San Jose police cleared of wrongdoing by DA in fatal shooting of mistaken suspect on Christmas

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The Santa Clara County District Attorney cleared San Jose police officers of wrongdoing in the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Jennifer Vazquez on Christmas Day in a report released Friday. 

Police mistakenly identified Vazquez as an armed felon in a shooting that morning and pursued her vehicle until she crashed into a chain-link fence at Fruitdale and Leigh avenues. Officers said she was using the stolen vehicle as a weapon to ram officers when they shot at her 37 times, hitting her 14 times in the head, chest, arm and shoulder.

The intersection bloomed into a memorial by the next morning, where her family and friends came together to remember Vazquez, a woman who they said embodied several other young, Latino girls growing up in San Jose. 

Vazquez had a difficult past, they said, but was on a path to bettering her life when she ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

The District Attorney's Office, which notified the family before releasing the report, maintains that her behavior made police officers fear for their lives, even though she was not the correct suspect.

"Nothing Jennifer Vazquez did on December 25, 2018, dispelled the reasonable suspicion that she was exactly who the police were looking for, an armed fleeing felon who had just shot two people and may have shot a third two hours earlier," prosecutor David Boyd said in the 62-page report. Police have not reported if they ever arrested the correct suspects in the shooting.

Lidia Jimenez, a mentor for Vazquez, said Friday morning that the family was discussing the report and preparing a statement. Family and friends demonstrated outside the District Attorney's office in late February, demanding that the office address unanswered questions in the shooting for Vazquez's parents, Maria Elena Vazquez and Jose De Jesus Ramos. 

Officers responded to the area of Clemence Avenue and Story Road at 2:09 a.m. on Dec. 25 and found two adults suffering from at least one gunshot wound each. Witnesses pointed out a white Toyota Camry on Clemence, and said "That way, they shot!"

An officer later saw Vazquez's vehicle going west on Owsley Avenue from Clemence and broadcast the description to officers, who eventually pursued the vehicle in a high-speed, 9-mile chase.

The chase ended with Officers Marco Mercado, Eliseo Anaya, Mitchell Stimson and Mark Koska shooting Vazquez when she "tried to smash a stolen car out of a phalanx of police cars, endangering the officers and the community," the District Attorney's Office said. Officers later determined Vazquez had not been involved in the early morning drive-by shooting.

Body camera footage released with the report shows Vazquez rocking the vehicle back and forth in the fence in an effort to free her car. Officers begin shooting after the vehicle hits a police car once, after which point the car stops moving.

On Friday, the District Attorney's office also ruled officers acted legally when they shot and injured Vazquez's passenger, 28-year-old Linda Carmona-Bruno, who did not suffer life-threatening injuries. 

In interviews with police, Carmona-Bruno said she and Vazquez had been shopping for Christmas presents the night before the shooting. Their original plan was to visit Vazquez's mother for Christmas, but Carmona-Bruno was late in picking her up from Los Banos in Merced County, where Vazquez was living at the time. 

They later unknowingly borrowed the stolen car from a friend, according to Carmona-Bruno, and had been passing by the intersection of the shooting investigation when the chase began. Vazquez knew she had a warrant out for her arrest for methamphetamine possession, and sped away from the area to avoid being arrested.

The chase reached up to 100 mph, as Vazquez ripped down surface streets and U.S. Highway 280, driving the wrong way on roads at times. When the car finally crashed into the fence, Vazquez worried that police would shoot her, but continued trying to extract the car from the fence.

Body-worn camera footage from this moment shows Officer Mercado getting out of his police car with a gun and yelling, "Stay in the fucking car! Do you want to be shot? Keep your hands out!" He then asks other officers if they have 40mm less-lethal ammunition.

Mobile users watch the body-worn camera footage here

Inside the car, Carmona-Bruno said Vazquez wouldn't stop the vehicle, and wouldn't listen when she told her to stop. Carmona-Bruno said she didn't hear police say they would shoot, and that Vazquez was "just doing her own thing." Footage shows a gap between police cars where Vazquez may have been attempting to maneuver her vehicle.

She eventually rams into a police car to the left of Mercado, and video footage shows dozens of shots fire into her vehicle. The vehicle then comes to a stop. 

"Under the facts, circumstances, and applicable law in this matter, the use of deadly force by Officers Marco Mercado, Eliseo Anaya, Mark Koska, and Mitchell Stimson was a lawful response to an apparent armed fleeing felon who reasonable appeared to pose a great threat to public safety if not immediately arrested, as well as an apparent and immediate threat of great bodily injury or death to the officers themselves at the time shots were fired," the report concludes.