was stopped by Hibbard for an unspecified traffic violation. The attempted stop led to a pursuit, after which Morales ditched his bike and ran, according to the DA’s review.
Hibbard chased Morales and at some point, Morales turned and opened fire with a 9mm handgun, leading Hibbard to fire back, striking Morales in the chest and arm.
The DA’s review concludes that Hibbard’s actions were reasonable as Morales “fired at Hibbard from a very close range with a loaded handgun.”
— Shane Felix, who was shot by sheriff’s deputies Lisa Crill, Casey Dow, and Matthew Poulin on Jan. 6, 2020.
The DA’s review states that police were initially called because a caller reported Felix was suicidal. When deputies responded to a home in Lemon Grove, Felix was asked if he was armed. Crill tried to check Felix for any weapons on his person, but the DA’s review states that he moved away from her, pulled a revolver from his jacket and “pulled the weapon to his side as if he was going to fire.”
All three deputies opened fire and Felix was shot multiple times.
The DA’s review concluded that the deputies were justified in opening fire given Felix’s concealed firearm, the lack of cover inside the room, and the imminent threat of harm posed.
— Ryan Bowers, who was shot by San Diego police Officer Matthew Steinbach on Jan. 3, 2019.
Police were initially called because Bowers had cut his own throat with a knife, according to the DA’s review. When Steinbach arrived, the DA’s Office says Bowers pulled a knife on the officer.
Steinbach then drew his gun and told Bowers to drop the knife, but Bowers stepped towards him, with the knife pointed at Steinbach, the DA’s review states.
The officer fired twice, striking Bowers once in the chest.
The DA’s review concluded Steinbach had a reasonable belief that he might be stabbed by Bowers given Bowers’ continued advance toward the officer and the confined space of the bedroom where the shooting took place.
City News Service contributed to this article.