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Police shooting of unarmed man draws hundreds to site

  • Updated

Some sobbed with grief. A few screamed in anger and frustration. But most remained quiet and watchful.

Close to 200 protesters and mourners gathered at a candlelight vigil held on a street corner in northeast Bakersfield Friday evening, the scene of an officer-involved shooting the night before that ended with the death of 22-year-old Ramiro James Villegas.

The Bakersfield man, who went by the name James De La Rosa, was not carrying a weapon when he was shot and tased by four Bakersfield police officers. But Villegas had just led officers on a high-speed chase and crashed his silver Jeep Liberty into a signal light pole on Mount Vernon Avenue at Highway 178.

In a written statement Friday, police said Villegas was moving aggressively toward officers and had reached for his waistband when three officers opened fire and a fourth engaged a Taser.

The young man was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he died at 9:40 p.m., the coroner’s office said.

The shooting tied up traffic for hours and precipitated a massive police presence at the northeast Bakersfield location.

Witnesses who spoke to The Californian at the scene Thursday night said Villegas did not appear to be armed, a fact that was later confirmed by police.

Patricia Caldra and Salvador Gonzalez said they were stopped at a red light near the Highway 178 on-ramp on Mount Vernon Avenue when they saw the crash and the Villegas getting out of the vehicle.

Gonzalez, 23, said the man held his hands outward, but downward from his sides.

“The cop got out and just shot him in the head like three times,” Gonzalez said.

Caldra, 19, said she saw the man approaching officers and she was scared for her life.

“Oh my God, he got shot,” Caldra, a Bakersfield College student, can be heard saying in a smart phone video the couple captured of the incident. In the darkness, however, few visual details are clear on the video.

According to an account of the incident released by the BPD Friday afternoon, the incident began at 9:14 p.m. Thursday when officers spotted a silver Jeep Liberty being driven erratically on Flower Street near the on-ramp of eastbound Highway 178.

The two-officer unit attempted to stop the driver, the sole occupant of the vehicle, but the driver failed to yield, police said. A short, high-speed pursuit began eastbound on the freeway.

At the Mount Vernon off-ramp, the driver exited the freeway at a high rate of speed and slammed into a signal light pole on the east side of Mount Vernon, authorities said in the release. According to witnesses, the pursuing officers and two additional officers arrived at the scene within seconds of the crash and crouched near their vehicles.

According to witness statements and a preliminary investigation, police said, the driver immediately got out of the Jeep and “began aggressively approaching the officers yelling obscenities.

“The officers gave commands to the suspect to stop approaching and to raise his hands up,” police said.

Police said witnesses told them the suspect refused to comply with the officers’ commands and continued to approach the officers in a confrontational manner — and at one point suddenly reached toward his front waistband.

“Three of the officers immediately fired multiple rounds striking the suspect, and one officer deployed his Taser,” police said.

No weapon was recovered at the scene.

A search of Kern County Superior Court records revealed Villegas does not have a criminal record in Kern County. He was fined $291 in 2013 for a minor fireworks violation. According to court records, he has faced no serious charges in criminal court.

The four officers involved have been placed on routine administrative leave pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation. The intersection was reopened at about 4:30 a.m. Friday.

But on Friday night, the corner was overflowing with people, some carrying signs reminiscent of Ferguson, Mo., that read, "Hands Up. Don't Shoot." Many drivers honked their horns as they passed.

Relatives of Villegas cried softly as, one after another, those gathered laid burning candles in the dust at the foot of a street sign.

“We just want to raise awareness,” said Christopher Silva, the brother of David Sal Silva, who died in May 2013 following an altercation with seven Kern County sheriff's deputies, two California Highway Patrol officers and a police dog.

“There’s something very wrong in this town,” Silva said. “I think people are starting to wake up to it.”

Frank “Tank” Madrid, 28, asked how many times police can say “he reached for his waistband” before people grow weary.

“They can only cry wolf so many damn times,” he said. “It wasn’t like this when I was growing up here. Law enforcement has completely lost respect for the community.”

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