Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Police kill wrong man in bed
Suspect's uncle slain after cop apparently mistakes soda can for gun
By Sean Kelly
George Merritt and Howard Pankratz
Denver Post /Tuesday, July 13, 2004 -
A Denver police officer likely mistook a soda can for a weapon before shooting and killing a 63-year-old man in his bed, Police Chief Gerry Whitman said Monday.
Frank Lobato was shot once in the chest Sunday night during a police search for a domestic-violence suspect. Lobato, a career criminal and formerly homeless man whom neighbors said was disabled, was not involved in the domestic dispute.
Instead, officers were searching the home at 1234 W. 10th Ave. for Lobato's nephew Vincent Martinez, who was wanted on suspicion of domestic violence, assault and false imprisonment. Martinez, 42, was captured Monday evening.
Some neighbors and community members called the shooting questionable - and worse.
"I think it is disgraceful," neighbor Rose Salaz said. "I don't see how they can just go into people's houses shooting people. ... They are supposed to protect us."
The shooting comes weeks after the city and police announced reforms to the department's use-of-force policy in the wake of controversy surrounding police shootings.
Whitman and District Attorney Bill Ritter took the unusual step of calling a news conference to lay out some of the facts about the incident, the third fatal police shooting this year. But they answered few questions.
"It has now been determined that the party who was shot was not armed at the time of the shooting," a subdued Whitman said, reading from a prepared statement. "The officer stated that after he fired the shot, he heard an object fall to the floor on the other side of the bed. A beverage can was recovered from the floor in the area of the bedroom."
Ritter, standing next to Whitman, promised a full investigation to determine whether Officer Ranjan Ford Jr. broke any laws when he fired the fatal shot. No criminal charges have been filed against a Denver police officer for an on-the-job shooting during Ritter's 11-year tenure.
Ford, 33, came to the department in 2001. He has no prior shootings and no discipline problems, police said.
Before his hiring in Denver, Ford had been an officer in Jasper, Texas. Jasper Police Chief Stanley Christopher said Ford was a model officer there.
"I wish I had a dozen like him," Christopher said. "I'm telling you, he was a great officer. We really hated to see him go."
Ford was born in Boulder and attended Fairview High School, according to the application he submitted to become an officer in Denver. He speaks Singhalese, the native language of Sri Lanka. According to his application, he worked as a police officer and corrections officer in Texas beginning in 1993. Ford works in District 6 downtown.
"Knowing him as well as I do, if something happened, he was in fear for his life," Christopher said. "He's not a hot-dog. He's not a John Wayne-type."
Police were called to the home in the South Lincoln housing project by Martinez's wife, Cathy Sandoval, who said Martinez beat her and held her against her will for 17 hours on Sunday.
The shooting victim
Frank Lobato, 63, a Denver man, was shot in his bed when a police officer apparently mistook a soda can for a weapon. Neighbors say Lobato was disabled. The shooting comes just weeks after the city and police announced reforms to the department's use-of-force policy after controversial shootings.
The police officer
Ranjan Ford Jr., a member of the Denver Police Department since 2001, is described as a model officer with no history of shootings or discipline problems. The Boulder native previously was a corrections officer in Texas and a police officer in Jasper, Texas.
Police were searching the home at 1234 W. 10th Ave. for Vincent Martinez, a nephew of Lobato. Martinez was sought after Martinez's wife of two months, Cathy Sandoval, called police saying Martinez beat her and held her against her will for 17 hours Sunday. He was apprehended Monday night.
Now Sandoval said she is saddened and worried by the outcome. A relative is dead, and her angry husband is in jail.
"I'm worried he will think this is my fault," she said before her husband's capture Monday night.
The situation began when Sandoval and her husband of two months returned from an evening of drinking around 2 a.m.
Martinez was jealous because Sandoval had talked to people at the bar, Sandoval said. Once home, he became violent and he hit, choked and threw plates at Sandoval until about 10 a.m., she said.
For the rest of Sunday, Martinez refused to let Sandoval leave. She did not get out until about 6:45 p.m., when her mother arrived to return Sandoval's two children.
Once out of the house, Sandoval called police and agreed to meet them at a nearby McDonald's. She said she gave police permission to enter her home, and told them that her husband and his uncle Lobato were in the apartment.
Salaz said she watched police officers use a ladder to enter the apartment. They were in the apartment about a minute before she heard a shot, she said.
"People were out running around, grabbing their kids" when the shot went off, Salaz said. "Then, you could hear the officers inside yelling 'Put your hands up!"'
Salaz and other neighbors knew that Martinez had already jumped out a window and run away before three officers, including Ford, entered through the same window. Police had surrounded the building, but an officer walked around to the front, allowing Martinez an opportunity to flee, neighbors said. It was at least 25 minutes after Martinez ran away before the officers went in, Salaz said.
Sandoval said Lobato was in the room during the day as Martinez held her captive.
Lobato had a lengthy criminal record dating back to 1959, including arrests for drugs, assault and burglary. He had been in prison several times. His most recent arrest came in May on shoplifting charges.
On Monday night, Lobato's niece and grandniece said Lobato needed daily medication to keep his mind clear enough "to where he could cope."
Lobato was probably confused by the officers if he was aware of them at all, his niece Denise Cogil said, adding that the family has contacted an attorney in preparation for a lawsuit.
The shooting stirred echoes of the infamous 1999 shooting of Mexican immigrant Ismael Mena, who was killed during a no- knock drug raid at the wrong address. The city of Denver paid a $400,000 settlement to the family of Mena, who shot at police officers before he was killed and was discovered to have killed a man in Mexico.
Mayor John Hickenlooper, who has championed police reform, issued a statement Monday commending Whitman for being forthcoming about the shooting and promising continued investment in resources and training for police officers.
"This situation involves two tragedies: a brutal case of domestic violence and a loss of life," Hickenlooper said.
City Councilman Rick Garcia, chairman of the public safety committee, said his committee is planning to review further police reforms next month.
"For this action to happen does not bode well for the Police Department or the city," Garcia said. "I'm terribly distraught about it."