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Andres Guardado inquest ends without testimony from sheriff's officials or the deputy who killed him

The LA Times logo The LA Times 1/16/2021 Matthew Ormseth
a person wearing a costume: Andres Guardado, 18, was fatally shot by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy last year in Gardena. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times) © Provided by The LA Times Andres Guardado, 18, was fatally shot by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy last year in Gardena. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

A retired judge appointed to hold a public examination of the death of Andres Guardado, an 18-year-old man killed during an encounter with Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, said Friday that she had concluded the inquest without hearing testimony from the deputy who fired the fatal shots or the sheriff’s detectives investigating the case, all of whom invoked their 5th Amendment rights and refused to answer questions.

The inquest, a rare proceeding that hadn’t been held in the county in nearly 30 years, was intended to present an “independent assessment” of the findings of Guardado’s death and the evidence used to arrive at them, the county’s chief medical examiner-coroner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, said when it was announced.

But what the hearing officer, retired Court of Appeals Judge Candace Cooper, presented as her findings Friday was remarkably bereft of new information. Cooper determined that Guardado died June 18, that he died in a driveway off Redondo Beach Boulevard in Gardena, that the medical cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds and that the manner of death was “by the hands of another person other than by accident.”

All of this was widely known before the inquest.

Sarah Ardalani, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner-coroner’s office, referred Friday to Lucas’ previous statement that described the inquest as “an independent review” of the evidence and his office’s findings.

"While its impact is still being evaluated, the inquest met these goals,” Ardalani wrote in an email.

Cooper’s inquiry was limited by the fact that the deputy who fatally shot Guardado, Miguel Vega, did not appear at the Nov. 30 inquest. He submitted a declaration saying if called to testify, he would invoke his 5th Amendment rights and answer no questions.

Two sheriff’s homicide detectives investigating Guardado’s death appeared at the inquest but refused to answer questions, also citing their 5th Amendment rights.

Cooper left the inquest saying she could revisit the detectives’ legal reasoning for invoking the 5th Amendment. But in a memo made public Friday, she said she would “not pursue” the issue.

Cooper said that after reviewing a comprehensive file of sealed Sheriff’s Department documents, which she ordered to be kept sealed, and after hearing from a handful of witnesses at the public proceeding, she felt it unnecessary to call any more witnesses or obtain more evidence.

Her decision in effect means the Sheriff’s Department’s account of Guardado’s death, which touched off months of heated protests through the summer, will remain the official version until and unless the incident is revisited during a trial.

Guardado’s family has sued the Sheriff’s Department and urged the district attorney’s office to criminally charge the deputies involved in his death. They did so again Friday, calling on George Gascón, the county’s recently elected district attorney, “to take action and hold these deputies accountable for their criminal actions.”

The Sheriff’s Department has said two deputies, Vega and his partner, Chris Hernandez, had spotted Guardado standing near an auto body shop in Gardena when the 18-year-old produced a handgun. The deputies chased Guardado into an alley and ordered him lie down and place the gun on the ground. As Vega approached to cuff Guardado, Guardado reached for the gun and Vega opened fire, Vega’s attorney has said.

Guardado died of five gunshot wounds to the back, a medical examiner determined.

Lucas, the county’s chief medical examiner, released that finding in July, overriding the Sheriff’s Department’s request to suppress the release of Guardado’s autopsy while the department investigated his death. Lucas said he did so in the interest of “being more timely and more transparent in sharing information that the public demands and has a right to see.”

His decision incensed Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who accused the coroner’s office of bowing to political pressure and jeopardizing the investigation “in a bid to satisfy public curiosity.”

They clashed again in announcing the inquest. Lucas promised an “independent review of all the evidence and findings,” while Villanueva called the proceeding a “circus stunt.”

In the end, the testimony at the inquest was limited to the medical examiner who performed Guardado’s autopsy, a coroner’s investigator who responded to the scene, two firefighters who tried to save Guardado’s life, a journalist who interviewed a witness who couldn’t be located, and a doctor who performed a private autopsy at the Guardado family’s request. Little of what these witnesses said was new.

Cooper, the inquest's hearing officer, will preside over another inquest Jan. 28 for Fred Williams III, who was fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy in October in Willowbrook.

Williams had fled the deputy on foot, holding a handgun, according to body camera footage released by the Sheriff's Department. The deputy broadcast over his radio that Williams had pointed the weapon at him, a statement Williams' family has disputed.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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