A jury found Wednesday that when three Pasco police officers fired 17 times at Antonio Zambrano-Montes near a busy downtown intersection, they reasonably believed the rock-throwing man posed a serious threat if not stopped.
The six jurors seated in the Franklin County coroner’s inquest took about 40 minutes to answer 14 questions.
Those questions ranged from if Zambrano-Montes died on Feb. 10, 2015, as a result of gunshot wounds, to whether the officers believed he “had committed, was committing or was attempting to commit” a felony assault when they shot him.
The jurors answered “yes” to almost every question. They said “no” when asked if officers Adrian Alaniz and Adam Wright and former officer Ryan Flanagan used “deadly force to prevent Antonio Zambrano-Montes from escaping from Pasco police officers.”
Jurors also had the option of saying they were uncertain to any of the questions.
Their final decision in the fact-finding proceeding carries little weight in the criminal judicial system, since local, state and federal prosecutors all have declined to file charges against the three officers.
Three jurors reached by the Herald later Wednesday said they did not want to talk about their experience.
Coroner Dan Blasdel, who called for the inquest, said he wanted to ensure the community felt the shooting investigation was transparent.
Wednesday, after wrapping up the three-day hearing, Blasdel said he was very relieved that it was done.
The intent was for people to see the witnesses who testified and to watch their body language and gestures, and in the end the jury made its decision, he said.
His hope is that this incident “will open avenues of discussion” so similar shootings don’t happen in the future.
Blasdel’s office is now finished with the case, he said.
In a written statement, Pasco City Manager Dave Zabell said, “Given the conclusions reached independently after extensive review at the local, state and federal levels, the jury’s decision today does not come as a surprise.”
“While there has been much healing within the community since February 2015, clearly some community members are still wrestling to resolve in their minds such a tragic event. Perhaps the conclusion of (the) inquest process will serve to help them in the process of healing,” Zabell added.
Police were called to Lewis Street and 10th Avenue shortly after 5 p.m. on Feb. 10, 2015, for reports of a man throwing large rocks at passing cars.
Alaniz, who was first on the scene, said he found a tense Zambrano-Montes pacing with “two large objects” in his hands. He ordered him to drop the rocks. Then he noticed the 35-year-old Mexican immigrant’s eyes were wide open with dilated pupils, and he was drooling from the mouth with white buildup around the lips.
Alaniz said the man started telling him in Spanish, “Kill me. Kill me, b----. Kill me.”
The officer then deployed his Taser out of fear that he would be clubbed with a rock. Even though the Taser probes attached to Zambrano-Montes, Alaniz said it wasn’t until after he pulled the Taser trigger at least five times that he realized it wasn’t doing any good.
Being hit with a rock is at the top of the use-of-force scale which allows an officer to pull a firearm, Alaniz said, but he decided to “take that risk with my own life” by first using the Taser.
While he was dodging rocks, he did a “center kick” to Zambrano-Montes’ body but “it was like kicking a wall. There was no effect at all,” Alaniz said. And trying to punch Zambrano-Montes in the face and drop him to the ground would have been “an unfair fight” because the suspect had two solid rocks in his hands.
As Zambrano-Montes turned toward the officers and took a stance like he was going to throw the rock, the officers knew that they were close enough to be hit in the face, Alaniz said. That led to the first volley of shots.
Both Alaniz and Wright took the stand Wednesday, the first time the two officers have testified publicly about the moments leading up to the fatal shooting.
On Tuesday, their attorneys had said the officers would invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves before the jury. But the following morning, special deputy coroner Michael J. Fox said they had reached an agreement for the officers to testify in person.
Alaniz, who fired one of the 17 shots at Zambrano-Montes, said there was no option for the officers to let the man go from the incident.
“Our duty is to protect the public. … People call the police because they don’t know what to do,” Alaniz said. “There was a possibility (Zambrano-Montes) could have come across somebody and hurt them, hit them with a rock. If I had let him walk away from that situation, I would have been just as responsible for that situation as he would be.”
Wright was the third officer to arrive. He was planning to surprise the suspect from behind, but then Zambrano-Montes turned and looked right at him, he said.
Wright already realized they were facing “a deadly force encounter” because Zambrano-Montes was ignoring their verbal commands and continuing to throw rocks, and Taser probes were failing to stun him.
After watching Alaniz narrowly avoid getting hit in the head and seeing Zambrano-Montes reload his throwing hand with another rock, “I decided I’m not willing to let him do this to us, to the public, anymore. I made a decision to attempt to stop those threatening actions that he had continued to do, and I pressed off a few shots,” Wright said.
Wright fired two of the first five shots at Zambrano-Montes, and then five more in the second volley when the suspect went down. Flanagan fired his gun nine times.
Dr. Sig Menchel, a forensic pathologist from Bellevue who performed the autopsy three days after the shooting, said that Zambrano-Montes was shot between five and seven times.
“The cause of death was listed as multiple gunshot wounds of the head, trunk and extremities,” Menchel said.
Two of the bullets that went through the left arm may have then gone into Zambrano-Montes’ body, Menchel said. He could only say for certainty that there were seven entry wounds.
Wright testified the shooting was in self-defense and to protect the bystanders in the area.
“The reason I used deadly force was not to prevent his escape. The reason I used deadly force that day was for personal protection of my fellow officers,” he said.
Zambrano-Montes was unpredictable in his actions, and they needed to prevent him from throwing a rock at a car or into Vinny’s Cafe & Bakery, Wright said.
“I feel horrible that he had to meet that end, but we were basically responding to his actions,” Wright said. “His actions dictated our decision making, and that’s the bottom line.”
Leo Perales, spokesman for the Latino Coalition Tri-Cities, said in a statement that the organization is disappointed in the decision of the inquest jury.
“We wanted to see justice for Antonio. But justice takes many forms,” said Perales, who sat through the inquest. “The Latino Coalition truly feels that the inquest was botched from the very beginning with the seating of an all-white jury.”
Perales also questioned why a large piece of concrete found near the scene was admitted as evidence, even though it was not tied to Zambrano-Montes; why only one of the many eyewitnesses was called, and she said at times she couldn’t see the entire encounter; and why Flanagan’s civil deposition from two months ago was played, instead of the interview with investigators that had “considerably different” answers in May 2015.
The community, in the Zambrano-Montes incident, saw a breakdown of the local mental health system and of adequate police training, he said.
“But now, we most importantly see the opportunity to correct these shortcomings, and only together can we do this tragedy true justice,” Perales said.