Was this guy a burglar or just some homeless man sleeping rough in the bushes alongside a commercial building? That question apparently was not answered before he was shot to death by Stanislaus County Sheriff’s deputies just about a month ago.
Still, that question, and others, have not been publicly answered. All we really know it that Eloy Mares Gonzalez Jr. was hit by several bullets fired by two deputies after about an 8-minute standoff. Mr. Gonzalez had refused to come out of his cardboard nest at the side of the building in the Beard Industrial District at about 5 o’clock on that Sunday morning.
There were 8 or 9 deputies pointing pistols, a shotgun and Tasers at the 41-year-old man, along with a barking police dog pulling at the leash of his handler. Then the deputies ran out of patience, shot him with the Taser and “sicced” the dog on him. His hands were visible and empty when they rushed him. Once set upon by the deputies and the dog he a pulled a hatchet from among his meager belongings. That’s when they opened fire at almost point blank range.
The information for these first few paragraphs comes from a press release the day of the shooting and from our view of body camera videos released on Oct. 7 with narration by Sheriff Jeff Dirkse. Obviously, some of that information comes from our interpretation of the videos. It had to because simple questions we asked, like how many shots were fired went unanswered. They wouldn’t even say whether the burglary alarm which brought the first deputies to the scene was a false alarm or signaled an actual break-in. Surely, they knew the answer, if not then, by now.
You can do your own interpretation as the Sheriff’s presentation is available on the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s website. You will be warned that is graphic. It does show a man being shot to death but it is no more graphic, otherwise, than what is on TV, not to mention what is available through ROKU.
Let’s set the scene.
The Beard Industrial District is a large commercial area roughly south of Yosemite Boulevard from El Vista Avenue east well past Claus Road and stretching almost to Empire. Its southern border is the Tuolumne River flood plain. Once thriving, there are now commercial “wounds”—for lease signs on huge building complexes, some of which note that they have more than three acres under roof.
The building we are concerned with is at the western margin of the district, a vacant lot to the west between it and the old county pound. It is part of the River Bluff Business Park, six essentially identical buildings with parking areas in front where there are parking lots and entrance doors. There are shared areas in the rear where each building has ramps and roll up doors. Our incident happened at the southwest corner of the building at the west end of the business park in front of a set of windows and by a set of bushes which are about waist high.
Wait here for a minute while we introduce Mr. Gonzalez.
We said in the first paragraph that he might have been a burglar because he was at least accused of that in the past. His rap sheet is not readily available and Stanislaus County Superior Court has rather terse internet entries about charges and pleas and dispositions. In one case he was charged with burglary but pled to vandalism and the probation terms required him to stay 200 yards away from the Bank of the West in Patterson. So, some form of break-in might have occurred?
His homelessness seems apparent. He was swaddled in cardboard when deputies first encountered him. Clues also come in the first few statements made to deputies including that his father was a Senator and that his father owned the building. Later, referring to the few belongings he had with him he said: “this is all I got.” In addition, other internet records show five evictions and court records show that at least twice he was sued and judgements for eviction were granted.
So, it’s 4:57 am and two deputies are sent to 820 Business Park Drive off Finch Road. The business there is a document shredding company. There is a veteran deputy and his trainee. They park in the lot on the west side of the building and begin a counter-clockwise walk-around of the building.
They walk through a gap in a line of bushes and head east. Suddenly, there is a voice “hey, what’s up man.” Shining their lights toward the sound they see Mr.Gonzalez standing behind bushes roughly waist high.
Their voices stressed, their language coarse, they demand to see his hands, to raise his hands. He does and they are empty. Then the deputies demand he come out from behind the bushes. This is an ask too far for Mr. Gonzalez.
He sits down, holding his cap with one hand, trying to shield his eyes from the bright lights. His hands are still raised and they are still empty. One of the deputies tells Mr. Gonzalez he is interfering with his reconnaissance of the building to see if there had been a break in. He wants the man to come out and lay on the ground.
Gonzalez is warned that other deputies are on the way and things will get worse for him if he doesn’t comply promptly. There is mention of a dog and bites. He is asked if there was anything that the deputies could do to get him to comply with their demands. This is, apparently the de-escalation effort that the sheriff mentions in his narration of the videos.
Other deputies arrive, including one with a dog. The level of tension seems much higher at this point. The deputy with the dog shouts loudly that he is going to loose the dog and that the dog will bite him. The deputies point a Taser, a shotgun, pistols and teeth at the 41-year old man wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Mr. Gonzalez sits still, his hands still empty. The bushes he is sitting behind has a gap so deputies can see what he is doing.
At this point, there are as many as 8 or 9 deputies present. As far as can be determined none of them has made an effort to determine if there had, in fact, been a break-in. It was this determination which Mr. Gonzalez was impeding when only the two deputies were there. Obviously, those two couldn’t separate given their differing experience level.
But, apparently, based upon what has been disclosed, none of the backup deputies did anything other than confront Mr.Gonzalez.
Unwilling to simply freeze the situation, the deputies attack. One shoots him with a Taser. Another lets the dog loose to bite Mr. Gonzalez. It is then that Mr. Gonzalez apparently pulls a hatchet from his belongings.
The dog handler shouts over and over for Mr. Gonzalez not to hurt his dog. Someone shouts a warning about the hatchet and the guns come out. The dog handler and one other deputy open fire as the bushes are rustled by the thrashing of the dog, clamped hard on Mr. Gonzalez, as trained. Then it is over. The guns are holstered. First aid efforts begin and an ambulance is called for.
The only thing at the scene a few days ago was a pile of dirt. It looks like someone put the dirt down to cover blood stains, like you would for an oil spill on your driveway.
Do we see parallels in this death and that of Evin Olsden Yadegar who was shot to death by deputies from this same department in Ripon in late February of 2017. Mrs. Yadegar sat in her parked car and refused to come out. Deputies escalated the situation by breaking her driver’s side window. She reacted and one deputy opened fire. Did we not learn anything from that event?
The word “WE” was used in that last sentence and in the headline to this article because the sheriff’s deputies are OUR employees. Sheriff Dirkse “manages” them but they are public employees and we can ask the best of them. “Monday morning quarterbacking” of events such as these is not only fair, it is required, I submit. When the review is done by what some see as members of the same team, the conclusions are often seen as less valuable.
Is there an independent body which could review both incidents and make recommendations? The Civil Grand Jury?