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Defense attorney: Bounty hunter fired fatal shots at Palm Springs police's order

The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) logo The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) 5/16/2021 Christopher Damien, Palm Springs Desert Sun
a man wearing sunglasses posing for the camera: Fabian Herrera, left, who police say was not a licensed bail agent, is accused of fatally shooting David Spann, right, on Friday, April 23, 2021. Herrera has been arrested on suspicion of murder. © Desert Sun file photos Fabian Herrera, left, who police say was not a licensed bail agent, is accused of fatally shooting David Spann, right, on Friday, April 23, 2021. Herrera has been arrested on suspicion of murder.

The attorney representing a bounty hunter accused of fatally shooting a Palm Springs man last month said that his client fired at the order of police who were at the scene. 

Defense attorney Raj Maline, who is representing Fabian Herrera, said police and media reports have implied Herrera was "some rogue unlicensed agent acting like a vigilante." 

"Nothing could be further from the truth," Maline said.

Herrera, 36, has been charged with murder in the fatal shooting of David Spann, 33, at Spann's home in the 100 block of East Via Escuela. Herrera is also charged with possession of a firearm, ammunition and body armor as a convicted felon. Herrera went to Spann's home in an attempt to arrest him, according to Maline.

"He is allowed to be doing what he was doing," Maline said. Police, however, say Herrera was not permitted by California law to do work as either a bail agent or a bounty hunter due to his previous convictions.

Maline presented an account of the April 23 shooting to The Desert Sun that will likely be reflected in his defense of his client should the case go to trial. The case is currently going through pre-trial hearings, and Herrera has pleaded not guilty to all charges. 

Maline said Herrera was sent to arrest Spann by his employer despite being "relatively new" to the bail industry. The defense attorney, however, said he did not have access to the name of Herrera's employer.

He also said Herrera called Palm Springs police several times before and while the situation escalated. Officers were dispatched to Spann's home. Maline said officers ultimately ordered Herrera to shoot Spann.

"The police never once said: 'Hey, we got this, you can go now Mr. Herrera,'" Maline said. "They needed Mr. Herrera. They were all relying on each other with one goal: to apprehend Mr. Spann. It's like an old Western: 'We’ve got you surrounded. Come out with your hands up.'"

Maline's account contrasts starkly with reports provided by the Palm Springs Police Department, which said Herrera falsely presented himself as a licensed bail agent. The department also said its officers were not working in concert with Herrera, but responding to multiple calls for service at the residence.

Attorney: Police told bounty hunter to shoot

Just before 2 a.m. on April 23, Herrera called the Palm Springs Police Department to say he was going to Spann's house in connection with a fugitive warrant, according to the department. Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes said Herrera identified himself as a bail agent to a department dispatcher.

Department officials reported that Herrera called to say he was going to apprehend Spann because he was a fugitive. Within about 30 minutes from that call, Spann called the police saying someone was breaking into his home. Then Herrera called the police saying he was in need of backup. 

"He called the police several times. He called before he went and he called when he was in a standoff position," Maline said. "Why would someone call the police if they are acting rogue? Mr. Herrera did exactly what he was supposed to do."

Within minutes of arriving on the scene, one police officer deployed a Taser and Spann was fatally shot. 

Maline said that the officers, Herrera and a fourth individual, whom police have identified as Herrera's mother, Lisa Vargas, were working together to apprehend Spann. Palm Springs police have not identified the officers who were on the scene.

a man looking at the camera: Fabian Herrera appears virtually in court at the Banning Justice Center, April 30, 2021. © Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun Fabian Herrera appears virtually in court at the Banning Justice Center, April 30, 2021.

Both Maline and the police department say Spann was armed with a knife and did not submit to being arrested when the police arrived. Maline said that Spann lunged with the knife at one of the officers, who then gave an order to shoot.

"When he lunged, one officer yelled, 'Shoot!'" Maline said.

"This was a common effort to apprehend Mr. Spann," Maline added. "The police easily could have treated Mr. Herrera as someone who was doing something wrong. They could have said, 'What are you doing here with a gun?' But they didn't." 

When asked about Maline's claims that police ordered Herrera to shoot Spann, Lt. William Hutchinson said the department's officers have been cleared after an investigation by two law enforcement agencies brought in to review the incident.

"The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s investigation and review by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office found no criminal culpability on behalf of any PSPD personnel," Hutchinson said.

Attorney: Release the body cam footage

Palm Springs Police Chief Bryan Reyes told The Desert Sun two weeks ago that his officers were not working with Herrera or backing him up in any way. 

"When we go, we don’t go to back up. We respond to calls for service," Reyes said. "When we get [multiple] calls that frequently in that short of a time frame, that's what we're responding to. Not necessarily backing up an agent. It’s going out there because we had three very wide-ranging calls for service in a short period of time all associated with this address."

Reyes said Spann brandished a knife, describing the incident as "fluid" and "very scary."

At least one officer recorded the incident on a body-worn camera.

Reyes said that he watched the body-worn camera footage of the incident, but deferred to the Riverside County Sheriff's Department about whether or not it will be released to the public amid the continued investigation.

"It’s great footage in regard to painting a pretty extensive picture on a very unique situation, a very scary situation, and to comment on any of those aspects and to really dig into the weeds would be inappropriate," Reyes said.

Maline called on both departments to release the footage, claiming it depicts a situation in which his client was working with the police and fired on their command. 

"The police could easily clear this up by releasing the body-worn camera footage," Maline said. "If what I’m saying is incorrect, release it and prove me wrong."

Attorney: Bounty hunter sent by employer

Maline said Herrera was sent to apprehend Spann by his employer, either a licensed bail agency or bail insurance company.

"His employer put him in a very, very dangerous position by asking him to apprehend somebody at this time of day," Maline said. "He didn't have a lot of experience and was relatively new at this."

Convicted felons cannot work as bounty hunters and cannot obtain licenses to work as bail agents, according to California law.

Herrera has twice been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, once in Riverside County and once in Los Angeles County.

Maline said that Herrera's felony convictions were an issue to take up with the state agency that oversees bail agents and bail recovery agents. 

Maline contends that Herrera had a certificate of completion for an arrest training course through the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, dated from January 2021; had completed a bail agent pre-licensing course through Bail Education Association in November 2020; and was a member of the National Association of Fugitive Recovery Agents.

Michael Soller, deputy commissioner of communications for the California Department of Insurance, said bounty hunters — also known as bail recovery agents — are required to have completed training and can't have felony convictions. However, he said: "No agency regulates bail recovery persons."

"While the law prevents a person convicted of a felony from being a bounty hunter, there is no check on that," Soller said. "The Department of Insurance has called for licensing of bounty hunters including a fingerprint background check."

Maline added that an insurance company backing a bail bond has broad discretion to establish conditions, such as drug tests or wearing a GPS monitor, with which a defendant must comply.

"If you violate the terms of this agreement, a bail recovery agent can apprehend you," Maline said. "The company had slated Mr. Spann as someone who needed to be apprehended. This was a legitimate transaction with a legitimate company." 

Herrera surveilled Spann for "some time" before he called the Palm Springs Police Department to notify them that he was going to attempt to arrest Spann as a wanted fugitive, Maline said. The defense attorney did not provide an exact estimate of how long the surveillance took place. 

Attorney: Herrera 'armed' during standoff

Riverside County jail records show that Spann was arrested on April 1 for allegedly violating a restraining order. He was released on $100,000 bail the next day. 

Spann had no warrants for his arrest and his bail had not been revoked by a court at the time he was fatally shot. When presented with this information by The Desert Sun, Maline said he hasn't been able to independently confirm that this is true.

Spann's relatives have identified Melissa Lippert, owner of Justice Bail Bonds and the Western Regional Director of Bankers Surety, as the person who was working with David Spann as his bail bond agent. Bill Spann, David's brother, said that he believed Lippert sent Herrera to David's home on the night of the shooting.

Lippert's attorney, Ralph Munoz, said that Lippert did not employ Herrera.

"I don’t know why Herrera would be there if Melissa didn’t pull the bond," Bill Spann said. "She should be charged with negligent homicide." 

As a convicted felon, Herrera is barred from possessing a firearm, ammunition and body armor — all of which he had at the time of the shooting, prosecutors claim.

Maline said he does not know how Herrera came to have a firearm at the time of the shooting and said it could have been provided by Vargas during the standoff.

a close up of a woman: Lisa Vargas is wanted in connection with the fatal shooting of David Spann on April 23, 2021, who was allegedly killed by an unlicensed bail agent in his Palm Springs home. The Riverside County Sheriff's Department has announced that there is a warrant for Vargas' arrest in connection with the incident. © Courtesy of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department Lisa Vargas is wanted in connection with the fatal shooting of David Spann on April 23, 2021, who was allegedly killed by an unlicensed bail agent in his Palm Springs home. The Riverside County Sheriff's Department has announced that there is a warrant for Vargas' arrest in connection with the incident.

"I don’t know if he went into the home armed," Maline said. "I just know he was armed during the standoff. Remember, there was a fourth person there, and Mr. Spann was held at bay for about 20 minutes."

Vargas, 53, is wanted by police and remains at large. The Riverside County Sheriff's Department, which has taken over the investigation, has not said why she was permitted to leave the scene of the shooting. 

Bill Spann extends culpability to the Palm Springs Police Department. 

"The police were there to de-escalate the situation," Spann said. "They were also there to respond to my brother’s call that an armed intruder was in his house. The police did nothing about that."

In a statement, Palm Springs police said releasing additional information now — as Maline has requested — could damage Herrera's right to a fair trial. 

"As a law enforcement agency, it is our duty to ensure our actions do not hinder or interfere with a criminal case," Hutchinson said. "It is our responsibility to ensure the integrity of all criminal cases, and so our public response to specific details of this case must be limited so as to not jeopardize a fair trial for the prosecution and the defendant in this matter, Fabian Herrera. We will not provide comment on specifics related to the actions of the defendant; comments made by involved parties, or provide any information that may prejudicially impact the outcome of a fair and impartial trial."

Christopher Damien covers public safety and the criminal justice system. He can be reached at christopher.damien@desertsun.com or follow him at @chris_a_damien.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Defense attorney: Bounty hunter fired fatal shots at Palm Springs police's order

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