By Vic Bedoian
Photos by Peter Maiden
The Fresno police force is embroiled in another shooting controversy. This time it’s over the killing two years ago of an unarmed teenage suspect shot in the back of the head as he was running away from the officers. Sixteen-year-old Isiah Murrietta-Golding was fatally wounded on April 15, 2017, with a single shot to the head as he fled after police stopped a car he was in along with his brother.
New video footage of the incident was released recently by Stuart Chandler, the attorney representing the boy’s father, who is suing the city. The boy’s mother also filed a lawsuit and is being represented by attorney Michael Haddad of Oakland. The family alleges that Police Sergeant Ray Villalzavo used excessive and unlawful deadly force and committed assault and battery with negligence.
Fresno Police Chief Andy Hall, the Fresno County District Attorney and the City’s Office of Independent Review all determined that the shooting was justifiable.
The video has gone viral nationally, raising more questions about police conduct. At a rally and press conference on Oct. 28, concerned residents came together to call for a federal civil rights investigation of the incident and for police accountability.
Growing community concern and resentment over the police killing of 16-year-old Isiah Murrietta-Golding has ignited a cry for an investigation of that incident and overall patterns and practices of the Fresno Police Department. That outrage was expressed at a rally held at the plaza of the federal court building in downtown Fresno. The focus wasn’t only on that tragedy, but rather the record of such incidents over the years.
“We all grew up believing the police were our friends and that we should run to them for safety. Now many run from them for fear.”
Gloria Hernandez represents Fresno Stolen Lives. In her career as a social worker, she knows well the many tragedies visited upon the people from bullets and beatings issued by police and the impacts of their families. And, as a lifelong human rights activist, she has been documenting dozens of cases involving questionable police actions, especially regarding people of color.
She places the blame squarely on the shoulders of former Police Chief Jerry Dyer, who is now running for mayor of Fresno, “In the present case as many others affecting stolen lives taken by the police, many were denied due process. And on top of that, the District Attorney failed to adequately represent the people of this county by sugar-coating this investigation.
“Jerry Dyer lied about how this kid was killed. He finally justified the killing of this childlike he did with another child when the other child was beaten up by a professional boxer who wears a badge. He badmouthed these children as he does all the victims of police brutality and stolen lives.”
Hernandez announced that she has submitted a formal request to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, Greg Scott, to launch a formal civil rights investigation into the patterns and practices of the Fresno Police Department. That message energized the diverse crowd of dozens of concerned citizens brought together by the Fresno Brown Berets organization, which has long sought law enforcement reform. Brown Beret Irene Serrano-Parra read a section of the letter to the crowd.
“The City of Fresno has failed our children for far too long. The role of law enforcement should be to protect residents and pursue crime. Recent events, however, have many in our community to question how the Fresno Police Department fulfills its mandate to protect the public. We write to request that you direct the federal Civil Rights Division and the FBI to investigate the Fresno Police Department for potential civil rights violations.”
This most recent killing would never have come to the public’s attention were it not for Chandler, attorney for Isiah’s father. He had to force the city through legal means to release it. There has been a visceral response locally and nationally to shocking video of Isiah running away, Police Sergeant Villalzano firing his handgun, the youth falling still and another officer heard saying “good shot.’” The request for a federal investigation states that the video raises questions about the decision by police, the District Attorney and the City’s independent police auditor that the shooting was justifiable.
Gloria Hernandez took them all to task, calling for a more open inquiry, “There needs to be public input just like L.A. County did. There needs to be a civilian review, not appointed by the Mayor, not appointed by the Chief of Police, but by our City Council.”
The 2017 killing of Isiah harkens back to the 2016 slaying of 19-year-old Dylan Noble by police. Chandler won a $2.8 million settlement from the City in that wrongful death lawsuit.
As part of that settlement, the Fresno police were supposed to improve their training program. But Chandler says that did not happen, resulting in yet another tragedy, “I will tell you it’s consistently been our hope that we can have meaningful discussions with city representatives in how there can be a change in what happens at the Fresno Police Department when it comes to not just written policies but actual training and a change of culture.”
Chandler states that the Fresno police had a backup plan to cordon off the neighborhood and detain the suspects they were seeking for questioning in a shooting the day before, namely Isiah and his brother. If police officers had followed their own plan, they might not have ended up killing Isiah.
A report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that over the past 15 years in Fresno, there have been more than 146 officer-involved shootings and that 55 officers were repeat shooters. Fresno Stolen Lives and the Brown Berets say they plan ongoing public actions to bring more attention to the culture of local police procedures and the deficiency of oversight by local officials.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.