DENVER – Denver police officers who opened fire killing one man and injuring another after a high-speed chase on Monday mistakenly believed an escaped prisoner was a passenger, authorities said Thursday.
The driver was killed and a passenger survived, but the police soon found out that the man they were hunting, Mauricio Venzor-Gonzalez, was not inside, Denver Police Commander Barb Carver told reporters. The police had released few details about the Monday evening shooting until Thursday, but described both men in the car as “associates” of Venzor-Gonzalez.
The authorities still have not found the 23-year-old, who is faced with an accusation of attempted murder of a police officer in November.
Venzor-Gonzalez escaped from Denver police on Monday morning during a visit to a Denver hospital. The sheriff’s department has some details about how he was able to escape, but Sheriff Patrick Firman said Monday that Venzor-Gonzalez had an appointment for a medical problem and medical transport is usually handled by two delegates. It is not clear whether he was wearing any restrictions.
On Monday evening, Denver police assigned to keep an eye on an address associated with Venzor-Gonzalez noticed an SUV circling the area and believed that the passenger was Venzor-Gonzalez, said Carver.
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 that the two men inside refused to follow officers’ commands to show their hands.
She said the agents saw the men moving around, looking for something” in the car.
Because Venzor-Gonzalez was involved in a November shootout with the police, she said, the officers believed that the occupants in the car were looking for a weapon. “So fear for their safety, officers fired,” said Carver.
When the driver again tried to flee, driving down an embankment, officers followed, she said.
“Officers continued to see the residents move in, still looking for something, and again fired at the car,” said Carver.
Denver reached a settlement of nearly $1 million in April of last year with the parents of a 17-year-old girl was shot and killed by the police while driving a stolen car in the direction of an officer in 2015. After a series of cases where officers fired at a moving car, the department changed its policy after the teenager’s death to advise that the officers only fire at moving cars if someone is shooting at them.
In this case, the car did not move for the time the officers fired, said Carver.
She said that the pursuing officers never lost sight of the vehicle, so the police do not believe Venzor-Gonzalez was ever in the car.
The driver, a 23-year-old Steven Nguyen, was killed. The passenger, a 23-year-old Rafael Landeros, was shot, but survived. He was treated and is being held on warrants from another country, ” she said.
Carver said the police found a loaded gun and determined that the car was stolen. Officers were wearing body cameras at the time of the shooting, she said, but the video is not released.
“The officers were acting on information provided to them that Venzor-Gonzalez was in the passenger seat,” she said.
“She believed him,” adding his criminal past “justifies their actions.”
The department works together with the FBI and other agencies to find the suspect.
“He is a very dangerous individual,” she said. “This is our top priority. The community is not safe with him.”
The three officers involved in Monday’s shooting have been taken off patrol duty. The shooting will be investigated by the Police Department of Aurora, Denver District Attorney’s Office and Denver’s Independent Monitor, a civilian-led agency that oversees the police and sheriff departments.