District Attorney: Downey Police shootings of Vargas, Bours both justified; families blast investigations

DOWNEY – Investigators from the District Attorney’s Office have concluded that Downey Police officers had reasonable fears for their lives when they killed Steven Bours in 201o and Manuel Vargas in October.

In the case of Bours, the DA’s staff said that a pair of detectives on March 20, 2010 found Bours walking around with a hatchet in the street at Imperial Highway and Paramount Boulevard.

According to testimony from witnesses and from snippets of police video, the detectives several times yelled at Bours to drop the hatchet as Bours approached one of the officers. The officers then shot Bours 10 times, killing him, according to the report.

The moments before the killing are captured on a police car video, but the actual shooting is off camera, according to the report.

Witnesses told police they saw Bours, who was 30, raise the hatchet before he was shot. The officers had reasonable fear for their lives when they fired their weapons, District Attorney’s Office investigators concluded.

In the case of Vargas, the D.A.’s office said that firefighters on Oct. 12 responded to a small fire just west of Old River School Road near Firestone Boulevard along a train track. They found that the base of  palm tree had caught fire near a homeless encampment along the tracks.

When police arrived and asked Vargas his name,  Vargas asked why police were called and “became agitated” and raised a stick, according to the report.

Police then saw Vargas reach for his pants and pull something up, according to the report. It was dark.

The two officers then yelled for Vargas to drop whatever was in his hands. Police said Vargas advanced toward them with a stick and what turned out to be a box cutter before the officers shot Vargas to death. The officers yelled “Manos,” “Drop the knife,” and “No! No! No!” before they fired, according to the report.

Two firefighters at the scene both had their backs turned and a third firefighter was standing by a truck out of view of the shooting, according to the report. A man who lived nearby said he heard officers yelling at Vargas to “Put that down!” before the shooting.

In the case of Bours, his family members said the police account does not match what witnesses told them. They say the officers were getting revenge on Bours for a fight with Downey officers a month before the shooting during which Bours was tazed. Bours, who served in the Army in the Iraq War, had post traumatic stress disorder and a drug problem, according to his family and friends. Bours was particularly haunted after he gathered up a friends’ body parts after the friend was killed in Iraq, according to Bours’ family.

Bours had a small amount of meth amphetamine in his system when he was killed, according to the report.

“The fact is that he did not approach them at all with the axe and that it wasn’t raised over his head to kill one of the officers,” said Bours’ sister, Laura Cosentino.

She said the witnesses’ accounts don’t match what was published in the District Attorney’s Office report.

Bours’ family members sued the Downey Police in federal court, alleging that the Downey Police Department has a culture of revenge, a charge denied in court responses by the city.  The suit is still pending.

In the case of Vargas, his family members are still wondering what happened that night.

Reached in Mexico on Tuesday, Vargas’ mother Maria Alvarez said she is bitter about the shooting and doubts it happened the way the District Attorney’s report described it.

“I’m very angry at the fact that there is no justice in my son’s murder,” she said.

Vargas, who was a 42-year-old illegal immigrant, had lived with his mother in Huntington Park before he moved away and lived on the streets after he lost his job.

“Everyone that knew my son knew he was not a violent person,” Alvarez said. “He was very depressed that he could not support us and that we were basically homeless. But he would never hurt anyone. He knew better than to threaten the police. He would never do this. I am so angry at the Downey Police, the officials investigating the shooting and possibly at God himself. I had to leave to Mexico so suddenly that I did not get a chance to talk to a lawyer but I will seek justice. There may not be any justice sufficient enough on heaven or earth for my son’s murder, but I will try and find some justice.”

Regarding the Vargas killing, the Downey police said they believe the findings by the District Attorney’s Office match what happened the night of the shooting. The also offered condolences to Vargas’ family.

The District Attorney’s Office investigates police shootings in Los Angeles County.

To declare a shooting justified, the District Attorney’s Office has to determine that officers have reasonable fears for their own lives or for the lives of others. In both shootings by Downey Police officers, police could reasonably conclude that life was in danger, according to the reports.

– The Downey Beat will post the D.A.’s reports soon. We only have faxed copies that are too messy to scan.

— Staff writer Erick Galindo contributed to this report.

— pictured is the homeless encampment where Vargas was killed

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