California’s attorney general is fighting to keep the names of CHP officers who killed Erik Salgado secret

California’s attorney general is fighting to keep the names of CHP officers who killed Erik Salgado secret

The fatal shooting of 22-year-old Oakland resident Erik Salgado last summer by three California Highway Patrol officers sparked protests and calls for transparency, but almost a year later, little is known about the controversial incident.

CHP has repeatedly declined to name the officers who shot Salgado, and has denied multiple public records requests from The Oaklandside and other media outlets for information about the shooting. The Alameda County District Attorney’s office also has not yet made public the findings of its investigation.

So far, the only information made available by law enforcement was a press release issued by the Oakland Police Department on June 9, 2020, three days after the shooting. According to OPD, several highway patrol officers were attempting to stop a stolen car Salgado was driving on Cherry Street near 96th Avenue. The officers got out of their cars and Salgado allegedly “began ramming CHP vehicles.” The officers fired at the moving car and struck Salgado, who died at the scene. His girlfriend, Brianna Colombo, who was in the passenger seat, was also wounded and taken to a hospital where she recovered.

Over the past year, law enforcement officials haven’t just kept silent about the case; they’re actively fighting in federal court to prevent attorneys for Salgado’s family from naming the officers who killed him. CHP and the California Attorney General have claimed that identifying the officers would expose them to retaliation by violent gang members.

A federal judge recently rejected this claim, however, writing in a court order that CHP and the attorney general, who represents state police in lawsuits, haven’t shown evidence of credible threats against the officers.The judge is keeping portions of the wrongful death lawsuit under seal temporarily, but if the attorney general doesn’t make a compelling case, the CHP officers’ names will be made public as early as next month.

Last August, the East Bay Times identified one of the officers who shot Salgado, Sgt. Richard Henderson. The newspaper noted that Henderson killed another young Latino man in Southern California in 2016 during a very similar traffic stop, and that the CHP sergeant is facing a civil rights lawsuit over the incident.

In addition, The Oaklandside has learned that in 2017 Henderson’s girlfriend was shot and killed by five Long Beach police officers in front of his home, after he called the police on her.

The Los Angeles District Attorney found no fault with the shooting by the Long Beach officers and Henderson’s actions leading up to the incident weren’t investigated by his employer, CHP, because he was off duty at the time. But Henderson’s involvement in three fatal police shootings in five years—twice as a shooter—raises questions about what else might be in his background, and whether the two other CHP officers who killed Salgado have similar controversial histories.

A late night argument ends in a police shooting

CHP Sgt. Richard Henderson was living on N. Studebaker Road in Long Beach in 2017 while working as part of an undercover unit for the highway patrol. At the time, he was dating a woman named Michele Rice. On the evening of June 7, the couple got into an argument, and Rice, according to a report by the Los Angeles District Attorney, left Henderson’s home, went to a nearby liquor store where she bought a bottle of wine, and walked around the neighborhood as they continued to argue over text messages and phone calls. According to the DA’s four-page report, Rice texted Henderson that she wanted to “play a game” with him, and that she was “going to give [him] a reason to kill [her].”

Henderson, who was off-duty that night, armed himself with a pistol and went out looking for Rice in his pickup truck. When he found her, she allegedly pulled out a gun. According to the district attorney’s investigation, Rice “fired two times” in Henderson’s direction, but the bullets didn’t strike him or his truck.

Henderson sped away and called the police. Long Beach police officers who responded found Henderson in his truck and spoke to him. Then they went to Henderson’s home where they found Rice sitting on the porch.

According to Long Beach police records, the officers maneuvered their vehicles and used them as cover while training guns on Rice. According to the DA’s report and LBPD records, Rice got up and walked toward the police and pulled a black handgun from the front pocket of her sweatshirt.

Five officers fired 44 shots at Rice, striking her seven times and killing her. An autopsy determined that she had a blood alcohol level of 0.21, showing that she was intoxicated. The handgun she was carrying was a pistol Henderson had gifted to her.

The crime scene outside CHP Officer Richard Henderson’s Long Beach home in 2017 when LBPD officers shot and killed his girlfriend Michele Rice. Credit: Courtesy Long Beach Police Department

Property records show that Henderson sold the house a year after the shooting. He later relocated to Northern California under a new assignment with the CHP.

According to local media reports, Rice was a personal trainer at a local gym and she had recently applied to become a police officer with the Long Beach Police Department.

In response to questions from The Oaklandside, CHP said that their agency did not conduct an investigation of the shooting outside of Henderson’s home.

The Oaklandside made multiple attempts to contact Henderson for comment, including by email and phone, and by contacting his father, who is a retired CHP captain who now runs a private security company, but we did not receive any response.

Under investigation for a fatal 2016 killing

The year before his girlfriend was killed at his home in Long Beach, Henderson shot two men in a pickup truck in a situation that was remarkably similar to the shooting of Erik Salgado in Oakland last year.

On the evening of July 23, 2016 Henderson and his partner John Cleveland were patrolling Fullerton in an unmarked CHP sedan. The officers were in plainclothes but wearing dark tactical vests with police insignia. They attempted to pull over a Chevy Silverado pickup truck that was leaving an area where illegal stunt driving was going on. 

The facts of what happened next are disputed and a lawsuit is pending in federal court, but according to court records, the truck’s passenger, Francisco Orozco said that the CHP vehicle had an amber flashing light, not blue and red police lights, and it made a screeching noise instead of a siren sound. It wasn’t clear that the police were following them, so the driver, Pedro Villanueva, left the area.

The officers followed the truck, which they claimed sped away at 90 miles per hour, until it reached the back of a dead end street. Henderson and Cleveland got out of their car with guns drawn.

According to the officers, Villanueva hurriedly made a three-point turn, collided with parked vehicles, and accelerated toward them. Henderson and Cleveland shot through the windshield and killed Villanueva and wounded Orozco. The Orange County District Attorney concluded that the officers were justified and shouldn’t face criminal charges. Although Villanueva had only committed traffic violations and neither he nor Orozco were armed with a gun, the officers and district attorney claimed he was using his truck as a weapon.

Orozco and several witnesses tell a different story. They claim Villanueva’s three-point turn was slow and controlled, that he didn’t hit any parked cars, and that he didn’t accelerate in the direction of the officers. The truck was never going above five miles per hour once the officers got out of their car, and the CHP officers didn’t activate blue and red lights and a siren before they fired at the truck’s windshield.

Villanueva’s family and Orozco filed a lawsuit against Henderson, Cleveland, and the CHP, alleging the officers used excessive force, in violation of their constitutional rights.

The CHP officers asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that they were protected under “qualified immunity,” a legal doctrine that prevents government employees from being sued unless their actions clearly constitute a rights violation. In January 2019, a federal district court judge denied their request, and one year later an appeals court upheld the ruling.

In their decision, the appeals court judges wrote that when the facts are viewed in terms most favorable to the plaintiffs, Villanueava and Orozco’s car “was slow-moving and the Officers could have simply moved away to avoid injury, their use of deadly force was clearly established as unreasonable.”

The decision means that Henderson and Cleveland will face trial for civil rights violations unless the case is settled.

CHP and AG attempt to block release of officer’s names in Oakland shooting

Erik Salgado’s family views the CHP officer’s decision to open fire on the car carrying him and Colombo in much the same way. Salgado’s mother and Colombo filed a civil rights lawsuit against CHP last year, alleging Henderson and several other unnamed officers unleashed a “hail of gunfire” that resulted in Salgado being struck 18 times and Colombo twice. They claim that Salgado was trying to “squeeze” his vehicle past a CHP truck to escape, not to harm anyone.

One of the Salgado family’s attorneys, Ben Nisenbaum, subpoenaed the Oakland Police Department for records about the incident. Oakland handed over these records, which included the names of the two other officers in addition to Henderson who shot and killed Salgado, information CHP had previously refused to give the attorneys.

Anticipating that Nisenbaum, and his colleagues John Burris and James Chanin, would file an amended copy of the lawsuit including the names of all the CHP officers, then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra asked U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria to issue a protective order barring their names from being made public.

“Henderson has been the victim of numerous harassers at his personal residence, vandalism, and gang threats,” Deputy Attorney General Daniel Alweiss wrote in a court filing in January.

In support of this motion, Henderson stated in a declaration filed with the court that immediately after the shooting, “Border Brothers gang members were filming myself and the other officers as we did a walk through,” of the area. Henderson alleges that Salgado was a Border Brother gang member, and that some of the gang’s other members gathered at the scene and mentioned the location of his personal residence just moments after the shooting.

Henderson did not explain how he was able to identify the few people mulling around nearby as gang members. He also didn’t explain how these alleged gang members were able to immediately identify him and the location of his home while standing on a dark street with nothing but cell phones.

He also claimed in his statement that “an investigator” who appeared to be employed by attorneys for the Salgado family visited his house, knocked on his door, and “harassed” his gardener.

Attorneys for the Salgado family and Colombo told The Oaklandside that they never hired any investigators and they don’t know where Henderson lives.

“Immediately after this, two of my neighbors began to display anti-law enforcement propaganda in their yards,” Henderson said in his statement, a possible reference to Black Lives Matter signs that have become a common sight in front yards across the Bay Area since the police murder of George Floyd last year.

Henderson also claimed that he “learned from investigators with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office that Border Brothers gang members imprisoned in Santa Rita Jail had been attempting to gather personal information,” about him, and that they’d “made threats to retaliate.”

Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ray Kelly told The Oaklandside that there is no record of jail staff providing that information to Henderson or the CHP.

Based on Henderson’s claims, Deputy Attorney General Daniel Alweiss argued in a court filing that “there is a real and verifiable danger to the officers being identified in this political climate,” therefore their names should be kept secret.

It appears unlikely, however, that the other CHP officer’s names will be kept secret. In March, Judge Vince Chhabria, who is overseeing the Salgado family’s lawsuit against CHP, wrote in an order that “the Attorney General’s Office and the CHP have failed to demonstrate that the interest in sealing the names of these defendants outweighs the public’s interest in being able to access that information,” and that their arguments run contrary to the fact that the public has a right to know the identities of government officials, including police, who kill in the line of duty.

Chabrria ordered that the amended lawsuit, including the names of all the CHP officers, be unsealed in mid-June unless the attorney general’s office files a completely new and convincing request to seal the case.

“It would be extraordinary to conceal the names of officers who are being sued for this shooting,” Chhabria wrote. “The Attorney General and the CHP have not come close to justifying such an extraordinary measure.”

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