Erik Salgado shooting: DA declines to file charges against CHP officers

Picture of Erik Salgado, 22, shot and killed by CHP auto-theft task-force officers at 96th and Cherry in East Oakland. 

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office will not file criminal charges against the three California Highway Patrol officers involved in the fatal shooting of unarmed 23-year-old Erik Salgado in Oakland almost two years ago.

District Attorney Nancy O’Malley on Monday, publicly released the final report on the June 2020 shooting saying, "I concur in the conclusions that the evidence does not support criminal charges filed against any law enforcement official related to this incident."

Three CHP officers -- Eric Hulbert, Donald Saputa and Sgt. Richard Henderson, were named in the shooting that resulted in Salgado getting struck at least 16 times. His pregnant girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat, was wounded but survived.

The shooting happened on Cherry Street near 96th Avenue in East Oakland, and it came as the nation was reeling from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

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Investigators said that on the night of Salgado's death, officers in a marked CHP patrol car as well as two undercover Dodge Ram pickup trucks, one silver and the other dark gray, were conducting a traffic stop on the car driven by Salgado.

He was behind the wheel of a red Dodge Challenger (also known as the "Hellcat"), which Oakland police had determined was one of 74 vehicles stolen from a San Leandro dealership.

It was during the attempted stop, the report said, that Salgado drove the Hellcat in the direction of officers. 

"Suddenly the Hellcat reversed its direction," striking the dark gray undercover truck. The officers were dressed in plain clothes but were wearing their tactical vests with police identifiers, according to the report. 

"They identified themselves as police officers and ordered the driver to stop, but the driver of the Hellcat changed directions again and accelerated forward, striking the marked CHP patrol car and the silver Dodge pickup truck," the report said.

Officers' testimony revealed a chaotic scene which unfolded following the failed attempt to pullover Salgado. They described how they opened fire amid fears that one of the officers on scene had been struck and pinned by the suspect’s vehicle.

Officer Donald Saputa and Sgt. Richard Henderson fired their rifles and Officer Eric Hulbert used his pistol to shoot at Salado, according to the report.

"Salgado sustained 16 rifle wounds to his torso and upper extremities," the investigation found. He died at the scene. His girlfriend, Brianna Colombo, sustained wounds to her stomach, leg and arms. She was rushed to Highland Hospital, where she underwent surgery. Colombo reportedly lost her pregnancy as a result of the shooting. 

During her recovery, the Oakland Police Department conducted an interview with Colombo who told investigators that she was "scared and traumatized" by Salgado, according to the report. She told police that on the day before the confrontation that led to his death, he would not tell her where he had gotten the stolen vehicle. When she tried to leave the car, he refused to let her go, she said. She was the only civilian witness that investigators said was able to shed light on the events of that night. 

An Officer Involved Shooting (OIS) team assembled by the DA’s office conducted interviews with the officers involved in the shooting as well as the other CHP and Oakland police officers on scene that night.

"In this case each of the officers who fired their weapons justified their actions by indicating the fear that another officer was facing imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury," the report said.

In the case of Henderson, he told OIS investigators that he initially believed that Hulbert was in the path of the Hellcat. 

In the case of Saputa, his account aligned with that of Henderson’s but Saputa believed it was another CHP officer, Michael Diehl, who was in danger of getting struck by the Hellcat.

"Officer Saputa said that he yelled commands to the drive to stop to no avail," the report said.

Hulbert also believed Diehl's life was in danger. 

"Officer Hulbert said that immediately, prior to firing his weapon, he saw Officer Diehl in the path of the Hellcat and then did not see Officer Diehl anymore," the report said. "Officer Hulbert continued to fire his weapon until it was empty. He reloaded at that point and then realized the driver was incapacitated."

Investigators said that visibility may have also been a factor. There was heavy smoke in the air, which could be seen in video that was submitted as part of the investigation. The smoke was associated with the revved up engine from the Hellcat during the incident.

The DA’s office said that none of the statements or evidence gathered by the OIS team contradicted those offered by the officers who fired the shots.

O’Malley also said that the purpose of her office’s investigation was not to determine whether the officers who fired were in imminent danger but whether they "reasonably believed" that they or others faced serious harm or death. 

"... while questions remain on the use of force in this case, there is a lack of evidence and independent witnesses to proceed with criminal charges," she concluded. 

The DA noted that there was no statute of limitations in the case and in the event that additional information was brought forth, the decision not to file criminal charges could be reconsidered.

SEE ALSO: Family of man shot and killed by CHP demand meeting with DA

Salgado's family has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the officers in the case. The law offices of civil rights attorney John Burris, who's representing the family, did not immediately respond to our request for comment on this latest development. 

Burris had previously called the shooting "a massacre," adding, "The young people were sitting ducks as they sat in their cars. It was a complete overkill for the type of case involved, which essentially as far as we know was a stolen car."