Monday, April 23, 2018
Public safety

Plant City police officers cleared in fatal shooting of 35-year-old father of four

PLANT CITY — A man fatally shot by Plant City police officers in July came at one in a "shooting stance" with a glass pipe and a rolled-up shirt in his hands, but officers feared he was holding a gun.

These details are included in a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigative report that the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office used in part to decide that officers Gerald Baker and Derek Hartmann were justified in shooting 35-year-old Jesus Cervantes on July 6.

Activists and Cervantes family have questioned whether the officers used excessive force in a situation that could have been defused without lethal violence. But State Attorney Andrew Warren wrote in a Sept. 6 letter to Plant City Police Chief Ed Duncan that the evidence showed the officers had grounds to open fire.

"We all want to live in safe communities and value a criminal justice system that embodies fairness and accountability," Warren said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. "The shooting ... was traumatic for our community as well as the officers involved. After a comprehensive investigation and thorough review of the evidence, we found that the officers' use of deadly force was justified under the law. Nevertheless, we must continue to evaluate use-of-force policies and engage in candid dialogue in order to reduce officer-involved shootings and promote trust with the community."

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The FDLE investigative summary, obtained by the Times on Monday through a records request, offers a firsthand account from Baker and Hartmann, who shot Cervantes a total of six times, along with eyewitness accounts from other officers at the scene.

The report also notes the married father of four young children had methamphetamine in his system at the time of the shooting.

About 5 a.m. that morning, 911 dispatchers received a call from a man later determined to be Cervantes who reported that he was driving around the Plant City area because someone had been chasing him for two hours. Cervantes sounded like he was in distress, breathing heavily, moaning and at one point crying out.

Baker told investigators he spotted Cervantes' Nissan Altima going the wrong way on Thonotosassa Road and watched as the Altima rolled over a set of spike strips Hartmann had placed in the road. As the Altima continued on flat tires, the driver held an unknown object out of his side window, Baker said, and then crashed into a grassy swale in front of the BP gas station at the corner of Park Road and Alsobrook Street.

Baker stopped his car and grabbed his Taser. He said Cervantes was standing near the rear driver side door with his back toward the officer, then turned toward him and got into a "shooter's stance," the report states.

Cervantes had "crazed eyes" and was holding "something light over something dark," Baker told investigators. Baker dropped his Taser, called out "gun" and grabbed his Glock 23 pistol. He heard two gunshots and, believing Cervantes was shooting at him, fired five to seven shots while moving toward Cervantes.

"Officer Baker looked at Cervantes' body on the ground and saw a glass pipe in his right hand and a rolled up shirt in his left hand," FDLE Special Agent Randall Camp wrote in the report.

Hartmann told investigators that he joined the pursuit after the Altima rolled over the spike strips. He stopped when the Altima crashed, got out of his car, drew his pistol and ordered Cervantes to show his hands and get on the ground. He said Cervantes got out of his car and turned toward Baker.

"Although Cervantes' back was towards Officer Hartmann, he could see Cervantes' shoulders and body in a two-handed 'shooter's stance,' " Camp wrote. Thinking Cervantes was going to shoot Baker, Hartmann fired his Glock 23 twice.

Though a Plant City police spokesman said at the time of the shooting that Hartmann and Baker were the only two officers on the scene when Cervantes was shot, a police sergeant and two other officers gave eyewitness accounts.

Office Christopher Schairer said he watched Cervantes get out, open the driver's side rear door and "dig for something." Schairer said he saw Cervantes emerge holding "a handkerchief or something" and "something shiny," and pointed the object at Baker in a shooting stance.

Offering a similar account, Officer Vincent Wise said he would have fired his own weapon at Cervantes but decided against it because he didn't want to risk injuring another officer with crossfire.

Cervantes was holding a four-inch glass pipe in his right hand and a black and white striped shirt with red sequins attached to a portion of it, the report says. He died at the scene.

Investigators concluded that Baker's rounds struck Cervantes in the head and shoulder. One of Hartmann's rounds struck him in the left arm.

Plant City police do not have body-worn or dashboard cameras, but two surveillance cameras at the gas station captured poor quality footage of a portion of the shooting, according to the report. A bystander also shot about nine seconds of cell phone video. The footage was not available Monday.

Shortly after the shooting, family members told a Times reporter they puzzled by the police account of the shooting. But according to the FDLE report, Cervantes' wife Teresa Barrios told investigators that Cervantes seemed "high on ice," a slang term for methamphetamine, the morning of the shooting and she told him to leave their Dover home. She said he looked nervous and said someone was following him.

Tampa attorney Nick Mattessini, who represents the family, said he has received material cited in the FDLE report but has not reviewed it or the report.

Baker and Hartmann were placed on standard paid administrative leave after the shootings. Their status was unclear Monday. A police spokesman did not respond to messages.

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

   
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