Two Modesto Police officers who fired the shots that killed a suspect during a drug bust in Turlock in June 2016, were found to be acting in self-defense and/or the defense of others, according to a review of the incident by the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office.
The two Modesto Police officers, Officer Joseph Lamantia and Sgt. Alex Bettis, were assigned to the Stanislaus Drug Enforcement Agency, which was conducting the narcotics investigation on June 7, 2016.
The shooting resulted in the death of Omar Villagomez, 21, of Orosi. His passenger, Juan Bulgara, 27, of Farmersville also was injured in the incident, though he was not struck by any gunfire.
SDEA agents, including Lamantia and Bettis, were attempting to bring an undercover drug operation to a close by conducting a “buy /bust" arrest on the targets of the investigation on June 7, 2016, in the parking lot at 2323 W. Main St., in Turlock. The parking lot is home to the Turlock Regal Theatre, the Turlock Poker Room, Starbucks, and other eateries and retail businesses.
SDEA agents had negotiated the purchase of a large quantity of methamphetamine from the targeted drug traffickers. Villagomez was one of the identified traffickers. The transaction was to be for as much as 40 pounds of meth with a purchase price of up to $120K.
SDEA agents and SWAT officers surrounded the location in an undercover capacity. They were in unmarked vehicles but wore police gear that clearly identified their police status. When the targets arrived. Villagomez was driving and Bulgara was in the front passenger seat; the car was a Nissan Altima.
An undercover officer and an informant walked up to and met with Villagomez and Bulgara as they sat in the Altima. Once the undercover agents confirmed that the methamphetamine had been delivered they gave the "bust" signal and walked away from the car.
The "bust plan" was for two unmarked police vehicles to “box in the suspects" car and the police officers (in police clothing) would then get out and make the arrest. The police cars would not pull directly up in front of the car because the police officer riding on the side nearest the target car would he trapped inside and/or could he hit by the suspects’ car if it attempted to drive away (or rammed the police vehicles). The first unmarked police vehicle attempted to pull in front of the Altima as planned. Officer Lamantia, a SWAT officer from the Modesto Police Department, was a passenger in the unmarked truck and was watching the suspects as they drove up to the Altima.
Officer Lamantia would later describe that as his truck pulled into the area and headed towards the front of the Altima he locked eyes with Villagomez. He was certain that Villagomez realized this was a bust. Lamantia described that as he started to exit the truck, wearing clothing that clearly indicated he was a police officer, Villagomez could clearly see him and his clothing. Officer Lamantia said Villagomez looked mad and had already put the car in reverse driving the Altima backwards away from Lamantia’s vehicle. A second police car, as planned, drove behind the Altima and was rammed by Villagomez.
The second police vehicle was an SUV and sustained significant damage from being rammed by Villagomez in the Altima. The Altima was then put in drive and sped forward. Officer Lamantia is seen in video coverage of the incident discharging his weapon at this point in time. He would explain that he had observed Villagomez involved in felony activity, ramming a police SUV, and possibly injuring the officers in the vehicle. Lamantia said he believed that by Villagomez driving forward the suspect was endangering his partner officer as well. Villagomez drove at high speed and struck a parked car across from the aisle he was in. The speed was substantial enough to cause the Altima’s airbags to deploy. The Altima rolled backwards and a third police vehicle, a second truck, impacted the Altima to stop it from moving. During this impact, the smoke from the air hag discharge can be seen coming out of the Altima giving the appearance of a shot being fired from the car. One of the now growing number of officers at the scene Sgt. Bettis fired at the car believing that the officers were in danger.
With the Altima disabled, the officers backed away and took up positions of safety. A plan was developed for them to approach the Altima and gain entry to the two suspects inside. Within a few minutes, the officers approached and removed the two suspects from the car. Inside the car was approximately 15 pounds of methamphetamine as well as a stolen 9mm Glock handgun.
Pursuant to the county-wide officer involved incident protocol, the scene was secured and an investigation was commenced.
Villagomez did not survive his injuries. Bulgara was not significantly injured. Bulgara had injuries consistent with being struck by flying debris, which could have been from bullets or glass fragments, according to the report. Bulgara was indicted by the U.S. Attorney's Office on drug charges.
District Attorney Birgit Fladager concluded in the review of the incident that Lamantia and Bettis acted lawfully under the circumstances known to them — Villagomez had committed a felony warranting arrest, had rammed a police vehicle and was armed when he attempted to escape.
This is not the first time that Lamantia and Bettis have been investigated for an officer-involved shooting.
In 2010, Officer Lamantia was involved in the fatal shooting of Francisco Moran of Modesto. Lamantia was one of two officers who fired upon Moran during a domestic violence incident where witnesses thought Moran was pulling a knife out of his pants, but it turned out to be a spatula.
DA Fladager found Lamantia and the other officer had acted in self-defense and the defense of others.
In 2008, Sgt. Bettis was one of two officers to fire upon Lorenzo Macias of Modesto.
Modesto Police officers conducted a traffic stop on a car driven by Macias. As the first officer approached the car in the dark, he saw what he believed to be a handgun being pointed at him by Macias. The officer feared for his life and began firing his service weapon at Macias as other officers converged on the car. Macias was struck several times by police bullets which inflicted non-fatal wounds requiring hospitalization. Police located a loaded firearm inside the vehicle following the shooting.