The Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office has ruled that the fatal shooting by three California Highway Patrol officers of a mentally unstable man thought to be armed was a justifiable act.
The district attorney’s office released their findings Thursday after months of investigation into the death of 37-year-old Sacramento resident Carrick Vigen at a gas station in the outskirts of Turlock on June 18, 2011.
“All three CHP officers here believed there was imminent danger to themselves and to the other officers, the only way to defend against that threat was by using deadly force, and they only used as much force as they believed was necessary,” the district attorney’s office states in its report. “Under the law, as would be given in court, all three of the officers acted reasonably.”
The incident began around 9 p.m. when law enforcement agencies were advised of a suicidal man with a gun in the area. Vigen was in phone contact with his family and they were relaying the information back to law enforcement. The family told the agencies that Vigen was making comments that made them think he was going to kill himself. The family said Vigen had bipolar disorder and was possibly off his medication. His comments also made his family believe he had a gun with him, according to the district attorney’s office.
Vigen’s exact whereabouts were unknown. The Modesto Police Department, the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department and the CHP were all dispatched to different areas and it was the CHP that found Vigen in his truck at the Valero gas station at W. Main Street and Crowslanding Road.
CHP Sgt. Ian Troxell was the first to find Vigen. Troxell reported that Vigen could be seen rocking back and forth in the truck and making furtive movements. The sergeant attempted to communicate with Vigen over his loudspeaker but received no response.
CHP Officers Adam Percey and Jonathan Box arrived at the scene about 20 minutes after Troxell.
The officers were continuing in their efforts to speak to Vigen, but were getting no response. During this time Vigen was on the phone with his family and told his brother that he had a .45 on his lap and that he (Vigen) was going to die that night. Vigen’s brother would later state that it sounded like Vigen was drunk or on methamphetamine, according to the district attorney’s office.
The dash camera in Troxell’s patrol car shows at one point three CHP officers frantically getting a person parked next to Vigen’s truck out of the immediate area.
Troxell kept telling Vigen to “listen to us so you don’t get hurt.” Vigen did open the driver’s side door of the truck, but didn’t immediately get out.
Vigen eventually complied with the order to get out of the truck, but as soon as he did so, he immediately turned to where the officers were standing and raised his arms directly in front of him with his hands extended at the officers as in a shooting stance, with something dark in his hands, the district attorney’s office reported.
Civilian witnesses confirmed to investigators that when Vigen exited his truck he raised something in his hands and pointed it at the officers. One witness said the item could have been a gun. One of the gas station employees said the way that Vigen turned his body towards the officers and the way Vigen raised his arm made him think Vigen was pointing a weapon at the officers.
On the video Troxell can be heard to yell “gun.” He told investigators he believed Vigen was pointing a gun at him and he opened fire in response.
Box told the district attorney investigators he saw something in Vigen’s hand and feared Vigen was going to shoot Troxell, the person closest to Vigen. Thinking Troxell’s life was in jeopardy, Box fired his weapon at Vigen.
Percey also told investigators he saw something in Vigen’s hand and thought he was going to shoot the officers, so he opened fire.
The three CHP officers were all armed with civilian versions of the military’s M-16 rifle. It is sometimes referred to as a tactical rifle. The rifles can only be fired in semi-automatic mode and have a detachable magazine.
Investigators recovered a total of 55 shell casings from the scene. The autopsy report states 14 bullets struck Vigen. Four of the bullets were described as being secondary or intermediary type of wounds, meaning that these wounds were likely caused by the bullets hitting something else, such as the truck Vigen was standing next to.
All of the shots were fired within 13 seconds, according to the timestamp on the video.
It was later revealed Vigen was not armed and no gun was found in his truck.
“If Vigen had a .45 caliber handgun in his hand, as he claimed, there would be no issue in this case, but Vigen intentionally misled the officers and his own family into believing he had a gun,” the district attorney’s office stated in their report. “The law mandates that we not second guess officers using knowledge we have later gained.
“In this case, any reasonable officer would have believed he was being threatened with deadly force,” continues the report. “The three officers here were told that Vigen had a gun. Vigen came out of the truck and took a shooting stance facing the officers. The officers saw something in Vigen’s hands. Any reasonable officer in such a position would have been justified in firing his weapon. Lastly, we know from civilian witnesses that they, too, believed that Vigen had a gun in his hand and was going to shoot at the officers.”
Background investigation determined that Vigen had a long history of mental issues and had previously attempted suicide. Vigen’s brother confirmed that Vigen had told him just before the shooting that he (Vigen) had a “.45 on his lap” and he was going to have a “shoot-out with the cops.”
The autopsy established that Vigen had a blood alcohol level of .28 percent, which is more than three times the legal limit for driving and .31g/ml of an antidepressant in his system. The coroner’s amended death certificate listed the circumstances of death as “suicide by law enforcement officers.”