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Federal probe clears deputies in Gutierrez shooting

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February 15, 2011 | Leave Comment

Federal investigators found no evidence of criminal civil rights violations in the 2009 shooting death of Luis Gutierrez Navarro by members of the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department’s gang task force, according to a letter sheriff’s officials received Monday.

The letter, a copy of which was released this morning by the Sheriff’s Department, says the criminal section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division received a complaint about the actions of Sgt. Dale Johnson and Deputy Hernan Oviedo in connection with the April 30, 2009, shooting on a Woodland freeway overpass.

“We recently completed our review of the results of the investigation of that complaint to determine whether a federal criminal prosecution was warranted,” says the letter, dated Feb. 4 and signed by Section Chief Mark J. Koppelhoff. “After careful consideration, we concluded that the evidence does not establish a prosecutable violation of the federal criminal civil rights statutes. Accordingly, we have closed our investigation.”

However, it continues: “Please be advised that our conclusion in this matter does not preclude other components of the U.S. Department of Justice from taking action, where appropriate, under their separate enforcement authority.”

The letter comes nearly 15 months after an investigation by the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office that determined the shooting was justified. The DA’s findings were reviewed and backed by the California Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff’s officials said Gutierrez, 26, was high on methamphetamine when he swung a knife at deputies who tried to make contact with him on the East Gum Avenue overpass in Woodland. Both Johnson and Oviedo fired a total of six shots, one of which fatally struck Gutierrez.

A third officer at the scene, Deputy Hector Bautista, did not fire his weapon and apparently was not a subject of the complaint to the federal Department of Justice.

The shooting brought considerable controversy as area civil-rights organizations questioned why Gutierrez, who had no criminal history or confirmed gang ties, was targeted by the deputies. Some theorized that Gutierrez was unaware that the plain-clothed deputies were law-enforcement officers and may have been trying to defend himself.

An independent civil rights commission, chaired by former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, also is investigating the shooting.

Al Rojas of the Yolo County Justice Coalition, which formed in the wake of the shooting, said Monday he wants to know whether the U.S. Department of Justice conducted its own investigation of the incident or reviewed the previous findings before reaching its conclusion.

“There’s no real substance to it,” Rojas said of the statement released by the Sheriff’s Department. “Until we see what type of investigation this was, there’s a lot of questions remaining.”

Sheriff Ed Prieto, who said he requested a federal probe of the officers’ actions along with District Attorney Jeff Reisig, said federal investigators reviewed reports by the Woodland Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office.

“Had they noticed that the investigation wasn’t thorough, they would have initiated their own,” Prieto said. “I felt certain that our officers did not act inappropriately, and I was confident of that from the very beginning.”

– Reach Lauren Keene at lkeene@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8048. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

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