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No criminal charges for California Highway Patrol officers who killed man in stolen car

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office says it lacks evidence to counter officers’ claims that they feared for their colleagues’ lives when they shot and killed a young man in a stolen vehicle nearly two years ago.

(CN) — Three state troopers who fired some 40 bullets at a stolen vehicle in East Oakland in June 2020, killing a 23-year-old man and injuring his girlfriend, won’t face criminal charges, prosecutors revealed Monday.

California Highway Patrol officers had spotted Erik Salgado driving a stolen red Dodge Challenger Hellcat near the intersection of 90th and Bancroft Avenues in East Oakland on June 6, 2020. The Hellcat, known as a “muscle car,” was one of 70 vehicles stolen during a looting incident at a dealership in San Leandro a few days earlier. The looting occurred in the wake of racial justice protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in late May that year.

Nine CHP officers in two undercover trucks and one marked squad car surrounded and tried to stop Salgado on the 9600 block of Cherry Street. The officers — some in uniforms and others in plain clothes but wearing tactical vests with police symbols — exited their vehicles, announced themselves as officers and ordered Salgado to stop, according to a report made public by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office Monday.

Salgado accelerated forward in an apparent attempt to flee the officers, striking a marked CHP patrol car and an undercover silver Dodge truck.

Sgt. Richard Henderson and officers Donald Saputa and Eric Hulbert fired two rifles and a pistol at Salgado. They and other officers on the scene said they believed Salgado had potentially killed or was about to run over and kill one of their fellow officers when they started shooting.

The officers fired at least 40 bullets at car, according to a civil lawsuit filed against the officers by Salgado’s family. Sixteen of those bullets hit Salgado’s body, according to an autopsy. Salgado's then-girlfriend, Brianna Colombo, who was sitting in the passenger seat, was shot in her stomach, leg and arm but survived. Colombo is also a plaintiff in the civil lawsuit.

In a letter announcing her decision, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley stated that her office cannot prosecute unless enough evidence exists to convince a jury that a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt.

“We know that when the use of force turns deadly, families are devastated,” O’Malley wrote. “Family and friends are grieving and the community is pain. That is why the District Attorney’s Office must adhere to all ethical and legal standards under criminal law as we do in all cases. By doing so, we are upholding our commitment and our sworn duty to protect all members of the community.”

O’Mally, who has served as district attorney since 2009 and is not seeking reelection this year, noted that the DA’s office has no role in determining if officers followed their training or policies. Those questions must be resolved through civil litigation or internal police investigations.

In a brief phone interview, civil rights lawyer John Burris, who represents Salgado’s family in the civil lawsuit, said he was disappointed with the DA’s decision but not surprised.

“It’s a bit of a blessing in disguise in that it allows us to go forward with the civil rights lawsuit that was on hold,” Burris said. “I was concerned they would not make a decision, and our case would languish on hold.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, who oversees the civil suit in federal court, ordered a representative of the district attorney's office to appear at a status conference for the case and explain why it was taking so long to make a charging decision. A lawyer for the DA’s office said the decision would be made public within days.

The DA’s report states that no CHP officers wore body cameras during the incident and that smoke, seen in videos taken by a civilian and nearby surveillance footage, corroborated officers’ claims that smoke was obstructing their vision during the altercation.

“The CHP officers involved in the shooting that night have all provided statements to justify their actions,” the DA’s report states. “Only one civilian witness has come forward to tell us what she knows about the shooting. Her account corroborates the officers at times and leaves other questions unanswered.”

Early media reports stated Colombo was pregnant at the time of the shooting. The DA’s office said those reports were inaccurate and that Colombo was not pregnant at that time.

According to DA’s office, Colombo, who is identified as “Witness #1” in the report, said earlier that day she slept in the stolen car with Salgado near his aunt’s home in East Oakland. When she tried to exit the car and leave at one point, Salgado reportedly told her, “No you are not going anywhere.” Colombo told investigators she then laid back down because she was “scared and traumatized by him.”

Colombo also told investigators that before officers fired at the car, when Salgado was trying to flee and hit one of the police cars, she panicked and wanted to escape the vehicle. Colombo said she told Salgado, “What are you doing? They are going to shoot you or something.”

The DA's report says the officers identified themselves as such and ordered Salgado to stop as he attempted to drive away.

The lawsuit filed by Salgado's family claims the officers “gave no warning they would shoot before they opened fire, intentionally positioned themselves at angles around the red Dodge where they would not shoot each other, and fired away over an extended period of time, executing Mr. Salgado and severely injuring plaintiff Colombo.”

The California Highway Patrol did not respond to phone calls requesting comment Monday.

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