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California cop shooting of Navy vet justified

The public learned few new facts from the Orange County district attorney’s (OCDA) press conference this morning justifying the Sept. 22 fatal police shooting of Dillan Tabares in Huntington Beach. Viral cell phone videos of the incident showed much of what happened, leaving the agency’s public disclosure policy with little to reveal. But key questions still remained unanswered.

Who was the Huntington Beach cop? Why did he stop Tabares? What did Tabares pluck from the cop’s utility belt during their struggle on the ground? And most importantly, why did the officer open fire after creating distance from Tabares?

An earlier attempt by the Weekly to learn the cop’s identity through a public record request was rebuffed by the Huntington Beach police department, citing unspecified threats against the officer’s safety. Eric Esparza is named in the OCDA’s eight-page report as the officer involved, but he didn’t talk to investigators, a fact lamented in the report as “regrettable” but inconsequential. “Officer Esparza refused to provide a statement to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department,” assistant district attorney Ebrahim Baytieh said. “That’s not very relevant to us as far as the legality of the contact because police officers are allowed to have consensual contact with civilians when they see them on the streets.”

With Esparza declining to comment, it remains unknown why he approached Tabares that morning near a 7-Eleven by Marina High School. The OCDA released surveillance video from the convenience store showing Tabares, a 27-year-old homeless man, casually walking by the store’s entrance before turning the corner. He looked back a couple times when Esparza’s patrol car pulled to a stop. The officer got out and began walking towards him. A witness told investigators she saw Tabares arguing with Esparza before throwing a punch.

Viral videos show what happened next when Tabares aggressively approached Esparza, who drew his Taser and fired it. The weapon didn’t slow down Tabares down, who proceeded to throw a punch at Esparza. The two wrestled on the ground when Tabares grasped at the cop’s utility belt, taking an object. Esparza drew his weapon, backed away from Tabares and fired seven bullets, striking Tabares five times. The officer’s body-worn camera showed that he was a little bit further than a full parking space from the curb when he shot Tabares.

Esparza retrieved his radio from the ground and reported the shooting. Tabares grunted faintly before further slumping to the floor. A witness told the cop a 7-Eleven worker had been struck by gunfire, a report that turned out to be false. Officer Delwin Jensen arrived on scene and spoke with Esparza on camera. “He tried to take my gun,” the cop repeatedly said. Baytieh noted during the press conference that Tabares’ DNA was found on Esparza’s belt, including his pistol grip. The unknown object that Tabares snagged and held in his hand before being shot turned out to be the cop’s flashlight. Video footage shows no threatening movements made by Tabares at that time.

Baytieh described Esparza as having two-years experience with the Huntington Beach police department. He served as a combat veteran prior to joining the force. Tabares, too, was a veteran, but fell on hard times including meth use, mental health issues and homelessness after being dishonorably discharged from the Navy. Also, just eight days before the shooting, Tabares had been released from state prison. “In March of 2016, Mr. Tabares was involved in an incident at a Del Taco where he viciously attacked an employee for no reason other than they asked him to leave the location,” Baytieh said. “Our office prosecuted Mr. Tabares. He [pleaded] guilty to felony battery causing serious bodily injury.”

After being released from prison, Tabares failed to check in with a parole agent and a judge declared him to be a “parolee at large” two days before the shooting, information Huntington Beach police didn’t know at the time of the shooting.

District attorney Tony Rackauckas only briefly mentioned an October press conference held by Huntington Beach police where they tied Tabares to the Sept. 19 brutal beating death of 80-year Huntington Beach resident Richard Darland. The two were acquaintances with Darland helping out the homeless young man on occasion. Police chief Robert Handy presented evidence at the time placing Tabares near the crime scene. The Orange County Crime Lab also matched blood stains on Tabares’ pants with Darland’s DNA.

The fatal beating police suspect Tabares carried out happened just three days before the officer-involved shooting, which Baytieh announced will not be prosecuted. “There is no evidence to support a finding that there’s any criminal culpability on the part of officer Esparza,” Baytieh said. “Our office is closing its inquiry into this matter.”

As always, read the report in its entirety online.