UPDATE for article originally published Monday, March 2.
The office of Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has determined that two South Pasadena police officers who fatally shot actress Vaness Marquez during a “welfare check” at her upstairs apartment on Fremont Ave on Aug. 30, 2018 “acted in lawful self-defense and defense of others.”
During a somber Monday morning press conference at City Hall, South Pasadena Police Chief Ortiz said his department will now commence its own investigation of whether department policies and procedures were followed. He said that review, to be conducted by a third-party contractor, could take up to another 60 days.
In addition to announcing the DA report’s finding, Ortiz, who was not chief at the time of the incident, screened an edited, seven-minute collage of the long-awaited body camera footage taken during the incident. The city said it would release the full, unedited video in response to new public document requests. It was unclear why the city did not release the remaining video pursuant to several long-standing Public Record Act requests.
The chilling tape shows two officers, positioned in the foyer at the bottom of a staircase, shooting nearly a dozen times at Marquez, who was at the top of the staircase outside her apartment. She was holding what turned out to be a black BB gun that resembled a Beretta firearm, and which had a removable slide. She fell face up, her head still on the upper landing and the rest of her body atop the first few steps, the BB gun at her left foot.
Shot at 1:48 p.m., she was declared dead at Huntington Memorial Hospital at 2:36 p.m., having sustained “two gunshot wounds” and “two gunshot wound-related abrasions,” the D.A. report states.
Vicki Sarmiento, who filed a $20 million wrongful death claim against the city on behalf of Marquez’s mother Delia McElfresh, issued a statement from McElfresh saying she was not told the video would be released. “It was irresponsible for video to be published without any pre-advisement to her. She is a grieving mother, and the City has never once contacted her to meet with her to explain the circumstances of her daughter’s death. She feels further violated by the way she has been treated and disregarded.”
The D.A.’s report does not make clear exactly how many people were present, but by the time of the shooting, at least six police officers had responded, along with several firefighters and paramedics.
It summarizes the actions of seven people: Officer Avick Manukian; Officer Gilberto Carrillo; Sgt. Spencer Louie; Officer Christopher Perez; Detective Arthur Burgos; firefighter/paramedic John Papadakis; and Stephanie Gallegos, a psychiatric social worker with LA County Dept. of Mental Health. It said voluntary statements were provided by Carrillo and Perez and that investigators interviewed Carrillo and Manukian; the extent to which the others spoke to investigators is unclear.
According to the report, Papadakis received a call that morning from a female “friend” of Marquez’ in Alabama who said she’d spoken to and was worried about Marquez. Papadakis referred the call to the SPPD for a “welfare check.” It goes on to say Carrillo was advised that a “relative” residing in another state had spoken with Marquez and become concerned about her. The report does not clear up how many calls came in or who they were from, a dispute that has been a central focus for some of Marquez’ supporters.
The report states Manukian and Carrillo “responded separately” though it quotes Manukian saying they both arrived at 11:46 a.m. while the city provided a timeline saying Carrillo arrived at exactly noon. They were let in the building by a resident but got no response when they knocked repeatedly on Marquez’ door. At 12:19, the landlord unlocked the door and they entered the apartment, finding it so cluttered they had to push open the door. On the tape, they called out to Marquez but received no response.
The report states that when Manukian arrived at Marquez’ bedroom door “he looked inside and saw Marquez having a seizure.” However, Carrillo told the investigators that Marquez’ seizure began “as soon as Marquez saw Manukian.” They then called paramedics, who arrived at 12:27 p.m. The report states that the day before, Marquez had posted a social media message saying her seizures had returned and that the morning of the shooting she posted again, saying “[seizures] bad.”
Burgos and Gallegos then arrived and spoke to Marquez, who told them she weighed 80 pounds and had not eaten for five days. Gallegos spoke to Marquez for nearly an hour and determined her to be ”gravely disabled” and “unable to take care of herself.” Burgos told Carrillo they’d determined Marquez should be evaluated pursuant to Welfare and Institutions Code section 5150, which authorizes police to involuntarily take someone to be examined. The action was approved by Sgt. Louie.
Ortiz said factors dictating the need to detain Marquez included the two dozen times police and fire officials had previously been called to the address over the years, though he said in all of those, the police “never had a negative contact with Vanessa” or needed to use force. There was also the number and length of time unopened parcels appeared to have been sitting at her door; the call of concern from the “family member”; and the building manager’s statement that he had not seen Marquez for about a week. Those signs provided a “sense of exigency that we needed to make entry into the room to make sure she was OK [and] once we contacted her, we do have a responsibility to make sure that we provide the care she needed.”
But Marquez, still laying in her bed, refused the officers’ entreaties to come voluntarily and shortly thereafter produced a pair of scissors and then the replica gun, whereupon the officers backed out of her room and apartment, and finally down the stairs, where they shouted at her to come out and to drop the gun. Within a few moments, she came out the door and crossed the landing to the other side of the steps.
Officer Christopher Perez, who was at the bottom of the steps with a Colt M4 Carbine rifle pointed up the staircase, told investigators that Marquez was coming down the steps, “charging at us [in an] aggressive manner” with an “angry” demeanor. Her handgun moved “up, down and a little bit diagonal as well…swinging back and forth,” he said.
Although Perez did not see the gun pointed at the officers, the report states he feared for his safety and that of his partner “because he believed she would ‘open fire’ on them.” He fired three times while Officer Carrillo, standing a few feet from the bottom of the stairs, fired at least eight shots from his Glock Model 22 handgun.
The report seeks to make the case that Marquez was suicidal, noting that in the months prior to the shooting, she had written social media posts complaining of a terminal disease, frustration over having been “blacklisted” by Hollywood due to a sexual harassment claim she’d made, and problems with her landlord. “I want to die NOW,” she wrote. Officer Carrillo said she had told him that morning she was having “suicidal ideation.” At one point during the scuffle with police, she’d pointed the gun at her head and at another shouted, “Shoot me!”
“Her intention, as evidenced by her final Facebook post, sadly appears to have been to end her own life,” the report stated. “While still in her room, before confronting the officers with the gun, Marquez posted: ‘[They’re] shooting[.] [Cremate me [and] pour ashes over Hollywood sign.’”
Ortiz seemed to agree. He repeatedly said or implied that Marquez had made some “poor decisions.”
Phil Salvatti, a 30-year friend of Marquez who met her when he worked on the set for Stand and Deliver, said he did not think the incident amounted to “suicide by cop. They freaked her out in her home. Obviously there was something going on in there” but the situation “broke down” due to the disposition of the officer who advised her they would be taking her to the hospital, he said. “She didn’t want to go back” to the hospital, where she claimed she’d been abused before. He said he would reserve judgment on the finding of lawful self-defense until he completes reading the DA’s report.
Salvatti asked Ortiz if officers weren’t too harsh on Marquez, scaring her. Ortiz said he understood the question but felt it was premature to respond until the department’s administrative review is complete.
The chief also declined to respond to a question about why the police did not employ non-lethal means to detain Marquez, who Carrillo had described as described as “frail” and “thin.” After a long pause, Ortiz simply said, “It’s upsetting for all of us” and again deferred to the administrative review.
In response to another question, Ortiz spoke at length about the history of the mental health training officers receive. “All of us in law enforcement hope to complete our careers without ever using our weapons in a situation like this one.” But incidents “spurred by mental illness” are increasing throughout the county, he said. “We will continue with our efforts to try to adopt to this crisis.”
I was very, very close friends with actress Vanessa Marquez. In fact, I am the person who called the South Pasadena Fire Department to send paramedics to her apartment because she was having severe seizures that day. For me the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office’s report on her death has opened up more questions than it has provided answers.
First, I have to question why the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office sought fit to include Facebook posts out of context in the Social Media portion of the report in an effort to make Vanessa seem as if she was suicidal, yet they did not include any of the interviews conducted with her friends? I know that when I talked to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department I categorically denied that she was suicidal, and I asuume most of Vanessa’s other friends did the same. Why are these interviews not included in the report? Indeed, I talked with Vanessa two days before she died and texted with her extensively the day before. She was still enthusiastic about life and looking forward to the future. She certainly was not suicidal.
Second, why does the report mention the seizures that Vanessa was having only a few times and does not take into account the possible role they played in her death? Following seizures it is not unusual for individuals to experience a period of confusion or even psychosis. I am convinced that is what happened to Vanessa. It makes more sense that any claim that she was suicidal. Vanessa did not seem like a woman who wanted to die at all.
Third, when it became clear that Vanessa was not going to cooperate with them, why didn’t the police call one of Vanessa’s friends to talk to her? I have to think that they had the number of her emergency contact, as well as a few of her other friends (myself included). Why didn’t they call any of us?
Fourth, even armed with what the police officers thought was a real gun, I am having difficulty seeing anyone being threatened by Vanessa. She stood all of five foot three, weighed all of 87 pounds, and was not particularly healthy physically. I am convinced that any of the officers could have simply taken the BB gun from her. For that matter, I don’t think being “scared out of one’s wits” justifies killing someone. If a civilian shot and killed someone and used the excuse, “I was scared out of my wits,” I am fairly certain that civilian would be charged with manslaughter or murder.
Fifth, why didn’t the police officers use a non-lethal alternative to firearms to deal with Vanessa, such as pepper spray or Tasers? Neither the South Pasadena Police Department nor the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office has answered that question and I think it is a very valid one.
The fact that I even have to ask these questions has me convinced that the police officers present in Vanessa’s apartment that day mishandled the situation badly. I honestly believe that if they had behave more responsibly Vanessa might still be alive today. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office may have cleared those officers in Vanessa’s death, but as far as I am concerned, they are still responsible.
Going forward, let’s see a formal policy declaring that the South Pasadena Police Department will make body camera footage public within thirty days of an officer-involved shooting, absent a clear and serious reason to withhold it. The release of this video a year ago would not have changed what the video shows, and would not have changed the outcome of the DA’s investigation.
Legislation signed into law last year makes prompt release of body camera footage the new legal standard in California:
This footage should have been made public more than a year ago. We can do better.