Saturday, March 19, 2011

State Patrol version of Walmart shooting just too convenient

After nearly two months of silence—and only apparently after being pressed for an answer by a Salt Lake Tribune reporter—the Washington State Patrol decided to release a statement regarding the Port Orchard Walmart shooting that left Anthony Martinez and a 13-year-old girl, Astrid Valdivia, dead. According to the Patrol, Martinez shot the girl, and then himself in an apparent murder/suicide. Reportedly the delay in the release of the information was because Martinez allegedly was carrying a Glock and using the same hollow-point bullets used by the deputies on the scene, so it was difficult to differentiate who shot who. Investigators claim that Martinez must have shot Valdivia, because the bullets that struck her came from an “upward” angle meaning that he shot her from below as she was bending over him; there were also powder marks alleged to be on her clothes, suggesting a firing at close range. A video image from a surveillance camera appeared to show Martinez lifting his arm toward Valdivia. An open-and-shut case.

But not for me. In the case of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams, SPD officer Ian Birk initially claimed that he saw Williams sitting on a wall with a knife. When Birk approached him, Williams jumped off the wall and advanced toward him menacingly with the knife blade open; obviously feeling threatened, Birk shot him dead. The problem, of course, was that this incident occurred during broad daylight in the middle of a workday, and there were several witnesses (and police car dashcam) that offered a different story. Despite witness testimony to the contrary, Birk still doggedly stuck to his story that Williams had advanced toward him “menacingly,” except while he was walking down a sidewalk minding his own business, not sitting on a wall brandishing his knife at passersby. At the subsequent inquest, only one juror out of eight was willing to accept Birk’s version of events, even though police are usually given more than the benefit of the doubt in such a venue. But what if this incident occurred late at night, with no witnesses? No one would question Birk’s initial—or even subsequent—story, and with police releasing details of Williams’ “criminal record”—the worst he did was drunkenly expose himself to some half-way house employee—this would be a story for one brief paragraph, and quickly forgotten. Lies would become truth. Instead of becoming a local cause célèbre, Williams would have been just another anonymous nobody to both public and media, and a psychologically-challenged police officer would still be roaming the streets.

So I hope you will excuse me if I say that the State Patrol version of events too conveniently serves their purpose of exoneration. Shooting a 13-year-old girl who was running to the aid of her friend is just more bad publicity for local law enforcement accused of numerous instances of brutality, excessive use of lethal force, and civil rights violations. Not to mention opening-up the Patrol to a wrongful death law suit; the recent $10 million “settlement” by King County over the permanent brain damage injuries suffered by an innocent man when a Transit sheriff deputy bashed his skull against a wall was no doubt in the minds of Patrol and county officials.

So I won't accept carte blanche the Patrol's version of events. Martinez was allegedly carrying the same brand of weapon as Deputy Krista Rae McDonald, who wounded him during the chase, so there was “difficulty” in determining whose rounds were in Valdivia’s body. Normally, such a determination should take only as long as each weapon is test fired and the bullets examined. Now, presuming that Martinez actually was carrying a Glock, there was clear uncertainty what weapon the bullets came from, and there probably still is, given that the Patrol only released this information after it had been pressed by an out-of-state journalist for an answer. That’s where the alleged powder burns on Valdivia’s clothes come in. If such evidence was apparent at the outset, it would only be natural for investigators to then draw the “obvious” conclusion. But something still gnaws at me: In 2004, the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab was under fire for lack of oversight and misconduct by employees doctoring and falsifying evidence. In this case, it is too pat: Investigators had difficulty explaining the bullets, but conveniently powder marks were “found” that clinched the deal.

And that’s not all. A witness on TV said everything seem to happen very quickly—the arrival of police, the firing of weapons and the arrival and departure of ambulances. He barely had time to register it all. The Patrol admitted everything happened so quickly that nobody really “knew” what happened—and they probably still don’t “know.” Martinez was running toward a wooded area, but a citizen camcorder video posted on Youtube showed a draped body still on the parking lot, well shy of the woods; thus they were no "obstacles" present. According to the Patrol, Deputy McDonald couldn’t have shot the fatal bullets because she was 60 feet away when she fired at Martinez—60 feet, not 60 yards; if she had missed from that distance, she should be sent to the firing range for more target practice. 60 feet is also a distance—presuming that McDonald was running—that should be covered in a matter of seconds. From that distance, McDonald shot and wounded Martinez, who fell—and we are supposed to believe that in those few seconds Martinez shot Valdivia at least twice, and then himself, without McDonald ever taking additional action, like shooting her weapon. The trajectory of the bullets (again presuming that the Patrol is not offering an alternative reality) that hit Valdivia could also just as well have suggested she was still perpendicular to the ground. Again, those powder marks made all the difference. Does anyone believe that investigators were eager to string-up one of their own in the absence of adverse testimony? I also muse at the claims that there was a “shoot-out”; there is no claim that Martinez turned on his pursuers, only that he shot over his shoulder without aiming (of course, that could be subject to “revision”). Conveniently, two deputies were also wounded by “his” Glock.

Lost in all of this is the back story. This is what I have been able to ascertain about the case: In 2010 Martinez started a relationship with Valdivia’s mother Jacqulen Rimola, according to his brother Barrett Martinez. Martinez also acted as a “stepfather” to Rimola’s children. The problem was that Rimola was already in a relationship with another man, who happened to be the father of the children; I could find no information concerning whether Martinez was aware of this prior relationship. What is clear is that on August 12, 2010 police in the South Salt Lake City neighborhood of Clearfield received a report of an assault at Rimola’s home. At 2 p.m. on that day, Grigorio Validivia arrived home—apparently unexpectedly; did he arrive early from work, or just decided to come home after a sabbatical from the relationship? Martinez told police that the agitated Rimola “ordered” him to hide in a closet, but Valdivia found him and “hit him,” after which a further altercation occurred.

Not long afterward, Astrid Valdivia disappeared, along with Martinez. Astrid’s family, not surprisingly, characterized Anthony Martinez as a dangerous pedophile. His brother, Barrett, disputed their characterization. He told authorities that Martinez had told him that having once acted as the girl’s “stepfather,” he was concerned about her because she was “troubled” and “suicidal.” Barrett told local media that “He was trying to help her. We told him to call [the Department of Child and Family Services]. He felt that no one would listen to him, that he was being characterized as a pedophile. She said if he didn’t help her, she’d kill herself.” He admitted that although his brother had some trouble in the past with the law( because he ran around with the “wrong people”) he had a “good heart.” Clearfield police would later investigate the parents’ claims of an “intimate” relationship between the two, but could find no evidence to support the allegation.

The pair were found in California in October. Martinez was charged with kidnapping, but was released on bail. The charge probably would have been difficult to sustain in any case. But Astrid was placed in a foster care facility. Why? I found a story from last December which may provide a clue. During a court hearing, the judge admonished Grigorio Valdivia about making “disrespectful” comments about his daughter. When he continued to do so, the judge had him removed from the court, ordering him not to return. It seems reasonable to conclude that Astrid did not want to return home, and she again was placed in a foster care facility, where she was required to wear an ankle monitor. This past January, she apparently disabled and removed the device, gathered her belongings, and escaped with Martinez, where they were last seen alive in that Port Orchard Walmart parking lot.

However way one examines this incident, tragedy casts a long shadow over it. I just don’t think the tragedy ended with the shootings themselves.

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