Denver police body camera footage shows officers firing into stopped car they wrongly thought was occupied by a fugitive

The Denver Police Department released the video taken in March following the district attorney’s decision that the fatal shooting was justified. The department’s own investigation of the incident is ongoing.
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A file photo of police tape. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Denver police released body-camera footage on Tuesday of a shooting in March that left a man dead after police opened fire into a car they incorrectly believed contained a fugitive attempted murder suspect.

The video was released after District Attorney Beth McCann earlier Tuesday ruled the March 19 shooting death of Steven Nguyen justified.

"While the district attorney’s investigation into these events has concluded, ours is just beginning," Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said at a brief press conference when the video was released. On Oct. 10, the department announced a new policy that allows for body camera footage to be released, under special circumstances, while an investigation is ongoing.

"I want to assure you there is a sense of urgency on our part to get answers to the questions that we all have," Pazen said.

Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen speaks to press at DPD headquarters, Oct. 16, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Nguyen, 23, was driving a car police believed contained attempted murder suspect Mauricio Venzor-Gonzalez. Nguyen died from multiple gunshot wounds.

Venzor-Gonzalez had escaped from Denver Sheriff’s Department while at Denver Health earlier on March 19. Venzor-Gonzalez was arrested in Thornton in August.

McCann's decision letter said there were no criminal charges that could be filed against Officers William Bohm, Austin Barela and Susan Mercado for the incident. She concluded the officers were legally justified because they were authorized to use deadly physical force. Based on the department's analysis, Barela fired his gun 34 times; Bohm fired his gun 12 times; and Mercado fired her gun two times.

Nguyen was struck three times; two rounds from Bohm and one round from Barela.

A body camera worn by Officer Austin Barela shows him pointing his weapon at a vehicle. (Source: Denver Police Department)

The officers encountered Nguyen and his passenger, Rafael Landeros, 23, after the SUV driven by Nguyen crashed against a wall and ended up near a storm drainage ditch following a high-speed chase with police. Landeros was treated at a hospital following the incident and was taken into custody on arrest warrants in Adams County. Both men were later determined to be associates of Venzor-Gonzalez.

Both Bohm and Barela approached the stationary vehicle with their firearms drawn. Both yelled for the men to show their hands, with McCann's report saying neither man followed the orders.

Bohm then approached the driver side door of the car and saw the driver reaching toward the center of the car's console, according to the decision letter, which also said Barela had earlier in the pursuit noticed the passenger throw something out the window (it was later determined to be a box containing methamphetamine) and had started reaching out in the car for what he believed was a gun. In the video from the driver's side, Bohm appears to move for the driver's side door — his reflection in the door shows him reaching his hand out as if to open the door — just before the sounds of gunshots ring out.

A frame from body camera footage showing Officer William Bohm reaching for the car door latch, after the chase and right before shots were fired. (Source: Denver Police Department)

In the opposite side video, Barela yells "Show me your hands!" eight times a short distance from the passenger side of the vehicle as Bohm approaches from the driver's side, also yelling. The person sitting in the driver's side seat can briefly be seen in one video angle and appears to have his hands in the air when the sounds of gunshots start from the opposite side of the car.

According to the report, after seeing the passenger side door open slightly and fearing the passenger was getting out of the car to shoot him, Barela began firing into the passenger side of the car. The video shows Barela firing, reloading and firing several more times in rapid succession before pausing. The passenger side door is not consistently in the frame in the video from Barela's body cam, but when it is on screen, the door does not appear to be open.

After hearing the shots — which at the time, Bohm said he didn't know if they were being fired toward him or by Barela — Bohm also opened fire. He fired eight or nine rounds before the car appeared to start moving again. He reloaded and continued firing.

Mercado arrived at the scene and started getting out of the vehicle. Noticing the car was still moving and believing it meant the suspect was still fleeing, she fired her gun.

A frame from Denver Police body camera footage showing an officer with his weapon drawn. (Source: Denver Police Department)

A 9-mm Beretta handgun was recovered from the vehicle driven by Nguyen near the passenger's seat and passenger door. McCann's report noted there was no indication the firearm was used during the incident by either Nguyen or Landeros.

Nguyen's cell phone was also found in the car. A forensic exam of the cell found a photo of the same Beretta handgun and a March 10 text exchange between him and a woman. The woman was warning him to leave a location, to which he responded by saying he had "2 full clips" among other boasts.

"I put that on my grandmas grave im ready to die today," Nguyen texted on March 10.

McCann is scheduled to host a community meeting to discuss her decision on Nov. 8 from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Central Park Recreation Center at 9651 E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

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