DENVER (AP) — Denver police officers who opened fire killing one man and injuring another after a high-speed car chase erroneously believed an escaped inmate was a passenger, authorities said Thursday.
The driver was killed and a passenger survived, but police quickly learned that the man they were hunting, Mauricio Venzor-Gonzalez, was not inside, Denver Police Commander Barb Archer told reporters. Police had released few details about the Monday evening shooting until Thursday, but described both men in the car as “associates” of Venzor-Gonzalez.
Authorities still have not found the 23-year-old, who faces charges of attempted murder of a police officer in November.
Venzor-Gonzalez escaped from Denver sheriff’s deputies on Monday morning during a visit to a Denver hospital. The sheriff’s department has released few details about how he was able to escape, but Sheriff Patrick Firman did say Monday that Venzor-Gonzalez had an appointment for a medical issue and medical transportation is typically handled by two deputies. It’s not clear if he was wearing any restraints.
He was arrested after a November shootout with police during a traffic stop. Authorities have said the driver of a car took off but crashed; the passenger, later identified as Venzor-Gonzalez, ran and fired a gun at a police officer several times before escaping.
Two days later, police learned he was hiding at a home in Aurora and he surrendered after several hours.
On Monday evening, Denver police officers assigned to keep an eye on an address associated with Venzor-Gonzalez noticed an SUV circling the area and believed the passenger was Venzor-Gonzalez, Archer said.
When officers tried to stop the car, the driver fled and led police on a high-speed chase. When the car was forced to stop, Archer said the two men inside refused to follow officers’ commands to show their hands.
She said the officers saw the men “moving around, looking for something” inside the car. Officers knew about the charges Venzor-Gonzalez faced for the November shooting and believed the occupants in the car were looking for a weapon, she said.
“So fearing their safety, officers fired,” Archer said.
When the driver again tried to flee, driving down an embankment, officers followed, she said.
“Officers continued to see the occupants moving around inside, still looking for something, and so again they fired at the vehicle,” Archer said.
Denver reached a settlement of nearly $1 million last April with the parents of a 17-year-old girl who was shot and killed by police while driving a stolen car toward an officer in 2015. After a string of cases where officers fired at a moving car, the department changed its policy after the teen’s death to advise that officers only fire at moving cars if someone inside is shooting at them.
In this case, the car wasn’t moving either time officers fired, Archer said.
She said the pursuing officers never lost sight of the vehicle, so police don’t believe Venzor-Gonzalez was ever in the car.
The driver, 23-year-old Steven Nguyen, was killed. The passenger, 23-year-old Rafael Landeros, was shot but survived. He was treated and is being held on warrants from another county, she said.
Archer said police found a loaded handgun and determined that the car was stolen. Officers were wearing body cameras at the time of the shooting, she said, but the video has not been released.
“The officers were acting on information provided to them that Venzor-Gonzalez was in the passenger seat,” she said.
“They believed that to be him,” adding his criminal history “justifies their actions.”
The department is working with the FBI and other agencies to locate the suspect.
“He’s a very dangerous individual,” she said. “This is our top priority. The community’s not safe with him out there.”
The three officers involved in Monday’s shooting have been taken off patrol duty. The shooting will be investigated by the Aurora Police Department, the Denver District Attorney’s Office and Denver’s Independent Monitor, a civilian-led agency that oversees the police and sheriff departments.