Attorney demands answers in fatal SWAT shooting case

Attorney demands answers in fatal SWAT shooting case

CREATED May. 18, 2011

Reporters: Craig Smith and Jennifer Waddell
Web Producers: Layla Tang and Forrest Carr

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Nearly two weeks after the SWAT shooting that left an ex-Marine dead, there are still several questions surrounding the case, including why paramedics were not allowed to treat the man before he died of his wounds.  A high-profile attorney hired by the victim's family continues to demand answers.  But on Wednesday the Pima County sheriff's office released a statement blasting the media, essentially urging reporters to back off and be patient.

On the morning of May 5, SWAT officers shot and killed Jose Guerena in his home while trying to serve a warrant in a drug investigation.  According to Pima County authorities, the team knocked before knocking down the front door.  Guerena was waiting for them with an assault rifle.  Investigators told KGUN9 that although Guerena never fired, he said, "I've got something for you."  That's when officers opened fire, hitting Guerena several times.

Officers told KGUN9 News they believed that Guerena's wife and children would be gone at the time of the raid, but Vanessa Guerena and the couple's youngest child were in the house when SWAT broke down the door.  They were hiding in a closet during the shooting. Recently released recordings detailed Vanessa's 911 call, telling an operator her husband was still alive and gasping for air.  A medic team from Drexel Heights responded and was waiting outside the house.  However, after waiting an hour and 14 minutes, they were waved off because Guerena was dead.

There have been conflicting reports as to whether the SWAT team used lights and sirens upon their arrival to the Guerena home.  Pima County authorities said they did use lights and sirens to be sure no one would mistake them for home invaders.  However, 9 On Your Side found neighbors who dispute that.  Vanessa Guerena has maintained that her husband grabbed his rifle in the first place because he thought he was defending his family from a home invasion.

The Pima County Sheriff's Department has not revealed what they found in the home that pertained to the narcotics investigation.  Nor have they said what time Guerena died or whether there was a person on the team certified to declare him dead.

Now, the Guerena family has hired prominent attorney Christopher Scileppi to find answers to those questions.  He said he wants to show that Jose Guerena was an innocent man just defending his home.  He also wants to find out why paramedics and a Lifeline helicopter were told to stay put outside the Guerena home for over an hour, when they arrived on scene minutes after Vanessa Guerena's 911 call.

"You help wounded dogs lying by the side of the road. You help them, you get them aside, you get them medical attention as soon as possible," Scileppi said.  "This didn't happen in this case and we want to know why."

It is standard to keep paramedics clear of a crime scene until law enforcement can be sure they won't be in danger, but as KGUN9 has pointed out, even in the chaos of the January 8 shooting, medics were allowed into the scene within 12 minutes.  Scileppi said he believes SWAT members should have been able to clear the house quickly and deem it safe for paramedics to enter.

"This is a small house. It's a relatively small house with no basement and no attic," Scileppi said.  "They could have cleared this, effectively cleared this house in one, no more than two minutes."

"One hard fact of this whole thing is, one way or another, you have a group of law enforcement officers faced by a man with a gun.  What action could or should they have taken differently than they did?" asked 9 On Your Side reporter Craig Smith.

"Again, there are protocols that supposedly are set up.  There are policies and procedures that need to take place.  There is a big discrepancy over whether those policies and procedures were followed," Scileppi replied.

KGUN9 On Your Side has been asking the Pima County Sheriff's Department to answer some of these questions.  The department did give an interview answering some of them last week, but has decided to grant no further interviews for now.

On Wednesday morning, the Pima County Sheriff's department issued a statement blasting what it called "unacceptable and irresponsible" questions from the media.   The statement said that it was inappropriate for the media "to couch those questions with implications of secrecy and a cover-up, not to mention questioning the legality of actions that could not have been taken without the approval of an impartial judge." 

The statement pointed out that varous criminal and legal investigations into the matter are still underway, and concluded, "As a law enforcement professional with decades of experience, Sheriff Dupnik will make the decision to release the information when the investigation is completed, the danger to innocent lives has been mitigated, and all agencies involved have been given the opportunity to review the actions of their personnel."

Timeline

After nearly two weeks of reporting on this issue, there are still many holes and unanswered questions.  Here's a rundown of what is known, and not known so far about what happened.

At around 9:40 am on May 5, the Pima Regional SWAT team executed a search warrant at Jose Guerena's home.  The team knocked, then breached the front door.  Guerena was crouched down with an assault rifle - investigators told KGUN9 News that he said, "I've got something for you."  That's when officers opened fire - hitting Guerena.

According to the Sheriff's Office, officers thought his wife and children would be gone - but in reality she and one child were home.  She called 9-1-1 and said he was still alive. 

A short time later a medic team from Drexel Heights arrived.  SWAT officers did not allow paramedics onto the scene.  After waiting an hour and 14 minutes, the paramedics received a wave-off on the grounds that Guerena was already dead.

There are conflicting reports as to whether the SWAT team used lights and sirens upon arrival.  PSCD says they did, Vanessa Guerena says she did not hear sirens.

The Pima County Sheriff's Department will not reveal what they found related to the narcotics investigation.  They did not find drugs or money in Guerena's home but say they did find evidence pertinent to the investigation, which was looking into a drug conspiracy.  Officers said they did find contraband at some of the other homes raided during the same operation.  However, investigators have sealed the search warrants for the time being.

PSCD will not say, for now, whether there was a person on the SWAT team certified to declare Guerena dead, and if so, what time that happened.  Given the fact that, according to the family, some 60 rounds hit Guerena, it does not seem likely that he lived for very long after the shooting.  Whether immediate medical help from the paramedics would have made a difference in those circumstances is not known.

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