In brief: Wrongful death of an innocent man caused by police shooting
“The money doesn’t really mean anything. I would take my father over anything.”
On August 1, 2014, Frank Mendoza Sr. and his family were going about their evening when an armed criminal broke into their home while on the run from the police. Frank was shot and killed on his own porch by one of the sheriff’s deputies while attempting to flee to safety. The officer was cleared of any wrongdoing, having been found by a court of law to have been “justified in using deadly force in the defense of others.”
The Rock of the Mendoza Family
“Frank Mendoza was such a special person in the community. He always had his door open to people in need.”
— Armen Akaragian
Frank Mendoza Sr. was a truly beloved member of his community. He was passionate about helping others, and would go out of his way to offer his support to those who were going through rough times. He cared deeply about people and would push them to get back on track whenever they strayed onto the wrong path.
One heartfelt recollection of Frank Sr. shared not long after his passing stated “I can hear your voice reminding me to work hard and even in your tough love way I knew you loved me. I’ll miss you and I carry you in my heart. I love you Nino.”
As the youth football coach, Frank Sr. was seen as a father figure to everyone on the team. He treated each and every individual as if they were his own son. People truly looked up to him.
“My father-in-law was a great man, hardworking. He had eight children and he had 10 grandchildren and two on the way. He’s just a man of all mans, he was great.”
Frank Sr. was the rock of the Mendoza family. His children had a deep gratitude for the values he instilled in them, striving to raise their own children like he had raised them. He was a man of dedication, having worked for 30 years as a baker for Unified Grocers.
“He was a popular figure,” Paul Dingsdale of Unified Grocers said at the time. “Everyone liked him.”
Frank Sr. was close to retiring when the unthinkable happened.
The Worst Nightmare of Any Citizen
“This is the worst nightmare of any citizen, where they’re under the suspicion that they’re being protected by law enforcement. Instead, law enforcement ends up taking their life.”
On August 1, 2014, Cedric Ramirez was sighted after having spent over a week on the run from police.
Ramirez was a parolee-at-large, a wanted felon in possession of a firearm who had escaped from police after they had intercepted him driving a stolen car. A search of the abandoned car recovered a loaded 9mm semiautomatic pistol, a loaded AR-15 .233 caliber high powered rifle, and Ramirez’s California Department of Corrections ID card.
A wanted bulletin issued to Pico Rivera station personnel stated that “Cedric Ramirez should be considered ARMED AND DANGEROUS.”
Cedric Ramirez belonged to a gang whose primary activities range from:
“Graffiti to simple battery, credit card fraud, possession of drugs for sales, drug use, robberies, assaults with deadly weapons, attempted murder, murder, firearm possession, and “stolen cars.” Also, guns are a gang commodity, and gang members pass stolen guns to each other and use them to commit crimes.”
Gang members are also known to victimize people they know, and for “[intimidating] witnesses so that they will not report crimes, even if committed in public.”
The nine day manhunt came to an end with Ramirez fleeing from officers, jumping walls and entering the backyard of the Mendoza family.
Frank Jr. had gone to see what the commotion was after hearing the dogs growling in the yard, when he saw Ramirez standing there, seemingly “strung out”.
“Adam* said I could hide here.”
Frank Jr. then saw deputies in the driveway, where he gave them a description of Ramirez and the clothes he was wearing. The deputies entered the house, passing the living room on the way to the backyard where they saw Frank Jr., his two children, Frank Sr. and the two dogs lying on the floor, while Frank Jr.’s mother Lorraine remained in the hallway. The deputies then exited the home and left the family on their own
Then Frank Jr. heard a crash coming from the back of the house.
Ramirez was in their home.
Covered in blood and holding a revolver, Ramirez demanded that the family hide him.
“There are kids in the house, stop shooting, there’s kids in the house!”
Realizing that his daughter had followed him to the bedroom where Ramirez was hiding, Frank Jr. quickly took her into the hallway. “He’s coming in!” he shouted, at which point two deputies standing at the front door told him to get out of the house.
While Frank Jr. retreated to the police cars in front of his home with his children and his dogs, his father and his mother Lorraine remained inside.
Ramirez emerged from the bedroom, shooting into the living room at the deputies. When a piece of bullet fragment hit Lorraine in the face, she retreated to the bathroom, and hid in the tub.
“Frank Mendoza was looking forward to those years with his grandchildren and his children, and it was all taken away because of poor tactics and poor training on behalf of the Sheriff’s Department and the deputies involved”
In the ensuing chaos, Frank Sr. made an attempt to flee for his life.
Tragically, one of the deputies responded by shooting him once in the leg, and then in the head.
Frank walked toward the front door, where he fell inside the threshold. It took eight minutes for him to receive medical attention.
Realizing what they had done, the deputies called for a rescue team, who were able to recover Frank using a ballistic shield for cover while other officers provided covering fire to distract Ramirez. One deputy noted that he had difficulty lifting Frank because “he was a big guy.”
Frank was driven outside of the containment area, where he was pronounced dead by paramedics at the scene.
Timeline of Events
Ramirez is apprehended by police and flees, seeking cover in the Mendoza family’s backyard
Frank Jr. confronts Ramirez; Ramirez requests sanctuary; Frank Sr. calls Ramirez’s friend to request he come and get him
The Mendoza family hide in the living room while deputies pass through the house, before leaving on grounds that the situation is too dangerous, leaving the family alone with Ramirez on the property
Ramirez breaks into a back bedroom, demanding the family hide him
Frank Jr., his two children and two dogs flee the property at the request of the deputies
Ramirez enters the hallway and takes a shot at the deputies; Lorraine seeks cover in the bathroom
Frank Sr. makes an attempt to escape; a deputy mistakes him for Ramirez and shoots him twice, killing him
Ramirez takes Lorraine hostage for several hours; Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB) establishes crisis/arrest teams
SEB hears shot fired and Lorraine talking to the suspect
An hour passes before another shot is fired and SEB declares crisis; SEB team enter the house
The SEB team locate Ramirez and fatally shoot him
Meanwhile, Ramirez remained hidden in the house, where he held Lorraine hostage for several hours.
During the stand-off, one of the deputies was able to contact Ramirez using Lorraine’s cell. In their statement, the deputy stated that Ramirez was “incoherent, belligerent, claimed to have numerous weapons and threatened to set off bombs and cut off Loraine Mendoza’s legs”.
Eventually a tactical unit was able to enter the property, where one deputy discovered Ramirez crouched in the living room with his weapon raised. The deputy discharged five shots, killing Ramirez.
It was only once she had been taken to hospital that Lorraine discovered that her husband was dead.
The Fight: Out in the Field
“They didn’t want to accept responsibility. They wanted to blame everybody but themselves.”
— Garo Mardirossian
We were now faced with the mammoth task of proving that the testimony provided by the deputy that shot Frank was false. Like the uphill battle of many civil police force cases, we had the challenge of facing qualified immunity laws and proving evidence.
We knew that the LASD were not likely to be forthcoming in helping us figure out what truly happened the day Frank was killed.
In 2014 they had come under fire from the ACLU for failing to release the name of the deputy who fired the fatal shot, with public records activist Gil Aguirre stating that “In cases like these, police agencies don’t care what the law says. It’s unfortunate but common.”
Ultimately, the state Supreme Court countered the objections of the Long Beach police union, on the grounds that the public has a right to know the names of officers who have been involved in shooting incidents.
A similar challenge had been brought in 2010. The LA Times, in partnership with the ACLU, had sought disclosure of the identities of the officers involved in the killing of Douglas Zerby.
Speaking on the issue in 2014, then-director of police practices for ACLU-Los Angeles Peter Bibring stated that “The public has an underlying right know (sic) whether an officer has been involved in excessive force or repeat shootings; it’s crucial to know the name of officer (sic) involved in any shooting.”
So proving the facts of this case was going to be a battle. The sheriff’s department wanted to tell a different story. They didn’t want to accept responsibility. They wanted to blame everybody but themselves.
Amongst our concerns in regard to the events of August 1st were:
The attendant officers’ failure to contain a wanted and dangerous gang member
Their negligence in failing to evacuate the Mendoza family at the first available opportunity, leaving them vulnerable and creating the conditions for the unnecessary confusion that ensued
The shooting deputy’s hastiness in reacting to the appearance of Frank Mendoza, firing despite the fact that Frank differed significantly in appearance from the suspect.
The deputies, including the individual that shot Frank, had entered the property prior to Ramirez breaking and entering, and had seen the Mendoza family hiding in the living room. Then, rather than remaining with the family or evacuating them to a place of safety in the knowledge that an armed and highly dangerous gang member was present on the property, they simply left, leaving the family alone and vulnerable.
As a result, the Mendoza family had no choice but to attempt to escape from their home without help from the deputies.
This was an issue of poor tactics from the ground up, an issue of lack of command and control.
The confusion that led to an officer discharging a firearm and killing an innocent civilian could easily have been avoided had the deputies prioritized the safety of the family while they had the opportunity. Instead, they left them vulnerable, affording Ramirez the opportunity to enter the property and escalate the situation even further.
“It should never have happened. What kind of training do the deputies go through that a mistake like this can happen?”
Then there was the issue of the dramatic difference in appearance between Frank and the suspect.
In a statement to the Justice System Integrity Division, the shooting deputy acknowledged that they had “never had personal contact with Ramirez but had reviewed the wanted bulletin” that had been distributed to all Pico Rivera station personnel.
That same deputy had also seen Frank Sr. when they were inside the property, and should have known he was still inside the house.
“You have to be 125 percent sure when you shoot somebody, that it is the right person. Police should be cautious when they draw their guns.”
The answer is poor judgment. This tragedy was the result of the hastiness of the firing officer’s actions, of their failure to adhere to proper training in discharging their firearm without good reason.
This was a deputy that discharged his/her service weapon, despite the fact that:
As per his/her own statement, he/she was shooting at a silhouette
He/she did not see that silhouette in possession of a firearm
There was reduced visibility inside the house
Given these circumstances, it’s hard to see how anyone would have made such a fatal error if not for poor tactics, poor communication, and poor judgment.
In a press release issued on August 7th, 2014, the LASD stated that (emphasis added):“This was a highly dynamic event, in which deputy sheriffs were forced to make split-second decisions in an effort to rescue family members from the home. The outcome was the heartbreaking death of an innocent man. As you can all imagine, the deputies involved in this incident are devastated by the events.”
When asked if deputies should be more cautious, given that another innocent man had been killed the previous year while fleeing from a suspect, their response was that the situations were different: “You can’t step back when you’re being shot at. You have to take action. In this case, it was different than West Hollywood in the sense that they were being fired on.”
Our questioning of the deputy who shot and killed Frank Sr. gave us cause to question this account of events; in their JSID statement, the shooting deputy claimed to have been in the Mendozas’ front yard when they mistakenly shot Frank Sr.
But the more we asked, the more we came to realize that this was more insidious than mere incompetence, that it was deeper than poor tactics and failure to implement best practice.
Ballistics evidence taken from the scene of the incident showed that the deputy had “fired two rounds from [their] 9mm Smith & Wesson semiautomatic service weapon. The two casings were located in the driveway of the home immediately east of the Mendoza house.”
In analyzing his/her testimony, we realized that he/she were outright lying about the specifics of the events that took place.
There was no doubt that this jury was going to find the sheriff’s deputy 100% at fault for this incident. First of all, because of their lack of preparedness, their lack of command and control of the scene. And then for shooting an innocent man. That was just unforgivable.
We asked him, “Where were you standing, deputy?” And he put a circle where he was standing.
I said, “Wait a minute. If you’re standing there, how come the casings from your gun were all the way out 30 feet away in the next door neighbor’s driveway?”
And he’s, “Oh, that’s how these, these casings fly out of these automatic pistols.”
“Okay, are you sure about that?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course.”
“So you’re not in the lawn? You’re out there in the driveway of the next door neighbor? So you’re not in harm’s way? You did not have to shoot? You could have waited? You could have taken cover? You could have concealed yourself?”
“No,” they insisted. “No, I was in the middle of the lawn.”
— Garo Mardirossian
We continued to build our case. We knew we had to uncover the deputy’s misrepresentation of the evidence.
We brought in our experts: engineers, ballistics and trajectory specialists, police practices professionals. We began reconstructing the scene through our signature use of 3D models. We were amassing a mountain of evidence against the Sheriff’s Department.
But we didn’t stop there.
We wanted to see for ourselves how far those bullet casings flew, and for that we needed a gun. Not just any gun. We wanted the exact gun that was used the day that Frank lost his life.
We had back and forth motions, and the judge on the case ruled that we had a right to get that pistol and to have our experts test it.
But they wouldn’t just hand it to us. They wouldn’t just drop it off. They wanted to hand it to us at the range.
Not just any sheriff’s deputy, but the deputy that actually did the killing – that actually fired the gun – wanted to hand me the gun that day.
So, we showed up at a firing range. There were like 20 of us out there, many Sheriff’s deputies, lots of lawyers, our expert, and we measured where those bullet casings go.
And we were able to show that those casings don’t fly any more than about six to eight feet from the pistol.
They don’t fly 30 feet.
— Garo Mardirossian
Given the position of the bullet casings at the scene of the shooting, it is hard to imagine how the deputy who shot Frank could possibly have “thought that he was the suspect trying to seek a position inside the front of the home to assault other deputies located outside the window.” They were simply too far away to have made a judgment call like that.
What we showed was the deputy lied, or was mistaken where he was standing. And he actually had to be in the neighbor’s driveway over 30 feet away from what he perceived to be a danger.
So, he had no reason to fire when he fired because whoever was coming out of that front door could not have been a threat to him anyway.
— Armen Akaragian
When taken together, the true facts of this case painted a tragic and unnecessary picture. The willingness of the department to lie about what took place in order to deny accountability for the poor tactics employed by their officers was nothing short of reprehensible.
While there was no denying that Ramirez played a pivotal role in setting the events of this tragedy into motion, it was still indisputable that the deputy did not adhere to proper training and fired the shots without good reason.
Our firm sought wrongful death claims against the deputy for his/her fatal mistake and we were determined to prove his/her wrongdoing.
We fought tirelessly, against immense odds, to deliver the truth.
We fought for Frank, and for his family, to deliver them the justice they deserved.
Outcome & Aftermath
“He will never die. He will always live through us, through our kids because everything he taught us, that’s exactly what we taught them.”
On August 28, 2018, after a long and hard-fought battle, the case settled in favor of the Mendoza family for a record $14,350,000 – one of the largest amounts ever to have been reached by Los Angeles County for a case of this nature.
Despite everything being ready to go before a jury, the family ultimately decided they did not want to go through the “gut wrenching ordeal of a trial”.
Speaking at a press conference after the settlement was announced, Garo said “We are hoping that better training, better tactics would be instituted within our law enforcement community so that this type of tragedy does not happen again; so it doesn’t repeat itself.”
This was a case that involved a lot of back and forth. A lot of “he said, she said”. Many depositions of sheriff’s deputies, defense experts, plaintiffs’ experts. Many, many depositions and law in motion e.
It was satisfying that we got it resolved in a way that will make this family better off financially, but never better off without their dad.
Our primary goal is to facilitate a better life for the people we serve. While for some people life will never be the same again, we strive to secure a future for them that helps make up for, insofar as possible, the catastrophic and tragic experience they may have suffered.
We are passionate about the people we represent, and everything we do, we do in service of bringing justice to those who have been traumatically affected due the lack of care from others.
Our Lawyers are Dedicated to Supporting the Families of Wrongful Death Victims
While the ultimate loss to the Mendoza family can never be accounted for, nor their wounds ever healed, the Mendoza family is thankful for our firm’s diligence and hard work which resulted in a lifetime of financial support for their loss.
Contact Mardirossian Akaragian LLP Today
Our firm offers exceptional talent, abundant resources, tireless dedication, and years of experience to give you the best chance of success in obtaining maximum compensation. Led by our award-winning founding attorney, Garo Mardirossian, we are prepared to provide you with aggressive representation and personalized legal guidance you need.
Talk to a Los Angeles wrongful death lawyer about your case or contact our firm to schedule a no-cost consultation.
Admitted to practice in 2006, Armen has arbitrated, tried, and settled several cases which have resulted in multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements.
Sources cited in this article:
“Officer Involved Shooting of Frank Mendoza Sr. and Cedric Ramirez” – Justice System Integrity Division
“Friends, co-workers cope with death of Pico Rivera man mistakenly killed during shootout” – Whittier Daily News
“People v. Espinosa” – Casetext
“Sheriff’s refusal to name deputy involved in Pico Rivera fatal shooting deemed ‘illegal’” – Whittier Daily News
“Peter Bibring” – ACLU Southern California
“Settlement for Matter Entitled Mildred Mae Mendoza, et al. v. County of Los Angeles, et al.” – County of Los Angeles Office Of The County Council
“LA County Approves $14.35 Million Settlement in Tragic 2014 Deputy Shooting” – NBC Los Angeles
“Children question how Pico Rivera deputy could have shot their father” – Whittier Daily News
“Pico Rivera residents question conduct of sheriff’s deputy in fatal shooting” – Whittier Daily News
“Sheriff’s official to review mistaken shooting of Pico Rivera man” – Hartford Courant
“Man mistakenly killed by deputy in gunfight was shot in head” – Los Angeles Times