Crime

Family asks for independent autopsy for man shot by Pasco police

Roberto Cornejo, of Kennewick, before Thursday's media briefing by the Special Investigations Unit at the Kennewick Police Department.
Roberto Cornejo, of Kennewick, before Thursday's media briefing by the Special Investigations Unit at the Kennewick Police Department. Tri-City Herald

The family of the man shot by Pasco police last week has requested a second independent autopsy in the case, Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant said Thursday.

A forensic pathologist performed an autopsy last week on the body of Antonio Zambrano-Montes. The details of the examination have not been disclosed.

Sant says his office is ready to release the body and welcomes an independent autopsy.

“It certainly wouldn’t be the first case to do a second autopsy and probably wont be the last,” he said.

Sant made the remarks at a news conference Thursday to discuss the ongoing investigation by the Tri-City Special Investigations Unit, a 15-member team primarily comprised of officers from four departments in Benton and Franklin counties.

The case is “a top priority” for the state crime lab in Cheney, officials said. That means investigators could have critical details in coming weeks to help determine if the shooting by three Pasco officers was justified.

Evidence in the Feb. 10 shooting was taken to the lab this past weekend and will be analyzed ahead of other cases across the state, officials said. It includes the three officers’ guns and uniforms, bullet fragments, Taser cartridges and toxicology tests.

The analysis could provide answers to important questions like whether Zambrano-Montes, 35, was under the influence during the confrontation and how many shots were fired by police.

“We hope to have information back from the crime lab sooner rather than later,” said Sgt. Ken Lattin, spokesperson for the unit.

Franklin County Coroner Dan Blasdel plans to conduct a special inquest that will allow a jury of six to determine the cause and manner of death, as well as whether the shooting was justified.

Their verdict will be reviewed by Sant, a former police officer in Prosser and reserve officer in Richland. He will ultimately decide if criminal charges should be filed.

The Mexican consul in Seattle, Eduardo Baca, plans to be in the Tri-Cities on Friday to discuss the shooting with Sant and others. He is one of many Hispanic leaders to denounce the shooting.

Mexican president President Enrique Peña Nieto says the shooting showed a “disproportionate use of lethal force” and local Hispanic leaders have it called it “disturbing.”

The shooting of Zambrano-Montes, a local orchard worker who emigrated to the United States about a decade ago, has sparked protests around the state and outrage around the world against the actions of officers Ryan Flanagan, Adam Wright and Adrian Alaniz.

Police are unsure why Zambrano-Montes, a father of two, was acting erratically in the street or what he was doing in the hours leading up to the incident, Lattin said. He was left homeless and stayed briefly at the Pasco Union Gospel Mission after the house he was living in was destroyed by a fire in late January.

Investigators want to talk with anyone who may have had contact with Zambrano-Montes in the days and weeks before his death, Lattin said. Family members told police they were not aware where he was for two weeks prior to the shooting.

“His actions were not normal,” Lattin told reporters. “None of you would stand out there at 10th (Avenue) and Lewis Street and throw rocks at cars. And when the police show up, throw rocks at them and then run. That’s not normal, reasonable behavior. We just want to know why.”

The investigation is in its second week. Local law enforcement officials remain confident it will be comprehensive and produce unbiased results. They did not release many details at the news conference.

It appears all three officers fired at Zambrano-Montes, though it’s unclear who fired the fatal shots, Lattin said. Police have accounted for all the bullets fired, but they have not disclosed how many times he was shot.

Officials on Thursday alluded to possible injuries suffered by officers, but they did not release specifics.

A majority of the estimated 40 witnesses in the case have been interviewed so far, though investigators believe there are more out there. Only a handful of those interviewed actually saw the shooting, Lattin said.

Sant urged people to come forward even if they are in the country illegally. His office is not concerned with the legal status of any potential witnesses, he said.

Officials are analyzing several cellphone and patrol car dashboard camera videos of the shooting. Police in the Tri-Cities do not wear body cameras.

Family members say Zambrano-Montes, a native of Michoacan, Mexico, spoke little English. The three officers involved in the shooting are not fluent in Spanish and it’s unclear how they communicated with Zambrano-Montes, who was shocked with a Taser gun before being shot.

Of the 71 officers in the Pasco police department, 14 are Hispanic and 12 are bilingual, police officials said. The Kennewick Police Department — the largest police agency in the Tri-Cities with 93 officers — has eight Hispanic officers and six certified Spanish speakers.

The news conference drew a small group of demonstrators — who held signs reading “demand and change” and “3 police had Tasers” — and others from the Hispanic community.

Felix Vargas, who has advised the family in the wake of the shooting, told the Herald he is unhappy with the flow of information and wants more released on the three officers involved.

“It’s not satisfactory. I don’t think they said very much,” Vargas said. “If you are looking into background of the victim then you’ve got to look into the backgrounds of the ones doing the deed.”

Lattin read a statement from the FBI in Seattle that said the agency is monitoring the investigation. There are no plans for a federal agency to take over the case.

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