By THE BAKERSFIELD CALIFORNIAN
The mother of a 15-year-old who was shot and killed by Bakersfield police last year after the car he stole reportedly rolled toward them has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Bakersfield and the officers.
The suit by Yetunda Wright in the death of her son Traveon John Avila seeks undisclosed damages for medical expenses and physical and mental pain.
Wright alleges a long list of wrongdoing including that officers Timothy Berchtold and Noah Landers stopped Avila without a warrant or probable cause, used excessive force and didn't summon immediate medical care -- and that the city knew it wasn't adequately training police in conducting stops.
The Bakersfield City Attorney's office said Thursday afternoon that only City Attorney Ginny Gennaro could speak on the defendants' behalf and she was on vacation. An email to Gennaro was not immediately returned.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, in June but released Thursday to the media by the Bakersfield law firm Rodriguez & Associates, which is representing Wright.
Berchtold and Landers shot Avila on July 9, 2010, after he reportedly led police on a short nighttime pursuit that ended at the dead end of Windsor Street, near Cottonwood Road and Bradshaw Avenue, according to Californian archives.
The officers believed Avila put Berchtold's life in danger when the stolen car he was driving went up an embankment and came back toward the officers as they got out of their car, police said in the weeks following the incident.
Berchtold, who was reportedly right behind the 2001 Acura, and Landers each fired two shots at Avila, police said at the time.
An older suspect, estimated to be 25 years old, ran away as the officers stopped behind the car. A 17-year-old suspect who was in the back seat of the Acura was arrested at the scene.
Berchtold's two shots hit Avila in the torso and one of Landers' bullets hit Avila in an arm while the other may have grazed him, police said.
It was the third fatal shooting for Berchtold in a two-month period, all three of which were ruled justified by a police shooting review board. That means the officers were deemed to to have acted within departmental policy and state and federal guidelines.
Attorney Daniel Rodriguez, who began representing Avila's family last summer, questioned why Berchtold was back on the street so soon after being involved in two fatal shootings within a short span of time.
"I want to know how many shootings an officer has to have before it is not okay to put him back on the street," Rodriguez said last summer.
Police said Avila was behind the wheel of a car coming at Berchtold, therefore both officers were justified in believing Berchtold's life was in danger.
Three of eight witnesses reported hearing the engine revving and the car losing traction, and two independent witnesses reported that the car hit Berchtold or was close to hitting him, according to earlier reports in The Californian.
One witness said the car did not back up at all, police said. The Acura was in park when the investigators looked at it, but that was after officers checked on Avila and paramedics pulled Avila out the passenger side of the car.
A number of people on the scene could have put the gear shift in park, police said.
In September, about two months after the incident, the federal Department of Justice began an inquiry into whether there were any civil rights violations by police involved in the shooting.
FBI spokesman Steve Dupre said at the time that the review was held to determine whether the Department of Justice should conduct a formal investigation of the incident.
Rodriguez said Thursday he doesn't know what happened with the inquiry if there was one because neither he nor Avila's family has been contacted about it.
He said Avila's car "slipped back" toward the officers and that most agencies -- but not BPD -- have a policy against shooting at a moving car because they could strike other people.
He said Landers hit Avila in the arm, meaning Avila's hands had to have been on the wheel or in the air.