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Calif. cops fatally shoot woman with replica, victim misidentified

Woman pointed a replica gun at three deputies who had been dispatched to persuade her to leave her perch atop a large rock pile

By Steve Levin
The Bakersfield Californian

KERN COUNTY, Calif. — Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said Monday the misidentification by the coroner's office of a woman who was shot and killed Sunday was "unacceptable" and "shouldn't happen in today's world."

Youngblood said during an interview at his office the misidentification was based on "assumptions" rather than department policy. He said there had not been a similar case in his eight years as sheriff.

The confusion revolved around the 5 a.m. shooting of 42-year-old Maria Rodriguez at a stone manufacturing business in the 1600 block of South Union Avenue. She reportedly pointed a replica gun at three deputies who had been dispatched to persuade her to leave her perch atop a large rock pile.

According to a sheriff's office news release issued Sunday, the shooting occurred after deputies climbed the rock pile. When Rodriguez pointed what turned out to be a BB gun replica of a semi-automatic handgun, all three officers fired at her.

Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene. The three deputies have been placed on routine paid administrative leave pending a use-of-force review.

In a news release time stamped at 2:44 p.m. Sunday, the Kern County Coroner's office identified the victim as 32-year-old Sarah Bustamante, a transient.

It wasn't until nearly 24 hours later — 11:48 a.m. Monday — that the misidentification was acknowledged and officially changed.

Youngblood said the identification of the woman as Bustamante was based on two assumptions. One came from the owner of the business, who told deputies Bustamante had regularly been on the property in the past. The second came from one of the three responding deputies. He had arrested Bustamante previously and believed she was, in fact, the dead woman.

"At the end of the day, none of those are excuses," Youngblood said. "There's just no excuse...not to provide a positive identification. This is just unacceptable."

He said the sheriff's office — which includes the coroner's division — didn't learn of the misidentification until called after 10 a.m. Monday by a media outlet.

Following that, a fingerprint check quickly determined the woman was Rodriguez.

"We're going to conduct an investigation on how this occurred and find a way we can ensure it doesn't happen again," Youngblood said. "This shouldn't happen in today's world."

Depending on the circumstances involving bodies — the extent of damage, for example, if the body is burned or the hands are missing — positive identification can be made through DNA, fingerprints and dental records.

"There are many different ways to identify someone depending on what you have to work with," Youngblood said. In this case, "we made some assumptions and took a leap of faith.

"This is tragic. There's no question about that."

Copyright 2014 The Bakersfield Californian

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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