Rare coroner's inquest in Walla Walla recalls fatal shooting

WALLA WALLA -- A 22-year-old suspected burglar was fired at five times by a Walla Walla store owner, with at least one shotgun blast hitting him in the back.

When the first officer arrived, he found Cesar Chavira face down in the street outside the New York Store.

"He was taking his last breaths," Walla Walla Officer Ascencion Castillo testified Wednesday. "I can't remember, but I think I told him to hold on."

Castillo was the first witness Wednesday in front of an eight-member jury seated for an uncommon coroner's inquest into the May 4 fatal shooting.

Store owner John Saul said he shot Chavira in self-defense after Cesar threatened him.

The coroner's inquest was called by Walla Walla County Coroner Richard Greenwood to help answer some questions about the early-morning shooting.

Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel is presiding over the inquest, which is expected to finish today.

Coroner's inquests are fact-finding probes that don't happen often. Walla Walla County's last inquest was in 1993, according to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. That inquest jury ruled that College Place Officer Dan Kelly was justified in shooting Ted Rathbun, 29.

The Tri-Cities has had seven inquests since the early '90s -- four in Benton County and three in Franklin County. Blasdel has presided over two in Franklin County.

Benton County Coroner John Hansens and Deputy Coroner Roy McLean also attended Wednesday's inquest at the Walla Walla police station to see how they are done.

Saul and his attorney, Michael Hubbard, were at the inquest, as well as Chavira's family, represented by Tri-City attorney Norma Rodriguez.

It took about an hour to pick a jury of seven women and one man, including two alternates.

Jurors are to decide if they believe the shooting was justified, but their decision isn't binding. Walla Walla County prosecutors have the final say whether criminal charges are filed.

The witnesses, including two Walla Walla police officers and two county sheriff's deputies, were questioned by Walla Walla Deputy Prosecutor Gabe Acosta, who served as the coroner's counsel.

Acosta told the jury that blood was found on the street near the store and five shots were fired from Saul's shotgun. But he said investigators "cannot tell you exactly when the first shot was or where the deceased was when he was first shot."

The New York Store is in the county, while Chavira's body was found nearby, technically in the city limits, officials said.

"He was shot -- shot in the back," Officer Castillo said. "When I approached him, I could remember seeing what looked like a larger hole on his lower back."

Castillo laster was able to identify Chavira at the hospital based on his tattoos, he said.

Chavira reportedly had broken into the store to steal belts and belt buckles. Castillo said once paramedics took Chavira to the hospital, he checked the scene and spotted some belts nearby.

Castillo also read for jurors an affidavit written by Walla Walla police Sgt. Michael Ralston, who arrived just after Castillo.

Ralston, who was out of town Wednesday and not able to testify, wrote that he saw Saul behind the counter handling paperwork and his hands appeared to be trembling.

"I asked him, 'John, what's going on?' He replied something like, 'He broke in and I shot him. I was in fear for my life,' " said Ralston's affidavit.

Walla Walla sheriff's Sgt. Bill White was the next to arrive at the store, and he talked to Saul. "It looked like he vomited on the front of his shirt," White said. "He just kind of had a blank look on his face."

Saul reportedly told White that he had been sleeping in the store and was woken up by someone breaking in. Saul said Chavira threatened him, and he shot Chavira, White said.

White testified that Saul did not explain how Chavira threatened him, and he tried to give him some time to calm down. When White asked for more specifics about what happened, Saul asked to call an attorney.

A 12-gauge shotgun was on the counter. A Colt .22-caliber handgun also was taken from behind the counter, investigators said.

Deputy Matthew Stroe, the sheriff's crime analyst technician, testified he ended up scraping what looked like vomit from the butt of the shotgun.

Stroe also said he found a backpack near where Chavira's body was that had shards of glass inside and there were some belts nearby. He then identified some pictures that showed the broken glass from the front door of the New York Store and five shotgun shell casings in a half circle just outside the door.

Chavira's girlfriend, Myra Urincho, told the jury that she had been with Chavira at the New York Store on May 2.

They were in the store for about an hour looking at shirts, and she looked around at different items, including the belts. Urincho said she bought a shirt for Chavira.

She last spoke to Chavira on the phone for about a half-hour around 11:30 p.m. May 3, she said.

The coroner's inquest continues today, with Daniel Selove, a forensic pathologist from Everett, expected to testify.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberating by this afternoon.

-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com

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