Anaheim’s Cruzaders

Theresa Smith, mother of Caesar Cruz (photo by Mark Samala)

On the afternoon of Dec. 11, 2009, the Anaheim Police Department received a tip that an armed parolee was roaming the back streets of Anaheim’s working-class Loara neighborhood. At the same time, Caesar Cruz, a 35-year-old father of five, was driving his dark-green Chevrolet SUV to his sons’ school. Later, police would tell reporters that the undercover units tailing Cruz sought to pull him over, and when that failed, they called for assistance. A marked police cruiser then followed Cruz into a Walmart parking lot, which was packed with pre-Christmas shoppers.

Cruz stopped, but when officers got out of their cars, they claim, he rapidly accelerated through the lot. According to police, the officers got back into their marked and unmarked cars and chased after Cruz, quickly surrounding him. Within moments, Anaheim detectives Bruce Linn, Philip Vargas, Mike Brown and Nathan Stauber opened fire at Cruz, who was still inside the vehicle. Cruz was shot in the back at least nine times. Police later told reporters they found a gun in the vehicle, but they refused to say what kind it was or if it was fired that day. As it turned out, Cruz was not on parole at the time of the shooting.

In the two-and-a-half years since her son died under what remain mysterious circumstances,Theresa Smith has organized weekly protests outside the police department on Harbor Boulevard with friends and family members, all of whom are demanding answers about what really happened that day. She has encouraged other families affected by officer-involved shootings in Anaheim to join her protest, but, she says, they’ve mostly refused because they fear police retaliation. But after the brutal July 5, 2011, beating death of Kelly Thomas at the hands of Fullerton police officers gave energy to critics of police brutality in Orange County, word has spread about Smith’s crusade.

For the past several weeks, from a dozen to 20 people can be found every Monday evening on the corner of Harbor Boulevard and Broadway Avenue, waving signs and chanting, “Shame on APD!” Corie Cline has been going to the protests for about three months; her brother Joe Whitehouse was killed by Anaheim police in 2007. She brings along her 5-year-old son, who cheerfully joins in the chants, shouting, “Shame on the Anaheim police!” and, echoing the popular Occupy chant, “Whose streets? Our streets!”

Protesters outside of the Anaheim Police Department, March 2012

“I’ve been wanting to do it since my brother was killed five years ago,” Cline says, explaining that her mother dissuaded her from speaking out until now. “She said, ‘I already lost one child; I don’t need to lose another.’ But it took knowing I was safe with other families out there for her to say, ‘Go ahead; you can go.'”

Whitehouse was celebrating the end of his probation when his brother Chris started to fight him in the street. Both had been drinking heavily when, police say, Whitehouse began threatening his brother outside of his apartment with a butcher knife. Cline says the “knife” in question had no blade, just a handle, which Whitehouse, locked outside of his brother’s house, was using to bang on the front door when officers arrived. Police shot Whitehouse at least 18 times, according to Cline. “They didn’t try to Taser him,” she says. “One of them just starting shooting with a 12-gauge shotgun and another one with a 9 millimeter.”

Justin Hertl was walking his grandmother Barbara Kordiak to her car when he was shot by undercover Anaheim detectives on Nov. 14, 2003, after the police received information about a stolen car, possibly from Hertl’s girlfriend, with whom he had just been fighting. Kordiak alleges that police came up behind her and that one of them yelled, “Gun!” The next thing she knew, three shots had rung out and her grandson was lying on the ground bleeding. A fourth shot, she claims, killed him.

“Bullets were flying everywhere,” she says. “I could have been killed alongside him. They were close enough to grab either me or him, but instead, they started randomly shooting, with no regard for time or place.” She also claims police left key details about the shooting out of their report, which she viewed after her daughter hired an attorney. “They didn’t include my statements that were in direct opposition of what they were saying,” she claims. “It’s a worthless report.”

Along with her daughter Jaclyn Conroy, Kordiak attended the Kelly Thomas protests outside theFullerton Police Department last summer. For the past year, they have joined Smith and other families to take on what they feel is a culture of impunity within the department. “It seems like they shoot for any reason now,” she says. “They shouldn’t be able to; I don’t know when they decided that’s okay, but it’s not. They have other choices; they just aren’t using them.”

So far this year, there have been six officer-involved shootings in Anaheim. One of them took place on the night of March 6, when police responded to reports of possibly armed men in a Ponderosa neighborhood alley and fatally shot 21-year-old Martin Hernandez, who was standing next to another male, who fled the scene and was never identified. Four days after the shooting, on March 10, about 100 friends and family members took to the streets in a protest near the alley where Hernandez was shot, and a few weeks later, members of the community confronted Anaheim police during a community meeting at Ponderosa Elementary School.

Frustrated with anti-gang injunctions and what residents denounced as unwarranted police harassment, meeting participants lashed out at Anaheim officers, even directly challenging a few who were in attendance for acting similar to neighborhood bullies. Chief John Welter, who was present at the meeting, promised to address complaints of police misconduct, but such assurances have yet to quell the feelings of anger and resentment in the community.

Community meeting at Ponderosa Elementary (March 2012)

Family members of Cruz, Whitehouse and Hertl also spoke up during the public-comment session of a June 5 Anaheim City Council meeting. “I don’t want any other families to go through this ever again,” Conroy says. “It’s been nine years, and we still have no justice and no closure. I don’t want to see any more deaths by the Anaheim Police Department. I want to see policy changes so this type of behavior does not continue.

On July 19, 2010, the Orange County district attorney’s office sent a letter to the Anaheim Police Department about the Cruz shooting. “We have reviewed materials consisting of District Attorney Investigator’s interviews of various officers and witnesses to the incident,” the letter states. “After a thorough review of all the facts and the applicable law in this incident, we have concluded that the evidence does not support a finding of criminal culpability on the behalf of any officers at the Anaheim Police Department.”

Cruz and his wife of 12 years, Jennifer, and their five sons

Smith says she never received a copy of the letter. Because the shooting preceded Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ new transparency policy regarding officer-involved deaths, which has seen lengthier reports on more recent incidents go public on the DA’s website, no other details of the investigation are available. Since the new implementation of the policy, the detailed findings of five officer-involved shootings in Orange County have been made public, including two fatal and three non-fatal shootings. All five shootings—including a Feb. 17, 2011, incident that wounded Anaheim resident Travis Mock—were upheld.

On March 10, 2010, Smith filed a civil lawsuit against Anaheim, calling Cruz’s death an “execution.” She visits her son’s grave regularly, most recently on Father’s Day. Smith is able to talk about her grief as a mother, but citing a court order of confidentiality, she refused to specifically discuss the case. “All I can say is what I know makes me want to fight back harder,” she says. “They always come up with an excuse for why this keeps happening. That’s why we are out there, and that’s why we won’t stop until we start seeing some justice.”

Originally appeared in print edition of OC Weekly, June 21