LAPD officer who shot girl in Burlington Coat Factory changing room won't face charges

NORTH HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 28: A man places incense a memorial for Valentina Orellana Peralta at the door of the Burlington Coat Factory. The League of United Latin American Citizens seeks answers in the killing of 14-year-old Valentina Orellana Peralta, requesting a full investigation and meeting with Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore and Mayor Eric Garcetti, in a press conference at the Burlington Coat Factory on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021 in North Hollywood, CA. The site where a 14-year-old girl was shot and killed when LAPD was trying to apprehend an individual inside the store. The suspect Daniel Elena-Lopez was killed, as was Valentina Orellana-Peralta, a 14-year-old trying on clothes in a dressing room nearby. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Mourners leave flowers and balloons outside the North Hollywood Burlington Coat Factory, where a 14-year-old girl in a dressing room was fatally shot by a Los Angeles police officer in 2021. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles police officer who shot and killed a 14-year-old girl through the wall of a changing room at a Burlington Coat Factory store in North Hollywood was cleared of wrongdoing Tuesday by the California Department of Justice.

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta's office said Officer William Jones used reasonable force in the 2021 incident because he was responding to a report of a possible active shooter.

That information turned out to be wrong — the suspect, Daniel Elena-Lopez, was carrying a bike lock, not a gun.

Video released by the Los Angeles Police Department showed that when Jones arrived at the scene, toting a high-powered rifle, he rushed to the front of a phalanx of officers advancing toward the store's home goods section, where he opened fire almost immediately upon encountering Elena-Lopez.

One of rounds that Jones fired "skipped off" a floor tile, the attorney general's report said, and sailed into a fitting room where Valentina Orellana-Peralta was hiding with her mother. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

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The shooting drew widespread outrage and grief, while bringing demands for the officer who killed her to be criminally charged. The Orellana-Peralta family has a pending civil lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, alleging that failures in training and oversight contributed to the deadly outcome. Attorneys in the case did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

An LAPD spokesperson declined to comment. The department confirmed Jones is still a full-time police officer, currently assigned to the Topanga division.

While an internal LAPD review panel was split on whether Jones' decision to open fire was justified, then-Chief Michel Moore ultimately ruled in 2022 that the shots violated department policy and that the officer should have taken more time to assess the situation. In a rare split with the chief, the Police Commission concluded that only Jones' second and third shots were out of policy.

No LAPD officer has been charged in an on-duty shooting by county or state prosecutors in nearly two decades. Under Dist. Atty. George Gascón, however, L.A. County prosecutors have been more aggressive in filing cases against law enforcement officers who use force on duty, bringing assault and manslaughter charges against Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and Torrance police officers in recent years.

The attorney general's office noted Jones had heard reports that Elena-Lopez was threatening customers at the store with a gun. The information was later amended, but it's not clear whether Jones heard these later radio broadcasts, the office said. A toxicology report showed Elena-Lopez had been using methamphetamine.

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Orellana-Peralta was a bystander in the store. She had arrived from her native Chile about six months prior, her family said, with dreams of becoming an engineer and a U.S. citizen. According to her family's lawsuit, which was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court earlier this month, the girl's mother "watched helplessly as her daughter died while still in her arms.”

The attorney general's office said that other officers at the scene had formulated a plan to try to stop Elena-Lopez by firing a 40-millimeter "less-lethal" round at him, but Jones was unaware of their plan. Jones' perception that he was shooting to stop an armed threat means he can't be held criminally liable for the errant bullet that killed the teenager, based on a legal theory known as "transferred intent," the office said.

The attorney general's report called for the LAPD to improve its communication and coordination in emergency responses, but said it could not pursue charges against Jones because the killing of Orellana-Peralta was "unintended and unforeseeable."

After reviewing the report, civil rights attorney Jim DeSimone, who has brought wrongful-death suits against law enforcement agencies across the state, said the case highlights the need for officers to have better "situational awareness" before opening fire.

"It's clear that with the number of officers, and less-lethal options, that Mr. Lopez could have been apprehended without killing an innocent human being," he said.

Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.