UPDATE: A candlelight vigil has been organized to take place Friday evening at 7:00 p.m.. The memorial will take place in front of Marquez’s former residence on the 1100 block of Fremont Ave in South Pasadena.
August 30 marks the first anniversary of the death of Vanessa Marquez. Delayed by sundry obstacles, it was only last month that a small group of her family and friends were at last able to scatter Vanessa’s ashes in a private and undisclosed manner which was said to be “symbolic of who she was in this world” and consistent with the love she had for her work in cinema.
But those same family and friends, along with her fans and others in the community, are still waiting for complete answers to questions about how the 49-year-old actress ended up shot to death by South Pasadena police during an early afternoon “welfare check” at her second floor apartment on the 1100 block of Fremont Avenue.
“A year later, why has very little information been revealed to the public?” Minerva Garcia asked South Pasadena City Council members at their regular meeting last week. Garcia, who said she was a friend of Marquez, contrasted the length of the investigation with the confidence officials expressed shortly after the incident that police had “acted appropriately” and that investigators would conclude her shooting was a “justified incident.”
“If anything, this prolonged investigation has raised far more questions than answers,” she observed before asking some of those questions:
Who let police into Marquez’s apartment?
Exactly when during the encounter did Marquez allegedly produce the weapon recovered from the scene, which turned out to be BB gun?
Why did the police feel that shooting Marquez–who Garcia described as an a “disabled woman who weighed 86 pounds at the time of her death”–was the only way to respond?
Is there body camera footage of the event or were the police officers’ cameras turned off?
Were there non-lethal ways to subdue her?
“Only one version of the story is out there,” Garcia exclaimed as the tension in her voice broke and the buzzer ending her three-minute time allotment beeped.
Vicki I. Sarmiento, the Alhambra attorney representing Marquez’s mother, Delia McElfresh, is asking similar questions.
“They have gone on record saying this was a justified shooting. If it was justified, why are they not releasing any information?” She says the city and police department have studiously turned aside all her requests for information about the case. “It is very disappointing. It’s been almost a year and Vanessa’s mom knows very little else than what she knew the day Vanessa was shot and killed.”
The city has shut down the flow of information citing pending investigations. City officials have asked the public for patience and to await the findings before passing judgment. There are those in the community who are prepared to do just that and who are comfortable with the amount of information that has been released.
But it is true that official accounts of the shooting are few, sparse and dusty.
The first was a 229-word rendition from the sheriff’s department posted the day of the incident.
That report says SPPD officers were in the apartment for a welfare check on a resident possibly suffering from a “medical condition.” They noticed she was having seizures and called paramedics. Officers and a county mental health clinician spoke to her for about 90 minutes. She “became uncooperative” and then “armed herself with a handgun and pointed it at the officers, at which time an officer-involved shooting occurred.” She was transported to a hospital and declared dead. A Sheriff’s lieutenant gave a similar summary to reporters at the scene.
Then on Sept. 10, interim South Pasadena Police Chief Brian Solinsky offered some elaboration during the city’s Sept. 10 Public Safety Commission meeting. According to one media report, he said events moved quickly from “a medical to a mental situation.” There were three officers and one clinician present. “It was decided she needed more attention, so they were going to take her to the hospital,” Solinsky said. When officers moved to do so, Marquez produced the weapon, which he said looked like a real gun. The officers fired multiple shots.
At a city council meeting a week later, Solinsky gave another account based on the Sheriff Department report, adding only that the welfare check had been prompted by a call police received from someone concerned about Marquez’s mental health.
That constitutes everything that has been officially said about the facts of the incident.
South Pasadena spokesman John Pope said the city completed a perfunctory incident report and turned it over to the Sheriff’s Department, which opened a separate, in depth investigation that included interviewing witnesses and which was handled by Det. Sgt. Guillermo Morales. In April, Morales completed the investigation, but it was not released.
Instead it was turned over to the LA District Attorney’s office, which had launched a separate review. The County completed an autopsy but that too has been placed on a “security hold.” This week, Greg Risling, a spokesman for the DA, told the South Pasadenan News that a case has been presented from the Sheriff to the DA’s Justice System Integrity Division, but that it “remains under review.” He declined to answer any other questions.
Frustrated by the lack of information, Sarmiento in February submitted a $20 million claim for wrongful death and other violations to the city on behalf McElfresh. She said the city had 45 days to review the claim but hasn’t accepted, rejected or responded to it. Sarmiento suggested the ambiguous response may be a legal strategy: to file a lawsuit on state causes of action, claimants must file within six months of the date the claim is rejected by the respondent.
South Pasadena spokesman John Pope gave a different account of the relevant deadlines but agreed the city’s reaction to the claim amounts to a non-response. With the city refusing to respond to amicable inquiries for information made pursuant to freedom of information requests and the claim, Sarmiento said, the case has become “ripe for litigation.” That’s something McElfresh had hoped to avoid, the attorney added.
Sarmiento also said she has learned of “physical evidence that would dispute the contention that this was a justified shooting,” but would not elaborate other than to say the information was obtained independently and not through the media.
South Pasadena made no effort to reach out to McElfresh before or after the filing of the claim, Sarmiento said. It has not provided answers to simple questions such as whether the police wore body cameras or released the names of officers involved—something other police agencies have been known to do.
This week, South Pasadena’s Pope acknowledged for the first time to the South Pasadenan News that the police incident report is in fact a public record. But he cautioned it offers little more than has already been released–except that it has the names of the officers involved. He said the report would be released under a formal public records request but that it was unclear if the officers’ names would be redacted.
There is also confusion about body cameras. Sarmiento said she has heard there were body cams but that neither the city nor the police department have responded to her requests with an affirmative statement about their existence. The city could acknowledge if they exist and still opt to withhold footage pending the investigation, she said, but it has not even done that.
However, according to the minutes of the Sept. 10 Public Safety Commission, Solinsky reported that the DA’s office took evidence including “police body cameras.” And this week, Sheriff Lt. Brandon R. Dean, confirmed to the South Pasadena News not only that there were body cameras, but that they were on and recorded footage. But he said they are not currently in the public domain.
Most of all, Marquez’s allies are tired of waiting. A year ago, city manager Stephanie DeWolfe asked for patience, saying these kinds of investigations can take between “six months and a year.”
“We understand some time is needed for an investigation,” Sarmiento said. But the circumstances don’t warrant such a prolonged one. The events were confined to a single apartment with known individuals. It is not as though the Sheriff or DA must sort through hundreds of witnesses or sift through hours of video tape. “I don’t see this as a protracted investigation. It appears to me to be more of a stonewalling tactic.”
It is unfortunate, Sarmiento added, as “it erodes public confidence in the police department as well as accountability and transparency. And I think a reasonable judge would [agree].”
Meantime city officials have continued to underestimate how long the DA review may take.
Based on an analysis of the 28 officer-involved shooting investigations released so far this year by the LA County District Attorney’s office, the average investigation took 22 months to complete, and only three took less than a year. The 16 investigations involving a fatality took an average of about three months longer than the reviews of non-fatal incidents. More importantly, no fault was found on the part of any of the three dozen officers investigated. Of the 28 investigated incidents, 22 were found to be lawful, legally justified or a reasonable use of force; five had “insufficient evidence” to prove they were not lawful; and one was deemed an accident. The cases were for incidents that took place between January 2015 and June 2018.
The Sheriff’s Department was involved in 14 of the OIS investigations while LAPD was involved in 12. Other police departments involved in the OIS incidents were El Monte, Gardena, Hawthorne, Huntington Park, Long Beach, West Covina, Whittier and the CHP.
There are at least 5.5 officer-involved shootings every month in LA county. The DA has released 217 OIS investigations since January 2015. A DA spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about how many cases are currently pending.