Drug agents were justified in shooting and killing a man suspected of growing marijuana in the hills northwest of Lake Berryessa, the Napa County district attorney's office has found.
Jose Luis Chavez Martinez was killed June 30 after he brandished a handgun at the agents as they approached, according to a district attorney's Office report.
Napa Police Officer Pete Piersig and Napa County Sheriff's Office Deputy Jeremiah Bohlander were hiking with other agents from the Napa Special Investigations Bureau at about 1 p.m., the report states. They entered an area near Pope Creek the bureau previously identified as an illegal marijuana operation.
Piersig was leading the team on a path overgrown with brush and trees, the report said. They came to a small clearing and saw marijuana plants growing among irrigation tubing, it says. The also noted the smell of burning marijuana.
Piersig and Bohlander spotted two men standing about 25 yards away, talking to each other, according to the report. Martinez was dressed in camouflage and had his back to the officers.
The second man, later identified as Oswaldo Rivera, was facing the officers in a blue shirt and camouflage pants, the report states.
Rivera started toward the officers as if he had seen something, the report states. The officers say they feared he had seen them, so they called out “Police! Police! Freeze!”
According to the report, Piersig pointed his gun at the two men.
Rivera ran to the officer's right, but Martinez turned around, it said. Officers say they saw a silver object in his front waistband. They say he grabbed the object, which the officers recognized as a handgun, and lifted it upward.
Martinez ran to the officer's left toward a large tree surrounded by thick tangled brush, the report states.
“The officers feared that Rivera and Martinez were running for cover and attempted to gain an advantage over them,” the district attorney’s office found.
The officers say they were unsure if Rivera was armed or if there were other suspects in the area.
“Fearing for their lives and the lives of the other agents, both Officer Piersig and Deputy Bohlander fired multiple shots at Martinez as Martinez ran towards the brush and dove behind it,” the report states.
The officers say they lost sight of Martinez temporarily in the dust and brush. Piersig spotted him on the ground, but couldn't see his hands or feet, the report states.
Piersig believed Martinez was still a threat, so he fired shots in Martinez’s direction.
Piersig then radioed to Napa dispatch and reported “shots fired.” Napa Dispatch sent medical assistance.
Agents found Martinez with a chrome-plated .38 Special revolver underneath him, according to the report. They attempted first aid.
The California Highway Patrol Helicopter flew in a medic, who confirmed Martinez was dead. Piersig was found to have delivered the fatal shot, according to the report.
Agents say they found Rivera hiding a short distance away. He told them he had heard their commands and knew they were police officers, according to the DA’s report.
Agents say they found more than 3,000 marijuana plants growing in the area.
Piersig and Bohlander acted within the law governing police officer killings, the district attorney’s office found.
The law says a police officer is justified in shooting when “reasonably committed in overcoming actual resistance to the execution of some legal process...”
“When they’re faced with potential deadly force, they can respond to protect themselves and others,” District Attorney Gary Lieberstein said.
He declined to say how many times Martinez was shot, saying the autopsy showed “multiple” gunshot wounds.
The investigation found that Martinez brandished a handgun and ran for cover, which officers interpreted as an intent to engage in a shoot-out, the DA’s office found.
“We recognize that police officers often are forced to make split-second judgments under tense, dangerous and complex circumstances,” was the conclusion of the report.
The district attorney’s office concluded that the officers were justified in believing Martinez posed a serious threat of death or injury.
Piersig and Bohlander are back to work after a brief paid leave following the shooting, according to bureau officials.
Bureau Commander Gary Pitkin declined to comment on the office’s findings.
“I’ll just let the district attorney’s office report speak for itself,” he said.
Napa County Sheriff’s Office officials agree the shooting was justified, Capt. Jean Donaldson said.
“The suspect was armed and involved in criminal activity,” he said. “It put the agents in a very dangerous situation.”
These sort of incidents usually take a long time for officers to recover from, he said.
“They are very traumatic experiences for an officer involved in a shooting,” Donaldson said. “No one wants to get in that situation.”
There have been several shootings in Northern California marijuana gardens this year, with various news organizations reporting as many as five.
“While we have always been aware that individuals tending these usually mountainous grows are armed, there seems to be a new trend of these individuals brandishing, and in some situations, firing at law enforcement when their (pot farm) is raided,” Lieberstein said.