By Alex Emslie
Attorneys representing the family of a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant shot and killed by two San Francisco police officers in late February filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Friday alleging that independent autopsy findings contradict the Police Department’s account of the incident.
Civil rights attorney Arnoldo Casillas, who is representing Amilcar Perez Lopez’s parents, said the version of events delivered by Police Chief Greg Suhr at a town hall meeting on March 2 was “physically impossible.”
“The truth is that Amilcar Perez Lopez was unjustifiably, illegally, in the worst way shot and killed,” Casillas said. “The two police officers here had no reason to shoot and their version is absolutely, unequivocally inconsistent with all of the physical evidence, all of the witness testimony. It is a lie.”
Suhr said at the March 2 meeting that two plainclothes officers, later identified as Craig Tiffe and Eric Reboli, responded to a call of a man with a knife at about 9:45 p.m. on Feb. 26. Suhr presented dispatch records showing reports of a person with a knife chasing another man on Folsom Street, between 24th and 25th streets.
Suhr said a man with a bicycle, who has not been publicly identified, refused to sell his bike to Perez Lopez, and the construction worker began chasing him with a knife.
Officers confronted Perez Lopez and the bicyclist between two parked cars on the east side of Folsom, according to a Police Department rendition of the scene and statements by Suhr. It was not far from where Perez Lopez lived.
“The suspect was on the sidewalk side of the car, the victim was on the street side of the car,” Suhr said, describing Perez Lopez as the suspect and the unidentified bicyclist as the victim. “The officer attempted to position the suspect so he could see his hands, when the suspect turned, slashing the knife across at the officer, causing the officer to jump back.”
Suhr said witnesses heard both officers order the suspect to get back and drop the knife.
“The officers were approximately 5 to 6 feet away when the suspect charged at one of the officers with a knife raised overhead,” Suhr said. “Both officers discharged their firearms, one firing once, one firing five times. They struck the suspect. The suspect did not survive his injuries.”
Witnesses interviewed by Mission Local and another attorney representing Perez Lopez’s family say Perez Lopez wasn’t holding the knife when officers opened fire.
The San Francisco medical examiner’s autopsy report is not completed, a spokeswoman for the office said Friday, and she declined to give further information. Casillas said the official autopsy was conducted March 2, and Suhr addressed an angry Mission District crowd that evening.
“Did he know? Or did he not inquire?” Casillas said. “You guys shot this kid in the back. This charging with a knife thing isn’t going to work.”
Independent forensic pathologist Jay Chapman, retained by Casillas, said it’s impossible to exactly trace each one of the gunshots until the official autopsy report is released, but there is “no question” that all six gunshots hit Perez Lopez from behind. Read Chapman’s preliminary report here.
A 3-D rendition of gunshot trajectories provided by attorneys for Perez Lopez’s parents.
“Witnesses say that he was ordered to put down the knife, and that he did throw down the knife before the shots were fired,” said attorney Bill Simpich, who lives near the location of the shooting and started taking statements soon after the incident.
Simpich, also representing the family of Perez Lopez, said he has spoken to witnesses who said the unidentified bicyclist “may have borrowed or stolen Amilcar’s cellphone.”
He said the bicyclist and Perez Lopez knew each other.
Suhr said on March 2 that he didn’t know if Perez Lopez knew the man with the bike, but he said the bicyclist thanked police on the scene, “saying he thought the officers saved his life.”
“We’re asking Chief Suhr to basically walk back his statements and admit he got it wrong,” Simpich said.
Casillas also requested a federal investigation into the shooting. In an April 22 letter to Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Stretch, Casillas references photographs and witness interviews that he did not release Friday. The letter indicates that Perez Lopez’s body was in the street, not on the sidewalk.
“Had the shooting occurred as [Suhr] has proffered to the media and the public, Mr. Perez Lopez’s body would have ended up on the sidewalk, not at its actual location, 10 to 15 feet away in the street,” the letter says. “In light of [Suhr’s] pronouncements attempting to justify the shooting, it is apparent that he and his department are intent on absolving the police officers of any criminal responsibility. As such, an investigation by your office is even more essential.”
A Police Department spokesman said Tiffe and Reboli have returned to active duty. He said he could not comment on ongoing investigations into the shooting by department homicide and internal affairs investigators. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the Office of Citizen Complaints are also looking into the case.
Read the complaint filed on behalf of Amilcar Perez Lopez’s family in U.S. District Court below:
KQED’s Tiffany Camhi contributed to this report.