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Oregon legal proceedings hinge on whether suspect was shot in the back

Struggle preceded fatal shooting, Salem police say; Man was killed during confrontation after pursuit

By Ruth Liao
Salem Statesman Journal

SALEM, Oregon — Officials on Tuesday identified the man shot and killed by Salem police Monday as a 19-year-old Stayton man wanted on drug charges and for a probation violation.

The Marion County District Attorney's Office said the shooting occurred during a struggle between Salem Police Cpl. John Humphreys, a 16-year veteran of the department, and Cesar Alejandro Gonzalez-Meza.

Police were pursuing Gonzalez-Meza because he was a suspect in a stolen-car chase.

Gonzalez-Meza had arrest warrants on meth charges and for violating probation, said Matt Kemmy, a Marion County Deputy District Attorney.

The incident began about 3 p.m. Monday when Salem police attempted to stop a white 1988 Honda Accord at Lancaster Drive and Rickey Street SE that was reported stolen. The car failed to stop, and officers pursued the vehicle until it stopped in the 200 block of 45th Avenue NE, where three occupants fled on foot.

About 30 minutes later, police said, Humphreys confronted Gonzalez-Meza in the 400 block of 45th Avenue NE, where the shooting occurred.

An attorney representing the Salem police union said Humphreys was fighting for his life in the struggle.

Humphreys first used a Taser on Gonzalez-Meza and attempted to handcuff him, said Mark J. Makler, an attorney for the Salem Police Employees Union. Two Taser probes struck Gonzalez-Meza, who continued to act "combative and confrontational," Makler said.

Gonzalez-Meza then grabbed Humphreys' Taser and stunned the officer with the electrical nodes on the weapon's front barrel, known as a "dry stun," Makler said.

"Essentially, Officer Humphreys is fighting for his life at that point and that's when he deploys deadly use of force against the subject," Makler said.

After releasing no information about the shooting on Monday, officials at the district attorney's office confirmed Tuesday that it took place during a struggle between Humphreys and Gonzalez-Meza.

An autopsy Tuesday revealed that Gonzalez-Meza was not shot in the back, Kemmy said, refuting a claim made by a witness in a television news report Monday night.

Toxicology reports will not be available for about two weeks, Kemmy said.

Police were continuing to seek the other two suspects and released more details of their description.

Meanwhile, Oregon State Police were investigating the shooting. Detectives from Marion County Sheriff's Office, Keizer and Woodburn police were assisting.

The case will go before a grand jury when the investigation concludes, Kemmy said.

Gonzalez-Meza's family members said they learned of his death at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday when a sheriff's deputy and a chaplain came to their Stayton home.

Loved ones described Gonzalez-Meza as a happy person, full of energy and always helping others. He loved music, singing, dancing and children. He also cut family members' hair. He attended Stayton High School and dropped out at the end of his sophomore year.

"My parents are devastated, just like me, our friends, family and neighbors," said Jose Gonzalez-Meza Jr., the victim's older brother. Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Cesar Alejandro Gonzalez-Meza was the second-oldest in a family of five children.

Jose Gonzalez-Meza Jr. said family members were puzzled by conflicting reports that his brother was shot in the back and what authorities told them happened.

Jose Gonzalez-Meza Jr. said family members hoped to go to the funeral home in Stayton to see for themselves where on his body his brother was shot. Funeral arrangements have not been made.

A cousin, Ruben Gonzalez, of Stayton, described Gonzalez-Meza as "a good kid who got caught up in bad things."

In 2006 in Stayton, Gonzalez-Meza was charged with first-degree rape and kidnapping, but was acquitted by a Marion County jury. In that same incident, Gonzalez-Meza was convicted of felony meth charges and placed on 18 months probation on Dec. 12, 2006.

After receiving his drug conviction, Gonzalez-Meza failed to report to his probation officer, according to a report by Marion County Sheriff's Parole and Probation Deputy Kelly Swearingen.

On June 12, Gonzalez-Meza was cited and released by Stayton police on new meth possession charges. When he failed to appear on the new charges, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Monday's incident was the second time Humphreys has been involved in a fatal shooting. On Jan. 16, 2000, Humphreys and Salem officers Bill Fischer and Tom Brennan shot and killed the driver of a Ford Bronco. Police said the vehicle was barreling toward the officers following a crash on Hawthorne Avenue NE, north of D Street. The shooting of Christopher Michael Smith, 23, was later ruled justifiable.

The last time police shot a suspect in Salem occurred March 10, when Salem police Officer Rogers Jared Smith shot Rockne Mack Nickell during a struggle. Nickell allegedly threatened his neighbors with a knife and confronted police with what turned out to be a pellet gun.

State police investigators determined that Smith thought he was shooting Nickell with his Taser, and instead fired his gun. A Marion County grand jury cleared Smith in April.

Nickell, now 60, suffered a gunshot wound to his hip and eventually was released from Oregon Health & Science University Hospital. Nickell was found to be unfit to proceed in a criminal case and was sent to Oregon State Hospital, where he remains.

Salem Police Department recently revamped its use-of-force policies to meet national police accreditation standards, said Lt. Scott Hayes. Use of force is defined as any action stronger than an officer's presence or verbal commands. All use-of-force incidents are recorded and tracked, Hayes said.

In 2006, Salem police did not have any officer-related shootings. Out of 14,417 arrests, use of force was applied by police 833 times, or in about 6 percent of incidents.

Reporter Thelma Guerrero contributed to this report.


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