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Sheriff: Fontana teen killed with father in shootout ‘was a participant in firing at our deputies’

LA Daily News 9/29/2022 Brian Rokos, Los Angeles Daily News
Family members stand near a makeshift memorial near Cypress Elementary School in Fontana on Sept. 27, 2022, after placing flowers near the site of the shooting that killed Tracy Martinez, 45. The suspect, estranged husband Anthony John Graziano, 45, was along with 15-year-old daughter Savannah Graziano killed in a shootout with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies in Hesperia on Sept. 27. © Will Lester/Los Angeles Daily News/TNS Family members stand near a makeshift memorial near Cypress Elementary School in Fontana on Sept. 27, 2022, after placing flowers near the site of the shooting that killed Tracy Martinez, 45. The suspect, estranged husband Anthony John Graziano, 45, was along with 15-year-old daughter Savannah Graziano killed in a shootout with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies in Hesperia on Sept. 27.

A 15-year-old Fontana girl killed along with her father in a shootout Tuesday with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies as she ran toward them from a car, was “a participant” in firing on them at some point during a rolling gun battle that stretched from Barstow to Hesperia, Sheriff Shannon Dicus said in a video posted on social media Wednesday, Sept. 28.

The state attorney general also announced Wednesday that the California Department of Justice will take over from local law enforcement officials and conduct an independent investigation into the shooting deaths.

Fontana police originally believed that Savannah Graziano likely had been kidnapped by her father, 45-year-old Anthony John Graziano, after he shot his estranged wife to death on a Fontana street on Monday. Questions about whether the teen may have been an accomplice to her father, rather than a victim, emerged Tuesday in the aftermath of the shooting.

Police and sheriff’s investigators took a closer look at the possibility Wednesday. Late in the day, Dicus implied the girl played a more active role in the shootout than previously stated.

“Based on the information, evidence suggests that Savannah Graziano was a participant in shooting at our deputies,” Dicus said in a video posted Wednesday afternoon on Twitter.

A message was left with sheriff’s officials seeking more information on that claim. Only one firearm, a rifle, was found in the car, Dicus previously said.

Dicus also said in the video that the state Attorney General’s Office might take over the investigation from the Sheriff’s Department under the state law that requires the AG to investigate fatal shootings of unarmed civilians by police. The AG’s office confirmed Wednesday evening that it would conduct an independent investigation into the shootings.

The teen’s mother, Tracy Martinez, 45, told police with one of her last breaths Monday that Anthony Graziano, her estranged husband, had shot her during a domestic dispute, said Sgt. Christian Surgent, a Fontana police spokesman. They were in his Nissan Frontier on Cypress Avenue when she bolted from the car. Graziano, 45, chased her down and shot her dead.

Graziano then picked up his daughter and drove to the High Desert. On Tuesday, someone spotted the Nissan in Barstow and called 911. Deputies chased the car south on the 15 Freeway, exchanging gunfire along the way, until they reached the Main Street exit in Hesperia. There, the Nissan stopped and the gunfight resumed. Savannah Graziano, who Dicus said was unrecognizable to deputies because she was wearing chest armor and a tactical helmet, ran from the car toward them. That’s when she was shot.

Her father was pronounced dead at the scene; the teen died at a hospital.

Among the other key questions expected in the investigation: As she exited the car, was she threatening deputies or simply attempting to flee to safety? And whose bullets struck her?

The Sheriff’s Department did nothing publicly Wednesday to counter the rising tumult on social media. One poster who said he would wait for more information before forming an opinion about the teen’s shooting was drowned out by accusations of, at best, recklessness by the deputies to, at worst, murder.

A request for an interview with Dicus was not granted Wednesday. Nor would the department answer basic questions about what form the investigation into the shooting would take or what investigators hoped to still learn in a case in which the only three people involved are dead.

Surgent said Fontana police had not responded to any domestic violence incidents involving the Grazianos. Detectives are looking for more witnesses to that slaying and are attempting to determine an exact motive.

“The family still wants to know,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Department is conducting two investigations, said Jacquelyn Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office. One is to determine whether deputies’ actions were within department policy. The second is to ascertain whether deputies violated any laws. A report on that investigation will be sent to the DA’s office for consideration of charges.

It’s unclear how much video evidence will be available to investigators. At the news conference, Dicus referenced video filmed by a sheriff’s helicopter above the pursuit but made no mention of body-worn cameras, which patrol deputies were supposed to receive by the end of last winter.

“This is not going to be answered quickly. This is a complicated case,” said Jim Bueermann, a former Redlands police chief who is now a policing consultant as well as a liaison to police departments seeking training and technical assistance from the federal Department of Justice.

“They’re going to look at what did the deputies believe was happening at the time they were shooting. If they are taking fire from inside the vehicle and someone gets out with tactical gear and they did not recognize her as a kidnap victim, then the question ultimately becomes was it reasonable for them to believe she had a weapon.

“The challenge for the Sheriff’s Department is trying to convince people how confusing and chaotic the situation was, and that they are going to do a competent investigation,” Bueermann said.

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