A Mother Fights for Justice

Photo: Davis Barber / Fullerton Stories

She is a thorn in the side of the Anaheim Police Department.  At least, that’s what she has been told.

Theresa Smith is the mother of Caesar Cruz, a 35-year-old Fullerton resident who was shot by Anaheim police officers in a Wal-Mart parking lot in 2009. Cruz was married for 12 years and had five sons.

Frustrated with the lack of information from authorities regarding his death, Smith has organized and led weekly protests outside the Anaheim Police Department.

Despite protesting each week at the heavily trafficked intersection, most Orange County residents may not know who she is. She’s been there with family and supporters for over a year and a half yet Cruz’s death has long fallen off the public’s radar.

Orange County Register, ABC7 News and OC Weekly reported the story of her son’s death and a family vigil. In March 2010, her protests also received coverage from those media outlets. However, Smith said, she hasn’t been contacted by the media since.

There is one thing she wants to make clear to authorities: she wants justice for her son and she will not stop until she gets it.

Smith had tried for many months to follow up with the Orange County District Attorney and the Anaheim Police Department regarding her son’s death. She said was unable to receive any information from either agency.

The OCDA investigates all officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. According to its website, investigations seek to determine criminal culpability and do not address policy, training, tactics or civil liability. Investigations can take anywhere from six to nine months.

During an interview last month on a PBS SoCal special on the Kelly Thomas investigation in Fullerton, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas confirmed that his office has never prosecuted a police officer for a shooting death during his 12 year tenure.

According to Anaheim Police spokesperson Sgt. Rick Martinez, the Anaheim Police Department conducted a thorough internal/administrative review of the shooting. The details and outcome cannot be released as it is handled a personnel issue, which is protected from public information requests.

Cruz’s family filed a civil lawsuit against the Anaheim Police Department. In February, there was a protective order regarding information deemed confidential for all parties involved in the civil litigation. As a result, there are few details that are available to the public or the media.

According to Smith, she did not receive any information regarding the investigations until the civil case started depositions this month.

Susan Kang Schroeder, the DA Chief of Staff, said there is no legal requirement for the office to release their findings to the families/next-of-kin of the deceased in officer-involved shootings or in-custody deaths. However, the DA fully cooperates with legal and civil subpoenas requesting information about the investigation.

Families can ask the DA for the information after the investigation is completed, Schroeder says. In the past, she said, whether or not it is released to them was done on a case by case basis.

Schroeder cited a new office policy as a way the public and families can get information about their investigations into these types of cases.

In July 2010, the DA sent a letter to Anaheim Police Chief John Welter informing the department no criminal charges were warranted for the four officers involved and the shooting was justified. No other details were made available in the letter, nor was the letter sent to Smith.

In December 2010, the DA cited a request from Chief Welter in a media statement announcing a new policy of transparency with their investigations of officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. Now, detailed findings of investigations are to be made public unless criminal charges are warranted, whereas the findings will not be released until after trial and/or sentencing.

According to DA spokesperson Farrah Emami, the new policy does not apply retroactively.

Photo: Davis Barber/Fullerton Stories

Smith’s frustration with the lack of updates from the Anaheim Police and the DA motivated her to start a non-profit for families of victims of officer-involved deaths called LEAN, Law Enforcement Accountability Network.

“I understand police have to protect themselves but the use of excessive force is against everyone’s constitutional rights,” she said. “There has to be a mediator between the community and law enforcement. I want everyone, including the police, to come together to address these issues.”

She wants LEAN to be a group where families can get emotional support and resources when their loved one has died as a result of a run-in with police. Through social networking websites, she has already connected with a dozen other families experiencing struggles similar to her.

Smith said while she appreciates the new policy of transparency, she thinks the DA should not be investigating officer-involved deaths in the first place.

“The police internal affairs departments and District Attorney are connected to each other,” she said. “There needs to be an unbiased, third party to come in to oversee what they are doing.”

*****

According to the Orange County Register, on December 11, 2009, “undercover officers, including gang investigators, received information that a parolee was in a green Chevrolet armed with a handgun.   Officers followed the vehicle to the Wal-Mart parking lot, where they tried to box it in.

“The driver briefly stopped, causing officers to get out of their cars, and then rapidly accelerated down the parking aisle.  Police units followed the car, boxing it in further down the parking aisle. Four officers opened fire at the driver, who was still inside the vehicle.”

According to authorities, a handgun was recovered from the Chevrolet, however it is unclear if the handgun was used during the incident.

Cruz was no longer on parole at the time of the shooting. In 2002, Cruz was convicted of a single count of drug possession with intent to sell, for which he was given 240 days in jail and three years probation, which ended five years prior to his death.

His other only violation in Orange County was a dismissed infraction for having his radio too loud.

Smith contends the number and locations of the bullet wounds show Cruz was killed by “police execution.” She took photos of her son’s body in the morgue and she counted eleven bullet wounds in his back. There were also bruises on his chest.

She said she does not wish to release the photos out of concern for Cruz’s five young sons.

Caesar Cruz was married to his wife Jennifer for twelve years. Together they had four sons: Sonny, 13; Cisco, 12; Mando, 10; Chad, 4.  Caesar’s oldest son, Michael, 18, is from a previous relationship. Jennifer has not been involved in the public fight for justice. 

Smith says Jennifer is dealing with the tragedy in her own ways and taking care of their children.

Cruz went to school for telecommunications and worked in the industry for about four years until a herniated disc injury put him out of work. After a few years of not working, he went to prison for a drug possession conviction.

After Cruz was released from prison, he had lost all of his tools for his work in a storage unit that had been past due.

He began to work as a driver and other odd-end labor jobs. At the time prior to his death, he was working for a warehouse company in the shipping and receiving department.

Smith described her son as a charismatic storyteller.

“When he would tell a story he would tell every detail and do every sound effect,” she said.

When Cruz would come in to get haircuts for his sons at Let It Rock Barbershop in Fullerton, owner Ronald Gonzales said Cruz would entertain other customers.

Cruz had been coming in to get his sons’ haircuts for about three years before he died.

“He would get very animated when telling stories about growing up and his family,” Gonzales said. “He was always making people laugh.”

Gonzales said he was starting to get close to Cruz right before his death. Cruz appeared to have turned his life around completely since getting out of prison years ago, he said.

There were times when right before he died he would come in to the barbershop just to talk. A few of those times Cruz would talk about being harassed by local police.

Chico Vargas, a Placentia resident, knew Cruz for five years before he died. He said he thinks Cruz’s appearance, arm sleeve tattoos and a shaved head, led to him to be stereotyped by law enforcement.

Vargas helped the Cruz family pay for little league football for sons Cisco and Sonny. In return, Cruz would volunteer for the league. He dedicated a lot of time and energy to his sons, Vargas said. Cruz taught them respect and good manners.

“Caesar was a great father. He was always there for his sons,” Vargas said “He would show discipline without going overboard. He didn’t want them to go down the same road he did.”

***

When Smith worked at a convenience store near Cal State Fullerton, she happened to become acquainted with a man who would later be the alleged victim of police brutality: Kelly Thomas.

Thomas would come into the store to buy candy and chips with spare change. One time he did not have enough change to pay for his items. Smith offered to pay the difference. Thomas was hesitant but took the offer. The next week he came in with the change.

“He was so quiet and gentle,” she said. “I broke down when I found out what happened to him.”

While Smith supports the protests proceeding outside of the Fullerton Police Department for justice for Thomas, she’s wary of how the lack of information from authorities can wear down families of the deceased and their supporters.

“As it is, families already have to suffer enough with losing a loved one,” she said “A lot of them don’t follow up with the authorities because it’s too frustrating getting stonewalled.”

Supporters can drop off as time goes on, Smith said, leaving the family to fight on their own and having to face the reality of their loss.

“I support getting justice for Kelly just as I support getting justice for my son,” she said. “But I wonder how many of them will still be at the protests a year and a half from now?”

Smith adds, “With all the pain I’m going through every day, I will be out there every week until someone is held accountable, even if it means until the day I die.”

Originally featured on Fullerton Stories

Amber Stephens
amber.stephens@gmail.com

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