DA clears police officers involved in fatal shooting

Downey police officers acted in self-defense when they fatally shot a homeless man last October at a homeless encampment near Firestone Boulevard and Old River School Road, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. According to a letter from district attorney Steve Cooley and addressed to police chief Rick Esteves, Manuel Tovar Vargas was armed with a 28-inch long stick and a box cutter when he was shot by Cpl. Leandra Weisenburger and Officer Mathew Bassi.

The incident started at about 6:41 p.m. on Oct. 12, when Downey firefighters responded to a palm tree fire near railroad tracks along Firestone Boulevard.

Capt. Dave Holcombe asked Vargas if he wanted to remove his belongings before they doused the flames with water, the letter states. Weisenburger and Bassi then arrived on scene.

The DA report says Vargas was holding a stick when police officers contacted him.

"Weisenburger attempted to ascertain from Vargas how the fire started," the report states. "There was some difficulty communicating with Vargas due to his thick accent. Vargas wanted to know whether there was a problem and who called the officers to the location.

"When the officers asked Vargas for his name, he became agitated and raised the stick. Vargas produced what they believed to be a knife from his pants pocket and advanced toward the officers.

"Weisenburger repeatedly ordered Vargas to 'Put it down!' Bassi yelled out 'Manos!' and 'No! No! No! No! No!' Vargas refused to comply and continued advancing toward the officers.

"Fearing for their lives, Weisenburger and Bassi fired their service weapons striking Vargas." The DA report also quotes a local resident who reported hearing a female voice yell "Put that down! Put that down!" A short time later, he heard three gunshots.

The same witness also reported hearing Holcombe, the fire captain, yell "Drop the knife" five or six times before the shooting.

A 28-inch long stick, an opened box cutter and a closed folding knife were recovered at the scene.

"The evidence examined shows that Manuel Vargas was armed with an opened box cutter and a stick," the report states. "Vargas ignored multiple commands to drop the weapons and advanced on the officers. The officers in fear for their lives responded with deadly force.

"We find that Corporal Leandra Weisenburger and Officer Mathew Bassi acted in lawful self-defense and in defense of others," Cooley concluded in his letter. "We are closing our file and will take no further action in this matter."