NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – Blasting the suicide story as a coverup, a woman whose son died four years ago at a New Jersey police officer’s Fourth of July barbecue fired back Monday with a federal negligence claims.
The complaint emphasizes that 23-year-old Xavier Cuevas-Soto had been “talking and laughing with his friends” at the Totowa home of police officer Christopher Benevento just moments before he found Benevento’s service revolver unattended, with the safety lock disengaged.
Cuevas-Soto made the terrifying discovery that the weapon was loaded only after it “accidentally discharged, killing him,” according to the complaint.
Both Benevento and his employers at the Paterson police department are named as defendants to the July 2 lawsuit, which was filed by Cuevas-Soto’s mother, Yolanda Soto, and his sister, Adrianna Soto. When the gun went off, according to the complaint, the Sotos say they were just six steps away.
The mother fainted, but Adrianna says she watched as Benevento “removed the gun from the scene as soon as the police and ambulance arrived.”
Benevento had been drinking alcohol at the party, according to the complaint, which asserts that the officer committed a gross dereliction of duty in leaving the gun out and unsecured.
Several news accounts reported the shooting as a suicide on July 5, but the complaint attributes this to steps that Benevento and other unnamed officers took to make it look like Cuevas-Soto had fired the gun intentionally.
The complaint also says Benevento’s carelessness nearly ended in tragedy for a 6-year-old at the party, the son of a woman Benevento was dating.
“During the party, Adrianna … observed Maria’s six-year old son begin to grab Benevento’s gun from the porch railing” where the officer had left it, according to the complaint.
It was at this point, the complaint continues, that Benevento moved the gun to the ledge where Cuevas-Soto found it.
The Sotos say Benevento did not face any disciplinary action, and was indeed promoted to sergeant this past November after his department failed to follow up on witness statements, ignored Benevento’s evidence tampering, and failed to investigate whether Benevento was under the influence of alcohol.
Several eyewitnesses told the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office that Benevento’s firearm was left out in the open and that Cuevas-Soto did not seem suicidal, according to the complaint.
Paterson Police Department Director Jerry Speziale, one of several police officials named as a co-defendant to the complaint, said Tuesday he cannot comment on an officer-involved shooting or on active litigation.
Shelley Stangler, a solo-practice attorney from Springfield who represents Sotos, also declined to comment.
The Sotos’ complaint calls the 2016 shooting and ensuing conspiracy part of a larger pattern of negligence by the Paterson Police Department.
“Misconduct and violations of civil rights were and remain rampant in the Paterson PD and officers are aware that they can escape discipline for misconduct,” the complaint states.
In 2016, an off-duty Paterson police officer fired his gun outside a 7-11 store, injuring two civilians but failing to report the shooting until a day later. Another officer pleaded guilty earlier this year after he was charged with selling drugs including crack and heroin out of his police car.
Other cases involving excessive force have shown a spotlight on the department as well, including a video that showed officers beating a suicidal man at a hospital.