Denver Police: Officers shot 2, believing escaped inmate was in car
DENVER (AP) — Denver police officers who opened fire at two men after a high-speed car chase erroneously believed an escaped inmate was a passenger, authorities said Thursday.
The driver was killed and a passenger survived, but police quickly learned that the man they were hunting, Mauricio Venzor-Gonzalez, was not inside, Denver Police Commander Barb Carver told reporters. Police had released few details about the Monday evening shooting until Thursday, but described both men as “associates” of Venzor-Gonzalez.
Authorities still have not found the 23-year-old, who faces charges of attempted murder of a police officer in November.
Venzor-Gonzalez escaped from sheriff deputies on Monday morning during a visit to a Denver hospital. That evening, Denver police officers sent to an address associated with Venzor-Gonzalez noticed an SUV circling the area and believed the passenger was Venzor-Gonzalez, Carver said.
When officers tried to stop the car, the driver fled and led police on a high-speed chase. When the car was forced to stop, Carver said the two men inside refused to follow officers’ commands to show their hands.
She said the officers saw the men “moving around, looking for something” inside the car.
Because Venzor-Gonzalez was involved in a November shootout with police, she said, the officers believed the occupants in the car were looking for a weapon. “So fearing their safety, officers fired,” Carver said.
When the driver again tried to flee, driving down an embankment, officers followed, she said.
“Officers continued to see the occupants moving around inside, still looking for something, and so again they fired at the vehicle,” Carver said.
She said the pursuing officers never lost sight of the vehicle, so police don’t believe Venzor-Gonzalez was ever in the car.
The driver, 23-year-old Steven Nguyen, was killed. The passenger, 23-year-old Rafael Landeros, was shot but survived. He was treated and is being held on warrants from another county, she said.
Carver said police found a loaded handgun and determined that the car was stolen. Officers were wearing body cameras at the time of the shooting, she said, but it has not been released.
“The officers were acting on information provided to them that Venzor-Gonzalez was in the passenger seat,” she said.
“They believed that to be him,” adding his criminal history “justifies their actions.”
“He’s a very dangerous individual,” she said. “This is our top priority. The community’s not safe with him out there.”
The three officers involved in Monday’s shooting have been taken off patrol duty. The shooting will be investigated by the Aurora Police Department, the Denver District Attorney’s Office and Denver’s Independent Monitor, a civilian-led agency that oversees the police and sheriff departments.
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