Two Monterey County sheriff’s deputies were justified last March in shooting and killing a wanted ex-felon who refused to surrender and appeared to have been reaching for a weapon but actually was preparing to commit suicide, the county’s district attorney said today. District Attorney Dean Flippo announced that deputies Michael Fritsche and Angus Wilhite acted in self-defense and will not face criminal charges for firing their rifles at Hector Chairez, Jr. on March 20 on a remote mountain road several miles north of Big Sur. Flippo cited current law of self-defense, from criminal jury instructions published by the Judicial Counsel of California, that allows peace officers and civilians to use deadly force in self-defense if they reasonably believe it IS necessary against imminent danger of great bodily injury or death.
“The danger does not need to have actually existed as long as the person reasonably believed it did exist,” Flippo said in a statement. He added that peace officers “have a legal right to use deadly force in situations ordinary persons do not” and “the law bestows on police officers a broader right to use deadly force than permitted ordinary citizens.” The timeline that led to the deputy-involved shooting of Chairez began at 2:29 p.m. March 20, when a homeowner on Garrapatos Road, a mountain road in an unincorporated county area about a mile east of state Highway 1, reported to sheriff’s deputies that two suspicious people appeared to be casing his property, prosecutors said.
Deputies later found out the Chairez and an adult female companion tried to break into the person’s home, rummaged through the person’s vehicle and then drove away in a U-Haul truck after he chased them, according to the district attorney’s office. A deputy soon spotted the U-Haul, which had been reported stolen, with Chairez and the woman inside, blocked the truck with his patrol car and ordered the pair out, but Chairez turned around and drove away, ramming through a security gate and a 6-foot wooden fence, prosecutors said. Fritsche heard on the department’s radio about the deputy’s pursuit of a burglary suspect who might be armed with a handgun, according to prosecutors.
At the deputy’s direction, Fritsche drove to look for the suspect on nearby Palo Colorado Road. Fritsche soon saw the U-Haul come toward him and then ram the front of his patrol car. Fritsche broadcast the crash on his radio, exited the car and pointed his service gun toward Chairez and the female. As he approached the passenger side of the truck, Fritsche saw bulges in Chairez’s pants in the thigh area and asked the suspect if he was armed, to which Chairez said, “No,” but he refused the deputy’s order to put his hands up. Chairez explained that he was running from police because he “just got a bunch of tickets,” but after ignoring Fritsche’s repeated orders to exit the truck, the suspect put the truck into reverse and drove off. Fritsche drove to Highway 1 and radioed deputies, after which he, Wilhite and a third deputy drove their cars back up Palo Colorado.
Wilhite, with his gun drawn while driving, saw the abandoned U-Haul parked ahead, blocking the roadway. Fritsche and Wilhite, due to the rugged hillside terrain of redwood trees and thick foliage, and because Chairez had rammed Fritsche’s car, feared they might be ambushed, and so they put on their Kevlar helmets for extra protection and took out their department-issued rifles. The two deputies soon spotted Chairez about 100 yards away, hiding behind a tree on a hillside and each yelled “Let me see your hands, Sheriff’s Department!” after he started moving toward them. Chairez shouted back that he was suicidal and wanted to speak with “mental health.” The deputies told him they would get him mental health help if he surrendered, but he hid behind another tree and continued to ask to speak to “mental health.”
Fritsche reported that he told the suspect they would do “whatever it takes” to get him help but that the deputy himself did not want to “get shot” and wanted to go home to see his family. The deputies again asked Chairez to come down and he refused, telling them that he did not have a gun, to which Wilhite replied, “That’s not the information we have.” Fritsche later told investigators he saw bulges from Chairez’s pants, where he thought there might be a gun. Fritsche, Wilhite, now joined by the third deputy, again yelled at Chairez to surrender, Wilhite telling him to come out with his hands up and that he would be shot if he refused. Wilhite later said he heard Chairez say, “I just want you to know that my family will know this wasn’t suicide by cop,” which made the deputy fear the suspect was armed, according to prosecutors.
When the suspect dropped his left arm to his waistband, both Fritsche and Wilhite thought he might be reaching for a gun, and Wilhite fired his rifle at him three times while Fritsche fired once. The deputies found Chairez lying on the ground, not breathing, and his black belt cinched loosely around his neck, “suggesting that he may have attempted to hang himself,” according to prosecutors.
Paramedics declared the suspect dead from the bullet wounds at 4:55 p.m. No firearm was ever found but Chairez was wearing sweatpants over cut-off pants with large pockets that produced bulges that Fritsche reported seeing, prosecutors said. The adult female who had been with Chairez and found hiding nearby told deputies that he “wanted you (deputies) to think he had weapons so you would kill him.” She later told investigators that Chairez, an ex-con, told her he “did not want to go back to prison” and if caught by police he would “not be taken alive.” She also said Chairez had threatened to take her as a hostage because he did not want to return to prison. During the investigation into the shooting, Chairez’s mother told authorities that Chairez had told her as well that he “would rather die than go back to prison,” prosecutors reported.
Deputies were informed later that Chairez had felony convictions for assault on a peace officer, drug sales, domestic violence, threatening a witness, home invasion and gun possession, received a prison sentence of 26 years to life in 2006 and was released in 2013. On Feb. 20, the Union City Police Department issued a no-bail warrant for his arrest on suspicion of kidnapping, spousal abuse, making criminal threats against his girlfriend and law enforcement and being a felon in possession of a gun.
A second no-bail warrant for his arrest was issued on March 3 by the Santa Clara County Probation Department after Chairez failed twice to meet his probation officer. An autopsy by the Monterey County coroner’s office found that Chairez had a high level of methamphetamine in his blood at the time he died, according to prosecutors. District Attorney Flippo said the many factors in the case – including Chairez’s record of violence against a peace officer and others, his statements about wanting to die rather than be in prison again, that he wanted to make deputies think he had a gun to provoke a shooting, his ramming a police car, his repeated failure to comply with deputies’ commands to surrender and his threat to use the woman as a hostage – led prosecutors to decide not to file charges against the two deputies.
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