AP NEWS

Panel finds Santa Fe officers shouldn’t face charges in shooting

March 31, 2019

A panel of three New Mexico district attorneys has determined there is “insufficient factual basis” to merit charging two Santa Fe police officers with a crime in the shooting death of Anthony Benavidez, a mentally ill man who was shot multiple times during a SWAT team standoff after barricading himself in his midtown apartment in July 2017.

The panel, assembled at the request of First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna, examined whether Santa Fe Police Department Sgt. Jeramie Bisagna and Detective Luke Wakefield should face charges. Seventeen shots were fired by the officers. In their report to Serna, the district attorneys unanimously recommended that criminal prosecution “is not warranted.”

A spokesman for Serna said Friday the officers will not be prosecuted.

Santa Fe police Chief Andrew Padilla said the officers, who still work for the department, were “very thankful” for the panel’s decision that the shooting was justified.

“Mr. Benavidez’s demonstrated history of mental illness, the stabbing of his own caseworker with a sharp-edged weapon, his continued erratic and potential[ly] dangerous behavior, and his decision to advance towards officers with a knife in his hands despite repeated commands to surrender, prevent the state from proving — beyond a reasonable doubt — that the shooting in this case was not predicated on a reasonable fear on the part of the officers,” the panel wrote in its report to Serna.

The panel included District Attorneys Andrea Reeb of Curry and Roosevelt counties; Raúl Torrez of Bernalillo County; and Richard Flores of San Miguel, Mora and Guadalupe counties.

Serna said in a news release, “I ran for district attorney on the commitment to change the procedure for how the First Judicial District deals with officer involved shootings resulting in death, and I appreciate the panel’s review of this difficult case. I am committed to transparency in the process and have released the letter to the media and public.”

Laura Schauer Ives, a lawyer representing Benavidez’s family, said she hoped Serna would “take a second look at this recommendation.”

Benavidez’s family is “obviously devastated” by the panel’s decision, she added.

Padilla, in a news release, said, “This decision will not be deemed as a positive outcome for some of you all, but it is devastating for all involved.”

Benavidez, 24, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was holed up in his apartment July 19, 2017, a day after managers at the complex had evicted him for failing to pay rent.

Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputies who served the eviction notice had taken Benavidez to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center for a mental health evaluation. He later was released from the hospital in the care of a social worker but returned to the apartment complex and broke into his unit.

The next morning, according to the panel’s report, Santa Fe police arrived at the apartment with Benavidez’s case manager, Juan Valdez of the Santa Fe Community Guidance Center, to try to remove him, and Benavidez injured Valdez in the torso with a “sharp-edged weapon.”

At that point, officers called the Santa Fe police SWAT unit, which included Bisagna and Wakefield.

The panel’s report says during the hourslong standoff, as officers tried to persuade Benavidez to surrender, he threw various chemicals and homemade explosive devices out a window of the apartment.

In order to improve their visibility of Benavidez, the report says, officers broke a large bedroom window.

Through the broken window, officers ordered Benavidez to show his hands, according to the report, but he failed to comply with their commands. After Benavidez raised his arms while holding a silver object — determined by Wakefield to be a large butcher knife rather than a gun, the report says — Bisagna began firing continuously.

“However,” the report says, “according to multiple witness accounts, Mr. Benavidez was not immediately incapacitated but, rather than retreating into the residence, he instead rushed towards the officers.”

The report says it was apparent that Bisagna “could not accurately fire his pistol and maintain control of the ballistic shield he was carrying at the time.”

Wakefield fired a single shot, and Benavidez finally fell near the broken window, the report says.

“They knew he wasn’t armed with a gun,” Schauer Ives said. “It’s devastating.”

The panel said it reviewed the case file presented by New Mexico State police Agent Ryan Kuehl, which included video from body cameras, dispatch calls, photos, diagrams, audio recordings and written witness statements, plus laboratory tests and autopsy reports.

In its report to Serna, the panel also said it met with Kuehl and other state police officers about the facts of the case.

“In order to file criminal charges against Officers Bisagna and Wakefield, the State would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they were not acting under the reasonable belief that Anthony Benavidez’s actions posed a threat of death or great bodily harm to themselves, other officers or the general public,” the panel wrote in its recommendation to Serna.

In November, attorneys for the Benavidez family announced they had reached a $400,000 settlement with the city of Santa Fe in a civil lawsuit that accused multiple parties of negligence. Schauer Ives said the family was continuing to pursue claims against Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center.

At the time of the settlement, Deputy Chief Robert Vasquez told The New Mexican that the police department would start an internal investigation into whether Bisagna and Wakefield followed department policies after the District Attorney’s Office decided if charges would be filed in the case.

Padilla said Friday the internal investigation would begin immediately.

The Benavidez killing did not prompt any changes in the department’s policies on use of force, the chief said.