August 19, 2005

First Person

National City Shooting: “I imagined a bullet hitting me in the face.”

By Heriberto Escamilla

On Sunday August 14 the sun came up and shone on Armando Lazos’ face for the last time. At noon of that same day, Armando was laying face down on the ground, beside his gray Toyota Forerunner, his face pulverized by a hail of police gunfire. His world had suddenly gone dark.

My family and I witnessed many of the events that led up to his death. At about 8:30 in the morning my wife, granddaughter and I went to the corner store for tortillas and eggs. As we approached the corner of Ridgeway and Granger, we heard the wail of approaching sirens. We saw a gray SUV turning right at the corner toward Euclid Avenue. Two police units followed close behind. A third police car, trailing a few yards away turned in the same direction on Fenton Street. A few minutes later, as we were on our way back home, the same car, now with all three police cars, in close pursuit, raced back up the same street in the opposite direction. They were chasing, but not very fast.

Back at home and for the rest of the morning, the sirens continued to cut the air around us. For this day and age, this was not unusual. We’ve grown familiar to these reminders of our troubled lives. The loudspeaker that followed was a little more unusual. “You in the 7-Eleven, stay in the store”. Something was definitely amiss, but at that point, we did not know that it was the same guy in the gray SUV. My son-in-law who happened to be at the golf course on Sweetwater Road calls to tell us that he heard there was a shooting, a double murder near the Sweetwater Inn.

I immediately accessed the Internet and learned that an armed man was indeed barricading himself in his car, his gray SUV, but he wasn’t a murder suspect. So we get information and sometimes it’s wrong. It was the same guy, I thought to myself, and now about three hours later after we had first seen him eluding the police, things begin to move more quickly. A helicopter circled the cemetery directly behind our home. Through our kitchen door, we saw police cars, at least three of them positioning themselves near the rear entrance of the cemetery. Other units parked on Granger and Wilma Streets, and behind the police tape, reporters jockeyed for positions. Residents started to gather. A voice from the helicopter orders people visiting their departed loved ones in the cemetery to leave. We see them running out, with surprised, frightened and confused looks on their faces. The white haired woman that lives across the street and a younger companion are talking and then pleading with some of the officers. “Please don’t shoot him, don’t hurt him”. The pleading turns to tears as the officers herd them back away from the cemetery entrance. We learned later, the woman was his girlfriend.

From our back porch, we see the gray SUV slowly rolling toward the chain link gate, now followed by an entourage of police units. The SUV pauses a few times, and then continues. My daughter and son-in-law, now back from his golfing game, nephew visiting from Texas and I shuffle back and forth from the porch to the kitchen, collectively covering the scene. I call my wife and begin an ongoing account. “He’s stopping in front of the mausoleum, now he’s moving again, slowly”, I tell her. At the rear entrance, an officer throws a tire strip on the dirt road that leads out of the cemetery, one of those devices used to puncture tires, on the ground. Why there, I ask myself, he’s completely blocked in? Another officer, a sheriff, in green shorts, bulletproof vest clearly outlined through his khaki colored shirt, pulls a rifle looking weapon from his trunk. I don’t know about guns, it looks like a rifle to me, but my nephew who seems to know about weapons tells me it’s an assault rifle, possibly an M-16. The officer trots off toward the exit, ordering the curious people that live in the houses bordering the entrance, back into their homes. I feel a sick feeling in my stomach. The gray SUV is now outside of the gate. Who opened it? It’s usually locked. From the kitchen window, I see at least two other officers, crouched behind the opened cruiser doors, no more than 20 feet from the SUV, their handguns drawn and pointing directly at the man behind the windshield. The man in the SUV runs out of options, he comes to a stop, completely blocked in.

“Get the video camera”, someone in the house whispers. I consider it, but a lot of other thoughts are going through my mind, the chase that morning, the double-murder story, the slow roll through the cemetery, the women crying, and most of all, the assault weapon. “I don’t think so”, I said. “Let’s get away from the windows and hit the floor”. There is a lot of firepower out there, a lot. “Lily, she’s asleep by the window in the other room”, my son-in-law suddenly remembers, as he disappears into the hall. In a few seconds, he’s back, holding our Lily, our seventeen-month old grandchild, undoubtedly the center of our household these days. They join us on the floor.

Am I exaggerating”?, I am thinking to myself. Maybe we can see this from the porch, it’s safe. I imagined a bullet hitting me in the face, which way should I lie here, facing the street? A few seconds later, we hear a shot, a real one, not imagined. After a half second pause, a barrage of other pops follow. The sick feeling in my stomach spreads throughout my body. Lily jumps in my son in law’s arms. She cries out startled. My eyes moistened. The shooting didn’t last long, a few seconds at most. There was no doubt in my mind. A man’s life has just been taken. I didn’t know who he was or what he had done, but he has surely seen the end of his days, just a few yards away from us.

All told, 8 to 10 officers, we’ve heard at least two different official accounts, fired approximately 95 times. The sound reminded me of the grand finale of a fireworks show.

When the shooting stopped, we walked out on the porch to see the SUV. The windshield wipers, cutting across a glass riddled with bullet holes, were the only immediate signs of life.

It wasn’t until later that we saw the bullet holes and cracked bedroom windows or the seven gray impact marks on the brick wall. One of the holes is huge, at least a half inch diameter. My nephew says it has to be an assault rifle round. There must have been more. It’s impossible to say how many bullets struck our house, but it was enough for me to realize that I had not exaggerated the danger. I had mixed feelings. Pleased that I had acted properly and protected my family, but upset that I had to do so. And definitely angry that I had to protect my family from people that are paid to protect my family and me.

It’s difficult for me to comment on this incident. Most of the time, I appreciate the work that police officers have to do. I certainly don’t want to do the kind of work that intentionally places me in danger. And people make mistakes. That is simply part of our human nature. I’ve made mistakes that have hurt people, hurt them seriously. When I make mistakes, I try hard to acknowledge them, no not simply acknowledge, but in many cases confess those mistakes to the people that I hurt. This acknowledgement is followed with changes to correct my behavior so that the same hurtful behavior does not happen again.

But changes are only possible if we first acknowledge what those mistakes are and recognize how it is we hurt people, and unfortunately, we live in a social world that quite frankly discourages personal responsibility. Public servants in particular, people that are paid to protect us, can’t acknowledge missteps or miscalculations because that exposes them and their supervisors to litigation. They typically never face the people they hurt and if they do it’s much later. We expect them to be more than human.

And hindsight is of course always a perfect 20-20. I don’t know what it’s like to chase someone for more than three hours, consistently pressured by the possibility of potential danger. I don’t know what it’s like to be one of an army of policemen, pumped with adrenaline, tensely pointing a firearm, ready to snap at the slightest provocation. I really can’t judge. It must be hell sometimes.

But I can tell you that from where I sat, I indeed did see an army of officers, all focused on one man; on a man, who as it turns out was armed only with a pellet gun; on one man that was completely corralled, with nowhere to move. His life was entirely in their hands. From where he sat, and unless he was strapped to dynamite or had other concealed weapons, the man was not a danger to me, my family or any other Lincoln Acre resident. The shooting as it unfolded, with so much force and violence was brutal. And the way in which it was managed did endanger my family. What’s more, the officers put each other in danger. As I understand it, bullets pierced at least one police cruiser. No matter how one looks at the actual incident, the shooting, I am hard pressed to justify 95 bullets, for one man, whether or not he was suicidal. Police officers are not in the business of assisting suicides. And what makes it worse is that this was not an isolated incident. There was a similar show of force, of “shock and awe” in Los Angeles not long ago, and three others closer to home in Vista and the following night, another one in Chollas View, even closer to home. And with a last name like Escamilla, I would be completely remiss if I did not mention that all of these victims were Latinos. We’ve witnessed similar scenes too many times.

Maybe I am too idealistic, but wouldn’t it be something if National City led a movement to encourage real responsibility among residents and public servants? Wouldn’t it be something, if we go against the grain and find the use of such force was not justified, that people accept their mistakes and that we take real measures to change policy and practice? And what about Armando? His family will never see him again. Do we really need to imply that he wanted to die and the police were just doing him a favor? There is no way of ever knowing what was in his mind and heart that morning. He took that with him. We can’t bring him back, but as residents we still have the opportunity to give him a more noble and meaningful death.

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