SWAT Officer Kills Boy

Police Call Shooting An Accident

(Published: Thursday, September 14, 2000)

   An 11-year-old Modesto boy was fatally shot early Wednesday morning when police SWAT team officers on a federal narcotics sweep raided his parents' home. Police said the shooting was an accident.

   Alberto Sepulveda, a seventh-grader at Prescott Senior Elementary School, was pronounced dead in his home at 2524 McAdoo Ave., just east of Highway 99 in the north Modesto neighborhood commonly known as Highway Village. He died from one shotgun round to the back, Police Chief Roy Wasden said.

   Wasden would not give any other details of the shooting or raid, not even where in the small house the shooting took place. He said details will not be available until investigations have been completed.

   "Our entire department is in shock," Wasden said. "And our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family of the child, and the officers who were involved in this tragic incident."

   The shot came from officer David Hawn, whose weapon accidentally discharged during the raid, Wasden said. Hawn, a 21-year department veteran, has served on the SWAT team for 18 1/2 years. Following department policy, Hawn was placed on paid leave.

   Hawn and six other officers had been ordered to enter the McAdoo Avenue house and secure it so federal agents could serve drug warrants.

   The boy's father, Moises Sepulveda, was arrested and booked on charges of methamphetamine trafficking. The boy's mother and two siblings, ages 8 and 14, also were home during the raid.

   Officers knocked on the door at 6:16 a.m. Five minutes later, a call went out for an ambulance and Fire Department personnel.

   Police swarmed in and out of the house all day, and Stanislaus County coroner's deputies did not remove the boy's body until after 2 p.m.

   As is routine with officer- involved shootings, separate investigations are being conducted by the district attorney's office, the Police Department's Crimes Against Persons Unit and Professional Standards Unit, and the city attorney's office.

   "Our preliminary investigation indicates that the shooting was accidental," Wasden said at his first major press conference since becoming chief Aug. 7.

   The department could not immediately provide a list of police shootings, but no one could remember a case in which an officer had killed a child.

   As some officers worked inside the house, others stood grim-faced outside, talking in small groups. Neighbors stood in front of their homes, wondering what had happened on their street.

   At 2524 McAdoo, a potted plant had been tipped off the porch and onto the lawn. A police shield rested on the porch.

   Neighbors leaned around yellow police tape, trying to sneak a look inside the home.

   "It's a war zone all around this village," said Charley Ney, 44, who lives near McAdoo. "It gets crazy sometimes."

   Ney leaned on a fence several doors from the crime scene, talking with neighbors Bill Blair, 41, and Lloyd Little, 55. The men knew someone had been shot in a drug raid, but they had no idea it was a boy.

   Blair said drugs are nothing new to Highway Village. He has lived in the area all his life. The men have been told late-night traffic at 2524 McAdoo is common, but it was not something they watched closely.

   "When you live out here, there's always something going on," Blair said. "When you drive around, you don't look too much at people like that. You don't watch them because they're watching you."

   Wednesday night, neighbors stood at the edge of driveways and lawns, swapping stories of concern, shock and grief.

   "I didn't ever think anything like this could happen at that house, to that family," former next-door neighbor Nadia Chuca, 23, said. "He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time; it's just sad that this happened to an 11-year-old. ... I saw him grow up."

   The Sepulveda family has lived at the McAdoo Avenue home for about five years. Fourteen-year-old Melissa Gold lived across the street until recently.

   She said Alberto taught bicycle tricks to her 9-year-old brother, Brian.

   "My little brother, he's been sad all day. He tried to ask me why the cop shot him. I didn't know how to say it in sign language," she said. "My brother's deaf."

   Sam Climber walked his 9-year-old son, Sam Jr., in front of the Sepulveda house to try to make sense of Wednesday's shooting.

   His son, he said, played daily with Alberto.

   "We would play hide-and-go-seek, ride our bikes and have water balloon fights," the young Climber said. "I sort of could not believe it; I didn't think kids could get shot."

   Counseling services will be provided today for students at Chrysler and Prescott schools, said Judy French, a secretary in the Stanislaus Union School District. Alberto attended Chrysler last year.

   Wednesday's raid was part of a drug trafficking investigation that began in January 1999, said Robert Dey, a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

   He said authorities had identified a Stanislaus County drug ring that was making and selling large quantities of methamphetamine. Wednesday's action involved 14 simultaneous raids at houses around the county.

   Officers arrested 14 people, Dey said, and were seeking four others.

   SWAT teams called upon for Wednesday's operation were from the Sacramento and San Francisco offices of the FBI, the DEA, the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department and the Lodi Police Department.

   "With the violent nature of methamphetamine traffickers, we try to take all the precautions to avoid anyone getting hurt. This is a tragic situation for all parties involved," Dey said.

11-Year-Old's Funeral Today By MICHAEL G. MOONEY and CRYSTAL CARREON
(Published: Tuesday, September 19, 2000)
   Eleven-year-old Alberto "Betito" Sepulveda will be buried today, six days after he was shot to death in his Modesto home by a SWAT team member during a drug raid.

   Later today, a rally is planned outside the 5:15 p.m. Modesto City Council meeting at Tenth Street Place, to protest the Police Department's claim that the shooting was accidental.

   Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino and Police Chief Roy W. Wasden are expected to attend the boy's funeral, which will begin with a 9 a.m. Mass at St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church in Riverbank.

   Following the Mass, the procession to St. Stanislaus Catholic Cemetery will be escorted by a Modesto Police Department motorcycle unit. City officials said the motorcycle escort was requested by the family. The procession is expected to pass Prescott Senior Elementary School, where Alberto recently started the seventh grade.

   City officials said they would pay for the boy's funeral and help repair damage to the Sepulveda home, but family members rejected the offer.

   "By accepting their money for the funeral it's like saying what they did was OK. It's not OK," said Felipe Martinez, the boy's uncle. "When they killed him, they took part of our lives away. We're still angry."

   Relatives, friends and reporters crowded around Martinez in front of the Riverbank Memorial Chapel, where a public viewing was held Monday evening. Inside, a stream of men, women and children paid their respects. City Councilman Mike Serpa was among those attending.

   White roses and carnations surrounded the boy's black coffin at the front of the chapel positioned beneath a lit portrait of Jesus with the crown of thorns. A ribbon with the message: "You are forever loved," was lightly clasped in his hands, rosary beads woven through his fingers.

   "I told him I love him and that I miss him," said his 8-year-old sister, Xitlalic Sepulveda.

   Outside, two Latino community advocates held bilingual signs: "Solamente Pedimos Justicia" (We only ask for justice) and "We protest the racist murder of 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda."

   "We want justice," said Miguel Donoso, who carried one of the signs. "We want a federal investigation."

   At least four separate investigations -- two reviews by the Police Department, one by the city attorney's office and one by the district attorney's office -- are under way.

   Two Hispanic organizations -- the Los Banos chapter of the Mexican-American Political Association and the Modesto chapter of the American GI Forum -- want outside agencies, such as the California attorney general, to investigate the shooting. Wasden said his department would welcome either a state or federal probe.

   "We can't bring this little boy back," Wasden said. "We need to learn, move forward and make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Clearly, this investigation is going to change the way we do business. It would be an even bigger tragedy if it weren't."

   Officer David Hawn, whose shotgun discharged when he was pointing it at the boy, remains on paid leave, and Wasden said Monday he wasn't sure when Hawn would return to duty.

   The 21-year officer was involved in a previous shooting incident with the SWAT team in February 1999. Police were investigating a man with guns and drugs in his La Loma area home. The man committed suicide before police entered. A pit bull attacked the officers when they went inside and Hawn's gun discharged. Investigators ruled that the man was already dead and Hawn was exonerated.

   Alberto Sepulveda was fatally shot on Wednesday as he lay face down on his bedroom floor, as ordered by the officers.

   Moments earlier, Hawn and other SWAT team members stormed inside to secure the house before federal drug agents entered to arrest the boy's father, 33-year-old Moises Sepulveda.

   Investigators say they may never may know how Hawn's gun discharged. Wasden said one possibility is that something accidentally moved the trigger as Hawn pointed the gun at the boy -- perhaps the handle of a knife.

   John Caudron, a firearms expert who has reconstructed gun accidents for the past 25 years, said the trigger on Hawn's weapon, a 12-gauge Bernelli shotgun, had to have been pulled.

   "Unless the trigger's pulled, it won't go off," he said.

   The pull could have come from Hawn's finger, he said, or, as Wasden suggested, clothing or equipment could have snagged the trigger when the officer was jostled in the hallway.

   Moments after the shooting, other officers heard Hawn say his finger was not on the trigger.

   "All we can say is nothing we've found at this point indicates that this was anything but an accident," Wasden said.

   That conclusion did little to ease the pain of family members.

   "They say it's accidental. They say, 'Oops, sorry,' " said Martinez, the boy's uncle. "Oops, there's an 11-year-old boy who's dead. All the sorries and excuses in the world will not bring him back."

   Outside the funeral home Monday, Sepulveda held his shaking wife, Sonia.

   "They took a part of my heart, a part of my life away," Sepulveda said. "He was the happiest child, and they came in and stole his life."

   The family, he said, will return to live in their home on McAdoo Avenue.

   "Everything will stay the same. His room will stay the same," Sepulveda said. "My son was happy and we were happy in that house. ... When we go back he will be there with us."

   Sepulveda has refused to answer any questions about the criminal case against him. On the morning his son died, Sepulveda was arrested on a federal warrant charging him with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine. He was released two days later after promising to use equity in his home to a secure a $20,000 bail bond by the end of the month.

   Sepulveda has lived in Stanislaus County for 15 years, five of them in the Highway Village home. He has no felony convictions in Stanislaus County. City officials said Monday that no drugs or weapons were found in the house. Cash was found.

   Federal drug agents requested the use of SWAT teams to secure the Sepulveda residence and 13 other locations in coordinated predawn raids aimed at cracking a major methamphetamine distribution network.

Send mail to  webmaster@theppsc.org with questions or comments about this web site.