Report: Detective feared for partner's life - East Valley Tribune: News

Report: Detective feared for partner's life

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Posted: Thursday, July 2, 2009 5:20 pm | Updated: 3:00 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

A Mesa detective who shot and killed a 15-year-old girl at the end of a car chase on May 28, fired his weapon to protect his partner, according to a police report.

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A Mesa detective who shot and killed a 15-year-old girl at the end of a car chase on May 28, fired his weapon to protect his partner, according to a police report.

The report also leaves the impression that police, witnesses and some of the suspects involved in a fight that occurred before the four-mile chase didn't know the teenager was in the back seat of the black Ford Mustang that fled from cops.

According to the report, released Wednesday following a Tribune public records request, the car had heavily tinted windows and Detective Nathan Schlitz fired five to six rounds through the driver's side window.

"I don't think anybody even saw the driver, but maybe through the windshield," said Stan Slonaker, an attorney representing Schlitz. "My impression is by the time they got out to the (scene), there was no way to see anything from the angles."

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One of the bullets hit the driver, Gumercindo Balderas, 20, in the shoulder and exited his back, amazingly missing bone, arteries and organs, according to the report.

He is charged with two counts of aggravated assault and fleeing a police officer.

As officers descended on the car to arrest Balderas, they discovered Celestina Manuel sitting in the back seat on the passenger side leaning toward the center face down.

Manuel's family said she and Balderas are cousins and she was supposed to be home by 8 p.m. that night.

The incident began about 7 p.m. at an apartment complex at 1415 N. Country Club Drive, near McLellan Road, when a resident there called police to report a fight in the parking lot.

Balderas had driven there with Manuel and Zach Rivers, his sister's boyfriend, to fetch Rivers' wallet, but a fight broke out.

When police arrived, Rivers and Balderas' brother and sister were standing in the parking lot and Balderas was in the car.

Detective James Pollard approached the Mustang, which revved and squealed its tires as it drove toward him.

Pollard quickly stepped out of the way, according to the report.

"I observed the Mustang pass Pollard while accelerating onto North Country Club Drive," wrote officer Brian Jutting. "As the Mustang passed it appeared the driver was the sole occupant."

Larissa Balderas also told Jutting that no one else was in the car.

Balderas drove the Mustang to a neighboring apartment complex and parked.

Officer Franklin Brazle pulled up behind the car and got out.

Balderas then rammed Brazle's car, according to the report.

"Brazle stated he was forced to move out of the way in order to prevent himself from being struck by his own car as it was being pushed back," wrote Detective M. Rayburn, who investigated the incident.

Schlitz and his partner, Nicholas Lien, were also in the parking lot in an unmarked police car and chased after the Mustang as it headed north on Country Club Drive.

An officer in a helicopter saw white smoke come from the tires of the Mustang as it braked for a red light at McDowell Road, then run the light.

The car hit an approximate speed of 100 mph as it pulled away from the unmarked police car and a marked police car on state Route 87, but then it slowed down to 20 mph as it got to Mesa Drive.

That's when Lien rammed the Mustang to send it into a spin in an effort to end the chase.

The Mustang and the police car ended up facing in opposite directions with their driver's side fenders touching.

Lien got out.

"He could see the driver trying to get the vehicle in gear and the engine was revving," wrote Detective Carol Gomez. "Detective Schlitz who was on the passenger side of the unmarked police vehicle feared Detective Lien's life was in danger."

Balderas saw glass breaking.

"He said he thought the bullet that struck him went through his arm and struck the female passenger in the back seat," Rayburn wrote. "Gumercindo said he tried to leave so he put the vehicle (which had a manual transmission) in gear and pulled away."

Lien and another officer had to shock Balderas with their Tasers to get him under control.

Because the shooting occurred on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the FBI conducted the shooting investigation and Mesa conducted the investigation of the events within city limits.

The FBI has declined to comment on the matter.

The Mesa police report has no summary of the FBI interviews of Lien and Schlitz, and has only a few secondhand accounts of the shooting.

Sgt. Ed Wessing, Mesa police spokesman, said that because the shooting investigation belongs to the FBI, the official documentation will be in that agency's report.

The FBI refused to release the report, saying in a letter it was exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act because its production "could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings."

Slonaker, who sat in on Schlitz's FBI interview, declined to comment on it, but he said he expects his client to be cleared.

"I've seen a lot of shootings, and this one appears, at least to me, much more justified than some of them," Slonaker said.

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