A grandmother was sitting in her car before dawn last month when a uniformed police officer in Las Cruces, New Mexico, accused her and her passenger of trespassing, then shouted commands laced with the F-word at her and threatened to arrest her, “tase” her and make her life “a living hell” if she didn’t comply with his plan to investigate.
Early in their roughly nine-minute encounter, the 45-year-old, who said she’d been visiting someone at the address, told the officer she was looking for her misplaced keys, footage from his body-worn camera shows. Then the woman, Teresa Gomez, and the officer discussed why she and the passenger were parked outside a public housing complex – a place he said the passenger was not supposed to be, his bodycam video shows; she was unaware of any visitor rules, she said several times.
After she was asked repeatedly to get out of her car, Gomez stood outside it for a while, answering some of the officer’s questions, the video shows. Her passenger was never asked to get out or questioned in a similar way.
The grandmother eventually found her car keys and, with the officer’s permission, sat back in the driver’s seat, according to the video and a federal lawsuit her family filed last week against the city, the police chief and three members of the police force.
Then a half-minute later, she engaged the engine and, with her car door still open, shifted into reverse, pulled back, then put it into drive, the video shows.
The officer, Felipe Hernandez, three times shouted, “Stop!”
Then, he fired multiple times, the video shows.
At least one of his rounds hit Gomez, Las Cruces Police have acknowledged.
She “began to bleed from her neck and started gasping for air,” states the wrongful death suit, which seeks monetary damages for alleged excessive force in violation of Gomez’s civil rights.
She was taken to a hospital and died, police said.
Later that same day, another officer from the Las Cruces Police Department would turn himself in on a voluntary manslaughter charge in the August 2022 fatal shooting of a Black man who had left a gas station without paying for a beer, said his defense attorney and New Mexico’s attorney general, a Democrat who is handling that case.
That officer’s actions at the gas station, attorney general Raul Torrez said, were an “unjustifiable use of force” and “yet another example of poor police tactics.”
Now, in light of Gomez’s killing, the state’s top prosecutor – who for now is leaving the investigation of her shooting death to the local district attorney – is “also concerned that (Las Cruces Police Department) is exhibiting a pattern and practice of conduct that requires closer examination,” Torrez’s agency told CNN in a statement.
Both cases are unfolding as scrutiny of police use of force, especially against people of color, remains a pivotal subject nationwide.
“The Las Cruces Police Department’s lack of internal oversight and supervision has allowed a culture of aggression to develop, promoting an acceptance of unlawful use of deadly force contributing to the preventable death of Teresa Gomez,” her family’s attorney, Shannon Kennedy, told CNN in a statement.
Following the encounter that left Gomez dead, Hernandez is on paid administrative leave as the department and a multiagency county task force investigate, a city spokesperson and the district attorney told CNN. Hernandez has an attorney, he told CNN, but neither immediately responded to requests for comment.
“It is certainly a matter of concern when there are controversial officer-involved shootings,” Las Cruces Interim Police Chief Jeremy Story told CNN. “We take a critical look at training, policy, and equipment after all critical incidents and look for areas of concern that need to be addressed. Any response must be based on objective measures and cannot influence the criminal investigation.”
A spokesperson for the city and police force did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment about the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Gomez’s relatives are trying to piece together how her encounter with a Las Cruces Police Department officer could have ended like it did.
“If you’ve seen the video, the beginning – with just how the officer was talking to my mom – … for any son, daughter, mother, father, like, it’s hard to see someone, a grown man, talk to your mom like that,” her eldest son, Johny Gomez, told CNN. “And that wasn’t even the worst part.”
“We didn’t understand at what point it went wrong because it didn’t seem like it could go wrong,” Teresa Gomez’s sister, Angela Lozano-Gutierrez, told CNN. “From, like, everything that happened, it seemed like it was kind of, like, getting to the part where they were just going to let her go.
“And so, it was just shocking that it ended with her dying.”
No reason to detain her, suit claims
The encounter begins at 4:45 a.m. on October 3 when Hernandez shines his flashlight on the windshield of Gomez’s car, the bodycam footage shows; the clip released by police includes about nine minutes of the 19-minute episode, the Las Cruces interim police chief told reporters at an October 17 news conference. The department did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for the full tape, the incident report and related records.
Hernandez asks Gomez to roll down her window or open her door and for her and her passenger, Jesus Garcia, 38, to keep their hands in his view, according to the footage. It’s not clear how Gomez and Garcia knew each other.
Hernandez notices Garcia has what Gomez says is a paintball gun, then asks Gomez – but not Garcia – to step outside the car, the video shows. Gomez is “reluctant to exit her car as she believed there was no reason to detain her as she had done nothing wrong,” her family’s suit states.
“Gomez asked Hernandez if she could call someone in his chain of command,” it continues, “and in response to this request and Gomez’s reluctance to exit her car, Hernandez immediately threatened to pull Gomez from the car and to tase Gomez if she did not exit the car.”
“Step out now or I’m gonna pull you out,” Hernandez says, according to the bodycam video.
Thirty seconds later, Hernandez points his Taser in Gomez’s direction and threatens to use it on her if she doesn’t exit the car, his bodycam footage shows.
Gomez steps out, then Hernandez recognizes Garcia, who he says isn’t supposed to be on the property per a judge and faces arrest warrants, the video shows. Hernandez asks Gomez again why she’s on the property, and she explains she’s visiting someone she knows and can’t find her own car keys, the lawsuit states. Then, Hernandez asks Gomez for her full name and birth date.
Gomez questions Hernandez’s power to demand identification from her because “she had been doing nothing unlawful,” the lawsuit said.
“Don’t make things f**king difficult for me,” Hernandez says. “OK? I’ve been doing this for the last three years. OK, I know this area. I know cars that are supposed to f**king be here and cars aren’t supposed to be here. OK, so let’s not make this f**king difficult because I will really, really make your life a living hell.”
Hernandez explains public housing properties have “rules and regulations” that govern visiting hours and guests, the body camera footage shows. The Mesilla Valley Public Housing Authority declined to comment to CNN about curfew regulations.
Gomez says she’s unaware of any such rules, then finds her keys in her pocket, the video shows.
“Can you just shut the f**k up, lady, for 10 f**king seconds?” Hernandez says, according to the footage, as he again explains his trespassing allegation.
“Why are you talking to me to like that?” Gomez asks before giving her name and birth date to Hernandez, who appears to write it in a notebook, the footage shows. She then asks to get back in her car, the video and the lawsuit indicate.
“You can have a seat, ma’am,” the officer says.
Then, Gomez starts the engine and reverses slowly with the driver’s side door open. Hernandez’s hand appears to touch the driver’s window as Gomez shifts into drive and begins to drive away from the officer who yells three times for her to stop before firing his gun three times, the video shows.
“As she slowly drove away from Hernandez and when she was no threat of any physical injury to Hernandez or anyone else, Hernandez shot her with no cause,” the suit states.
Hernandez calls for backup and medical assistance, the full, 19-minute version of the encounter provided to CNN by Gomez’s attorney shows, but does not “provid(e) lifesaving compression to the wound,” the lawsuit states.
Instead, for about 2 minutes, Hernandez stands next to Gomez as she gasps for air in the driver’s seat and he waits for help to arrive, footage shows.
The Las Cruces Police Department believes three rounds were discharged, with at least one striking Gomez, its interim chief told reporters October 17, noting the medical examiner’s report will confirm how many times and where Gomez was struck. That report is pending and can take two to four weeks to process, the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator told CNN.
Hernandez is an eight-year veteran of the Las Cruces Police Department who has been involved in other use-of-force incidents but no other deadly force incidents, Story said during the news conference.
‘Things that are hard to watch’
Before playing for reporters the nine-minute clip from Hernandez’s body camera, Story on October 17 gave this warning: “What you’re about to watch will likely be troubling. You will see things that are hard to watch and hear the officer speak in a way that is difficult to listen to. I strongly suggest viewer discretion.”
The police department released the footage to try to maintain its commitment to “transparency on critical incidents,” he later told CNN by email. “This was just an extension of that commitment. The public is entitled to see the bodycam video.”
Story declined to weigh in October 17 on whether deadly force was appropriate in this case but told reporters: “Generally speaking, officers use deadly force to prevent someone who’s fleeing when that person poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officers or others that’s ongoing.”
After the multiagency Doña Ana County Officer Involved Incident Task Force finishes its work, “the matter will be forwarded to my office for determination regarding any criminal proceedings,” county District Attorney Gerald Byers told CNN in a statement.
Story last month also declined to discuss key specifics of this case. But of Las Cruces police generally, he told reporters: “I have 190 officers that are still out in the community working to make Las Cruces safer. … I wish I could have a news conference for every heroic, compassionate or selfless act that those officers perform.
“Those officers are also human and they make mistakes, including me,” the interim chief added.
For their part, Gomez’s family has laid her to rest, realizing they may never get the answers they so desperately seek about why her interaction with police ended in her death, they said.
Their matriarch was a creative person who was always coloring and drawing and loved plants. And of all the jobs she had, being a mom to four and a grandma to two was the most important, Johny Gomez said.
“We may never get the apology we need,” Lozano-Gutierrez said. “We’re just trying to cling to each other, and we just keep telling ourselves: She would want us to continue to live to be happy.”
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