Special Report: Elite police force spreads terror in the barrios of Venezuela

Special Report: Elite police force spreads terror in the barrios of Venezuela
By Angus Berwick and Sarah Kinosian

CARACAS (Reuters) – Before daybreak on January 8, several dozen police officers swept through the streets of Barrio Kennedy, a hillside slum outside Venezuela’s capital.

Some of the officers came under fire from assailants, unprompted. They shot back, hitting five young men. The five were then taken to a hospital, where they died of their wounds.

That, at least, is the official account, detailed in a statement the next day by the elite unit that conducted the operation – the Special Action Force of the Venezuelan National Police.

The force’s version of events is contradicted by five eyewitness accounts gathered by Reuters. These people say the police killed one of the victims not in a street shootout, but in his home. The official story is also contradicted by video of that victim, reviewed by Reuters and reported here for the first time, that was obtained by investigators at Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.

The 82-second clip shows the young man sitting shirtless and unarmed in a storage room inside his home, under police interrogation about a nearby car theft, begging officers to spare his life.

“Brother,” says Jose Arevalo, a 29-year-old shop worker who had been convicted of robbery earlier this decade but avoided legal trouble since. “Don’t kill me.”

“If you collaborate, you’ll go free,” responds an unidentified officer, wearing black fatigues and a balaclava. “Otherwise, you’re going to die.”

The footage was recorded in the final minutes of Arevalo’s life, his girlfriend told Reuters. The couple was at home with her two children, she said, when about 15 uniformed officers and an unidentified person in civilian clothes barged in. They ejected her and the kids from the house.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the girlfriend said she believes the video was shot by one of those people, all unknown to her, once she was outside.

From the street, she said, she heard the sound of Arevalo being beaten. A few minutes later, she heard gunshots. Next, she saw officers carry Arevalo out of the house, apparently dead and now fully dressed. The police then riddled the walls of the house with bullets, making it appear that a gunfight had taken place. Just before leaving, she said, they stole a carton of eggs and her kids’ bicycle.

“If my son had committed a crime, they should have charged him and taken him to court,” said Zuleica Perez, Arevalo’s mother, who later identified his body at the morgue. “Instead, they decided to execute him.”

The girlfriend’s account was corroborated by four other eyewitnesses who were near the scene. It is one of 20 cases Reuters has documented across Venezuela in which witnesses have described extrajudicial killings by the Special Action Force, or FAES, as the unit is known by its Spanish acronym.

Jose Dominguez, the chief commissioner of the FAES, declined to discuss Arevalo’s death or the other cases recounted in this story. Neither the Interior Ministry nor the Information Ministry responded to requests for comment on detailed descriptions of this article’s findings.

The FAES has been accused by the political opposition, the United Nations and many poor Venezuelans of conducting extralegal killings on behalf of the government of President Nicolas Maduro. In July, a U.N. report denounced FAES “executions” and called on Maduro to dissolve the force. The report didn’t detail specific cases of abuse or identify any of the individuals killed.

Maduro called the report “biased” and in a nationally televised speech shouted defiantly: “Long live the FAES!”

For months, Reuters, other media, international agencies and human rights groups have reported on allegations surrounding the FAES. Now, after a four-month investigation, Reuters contrasts the accounts of dozens of eyewitnesses, family members of the deceased, and official documents related to their deaths with FAES assertions that its officers killed only after being attacked.

The new reporting provides the deepest insight yet into the methods used by the force to snuff out perceived threats to Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

This portrait of the FAES, a force of some 1,500 officers, complements earlier reports in which Reuters examined other blunt instruments used by the leftist leader to control his hungry and impoverished populace – from a multitudinous and loyal cadre of senior military officers to a special intelligence service created with the help of imported security advisors from Cuba.

The FAES is a tool of Maduro’s own devising. He established the force in July 2017 as he faced a surge in violent crime that followed the collapse of Venezuela’s oil-based economy. The force was touted as a means to stem the crime wave.

Instead, according to opposition politicians and former Maduro supporters, the FAES became a means of social control in the country’s poor neighborhoods, wracked by hunger and joblessness, where criminal networks might stir upheaval and threaten government hegemony.

The aim, says one senior former member of the Maduro government, was to spread fear and keep Venezuela’s mean streets from spawning a new political opposition. “Maduro uses the FAES whenever he needs a unit that is completely under his control, to carry out whatever attack, whatever atrocity,” said Zair Mundaray, a former deputy chief prosecutor, who left Venezuela after falling out with Maduro two years ago.

The death of Arevalo shares many characteristics with other FAES killings. In all of the cases reviewed, the FAES followed a pattern, issuing a statement saying that an armed assailant resisted authority and was killed in a shootout. In each case, the official narrative was undermined by witness testimony, crime-scene photographs or official death certificates.

Reuters investigated six killings in Caracas, two in neighboring Miranda state, eight in the north-central state of Lara, and four in the central state of Guarico. This article chronicles five deaths, and an accompanying visual story details an additional six. In those 11 cases, and the other nine reviewed by Reuters, evidence suggests that FAES officers:

• beat or tortured the targets before their deaths.

• staged or altered the scene of the incident, often to create the illusion of aggression by those killed.

• looted the houses they raided or the personal belongings of those who died.

In every case, death certificates show that the deceased received similar, lethal gunshots to the torso – injuries that physicians, morgue workers, and current and former police officers told Reuters are more consistent with executions than with the chaotic ballistics of gunfights.

The wounds are “precise and in the same place,” said the director of a trauma unit where many victims of FAES shootings have been taken. The doctor, like many other local specialists consulted for this story, spoke on condition he not be identified.

International forensic doctors consulted by Reuters were also troubled by details and documentation surrounding the killings, including photographs of the bullet wounds in 10 of the victims’ bodies.

Derrick Pounder, a forensic pathologist in Cardiff, Wales, who has investigated torture and extrajudicial killings for groups including the United Nations and Amnesty International, said: “The number of gunshot wounds in the midline at the lower chest, upper abdomen is worrisome given that the deaths are said to have occurred in the dynamic context of shootouts.”

“THEY ARE NEUTRALIZED”

People familiar with the FAES’ methods say the force relies on a national network of neighborhood informants, often ruling party loyalists, to select targets and plan operations. It often goes after poor, young men with minor rap sheets – marijuana possession and theft are two of the priors among those mentioned in this story – or petty troublemakers who bother local leaders.

Afterwards, the FAES issues statements claiming to have eliminated “antisocial” or “highly dangerous individuals.”

“The community knows who robs, who sells drugs, who extorts,” said Maria Silva, state leader in Lara of the Revolutionary Tupamaro Movement, a militant organization that backs Maduro and provides local intelligence to authorities. “Once they are identified, they are neutralized.”

Venezuela’s government doesn’t publish official figures for FAES killings. Internal government data reviewed by Reuters show 5,280 people died at the hands of all the country’s police after “resisting authority” last year. That marks a 160% increase from 2016, the year before the FAES was created.

Some tallies are higher. The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a Caracas-based research organization affiliated with universities across the country, counted 7,523 police killings under those circumstances last year.

The FAES faces little outside scrutiny. Dozens of witnesses, as well as current and former police officers, told Reuters forensic investigators allied with the FAES often rubber-stamp the force’s fatality reports, without full analyses, and support its assertions that officers acted in self-defense.

In every case reviewed by Reuters, family members said the only documentation provided by authorities was a death certificate and a brief report, with little medical explanation, claiming their relative died “resisting authority.”

“You cannot take the documents at face value,” said Nizam Peerwani, chief medical examiner for Tarrant County, Texas, and a forensic advisor with Physicians for Human Rights who has worked in conflict zones including Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. “Without autopsy reports, medical reports, x-rays, internal injury pictures, any other documentation, there is no way to corroborate what they are saying.”

Human rights groups and families of the dead have called for investigations of the force, but so far only a handful of court cases, all inconclusive, have delved into the accusations against FAES officers.

One homicide detective, who isn’t part of the FAES but is involved with their work, told Reuters the force is largely untouchable. Case files involving FAES violence, like the people who run afoul of the force, “are in eternal sleep,” the detective said.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

Crime has increasingly plagued Venezuela since Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, became president in 1999. High oil prices stoked economic growth for much of the following decade. But changes imposed by Chavez enabled a dramatic increase in violent offenses, critics say.

Pursuing his socialist “revolution,” Chavez stacked courts and police posts with allies who politicized law enforcement and the judiciary. The result, former police leaders say, was a collapse of professionalism. Many crimes went uninvestigated. Lawbreakers grew bold.

By the time Chavez died in 2013, the murder rate had quadrupled to one of the highest on the planet – nearly 80 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to the Observatory of Violence, or nearly 20 times that of the United States at the time.

Oil prices plummeted the following year. Venezuela’s economy withered. Crime spiked even further.

Maduro, a fiery former bus driver and union leader, took over in April 2013 and declared crime a priority. “Stop the violence!” he yelled during rallies.

He ordered security forces into poor barrios to root out criminals. Among those sent in was the Corps for Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigation, or CICPC. The CICPC, once the country’s top crime-fighting unit, soon drew criticism.

Foreshadowing the violence that would accompany FAES raids, the CICPC was accused by human rights activists and the United Nations of excessive force. But it was never as active as the FAES would become. The CICPC, moreover, wasn’t entirely loyal because it included some veteran officers who opposed Maduro’s government.

In June 2017, amid violent protests against Maduro’s rule, a CICPC officer named Oscar Perez commandeered a police helicopter and fired grenades at government buildings. Perez survived the episode and went into hiding.

The next month, the government unveiled the FAES at a ceremony in Caracas. The force, hand-picked by police officials who support the administration, would combat “terrorist groups encouraged by the criminal right wing,” Maduro said on state television. Opponents, he added, had turned Venezuela into a “war zone.”

The FAES soon pursued the CICPC. In January 2018, FAES officers found Perez and killed him.

After that, current and former officers from the CICPC and the National Police told Reuters, the CICPC became little more than a forensics team, mostly at the service of the FAES. Officials from the CICPC didn’t return calls seeking comment.

From an initial corps of about 640 officers, the FAES soon more than doubled in size. Some officers are selected from existing precincts, others directly from police academies. Recruits have also come from “colectivos,” pro-government paramilitary groups known for harassing political opponents.

The rapid expansion, aggressive mandate and spotty training are a dangerous mix, critics say. “They throw them straight onto the street to work, without basic policing skills, and innocent people end up dead,” said William Tovar, head of the main retirees’ association of the National Police.

Members of the force have also earned a reputation for pillaging. Like all civil servants in Venezuela, FAES officers earn miniscule wages that are continuously eroded by hyperinflation – now equal to about $12 a month, including food supplements.

One family in the state of Lara showed Reuters a list of 20 objects they said officers stole after killing their son, including a modem, an air-conditioner and six rolls of toilet paper. In its statement about the death last April, the FAES made no mention of entering the victim’s house, saying it shot the man in a garden after he opened fire on officers.

One senior FAES commander said the force seeks to work responsibly. But individual officers, he said, sometimes go too far. “There are no saints,” the commander said.

“YOU’RE CRIMINALS”

Jose Arevalo grew up in Barrio Kennedy, the slum where FAES agents shot him. Earlier this decade, he served three years in prison for robbery, according to a court document. His family doesn’t dispute that conviction. “When he made that mistake, he took responsibility, and paid for it,” said Perez, his mother.

Upon release in 2017, he worked briefly in Colombia. He returned to Venezuela last year and started working at an uncle’s gold exchange. Locals say he was popular and kind-hearted, helping older residents lug gas canisters through the neighborhood. But some of his friends still had criminal ties, his family said.

Last December, Arevalo posed for a photo with two of them on a rooftop. A pistol was on Arevalo’s lap. He told his family the gun wasn’t his. Several days later, his mother told Reuters, the family received a warning from an anonymous caller: Arevalo should be careful whom he associated with.

The morning of his death, FAES officers smashed open the door and dragged Arevalo naked from the bedroom, his girlfriend said. They ordered her to give them his clothes, then forced everyone but Arevalo out of the house.

In the video, an officer tells Arevalo, who is wearing only shorts, that the police were looking for a car thief. The officer said the thief’s description didn’t match Arevalo, but he wanted information nonetheless. “Stay calm and we won’t do anything to you,” the officer told him.

The cop orders Arevalo to put on his shirt. The young man again says he knows nothing about the theft. The video ends abruptly.

Peerwani, the forensic advisor in Texas, told Reuters clothes can be used to obscure smoke, gunpowder and other ballistic evidence indicating gunfire at close range. “There is no proof, but there is a deductive conclusion,” he said. “Why would a security officer make them put on a shirt and then shoot them?”

The girlfriend said she had been outside about five minutes when the gunshots rang out. The next day, the FAES published its statement, saying it had killed Arevalo and four others who had been “terrorizing” Kennedy. Reuters couldn’t determine in what circumstances the others died.

With its statement, the FAES published the photo of Arevalo with the pistol. It said officers had shot Arevalo in a part of the barrio that is half a kilometer away from the home. “Neutralized,” it wrote in red letters above Arevalo’s face.

Two weeks after the Kennedy raid, Juan Guaido, an opposition leader and head of the National Assembly, declared himself Venezuela’s rightful president. His bid to unseat Maduro, which so far has failed, convulsed the country. In the state of Lara, a hotbed of opposition, protests flared.

On January 25, a dozen FAES vehicles left Barquisimeto, the state capital, where the government last year had deployed hundreds of the force’s officers. The convoy drove to El Tocuyo, a town where demonstrators had burned tires by the residence of the mayor, a Maduro supporter. Local authorities said opponents tried to burn her house down.

In midafternoon, nine witnesses said some 30 FAES officers raided the house of Judith Cortez. Unemployed and with a disabled husband, Cortez lived with her sons, Anderson Torres, 18, and Jose Alfredo Torres, 27.

The elder brother had been arrested for marijuana possession several years earlier, she said, and the younger had spent a night in jail in 2017 after joining a crowd that looted food from a warehouse.

As Anderson sat outside on a beer crate drawing sketches, Cortez told Reuters, FAES officers broke down their gate. They pulled her from the house, drove her two kilometers away, and left her by a bridge.

The officers grabbed Anderson, Jose Alfredo and Cristian Ramos, an 18-year-old friend and neighbor, according to an eyewitness who remained near the house. They forced the men to kneel behind a shed out back and pull their shirts over their heads, the witness said.

One officer, the witness added, beat them for over an hour with a metal tube. “You’re criminals,” the witness said the officer yelled. Then another officer pulled his pistol and shot all three in the chest. Death certificates and photos of their bodies reviewed by Reuters confirm bullet wounds to the torso as the cause of death for each.

After the shootings, according to the family and neighbors, the officers stayed at the house until evening. They fired dozens of additional shots with various weapons, scarring a tree and an exterior wall of the house. They laughed and ate food from Cortez’s refrigerator, these people said.

One officer walked to the home of Ramos around 7 p.m. He asked Ramos’ mother, Lucia Escalona, for a glass of water. “This water isn’t poisoned, is it?” the officer asked, Escalona told Reuters.

“I don’t understand why they killed my son,” she said.

In a statement, the CICPC said police killed the three because the men had fired upon the officers. Kleyder Ferreiro, Lara state security secretary, told reporters the deceased were part of an “organized criminal group” and had taken part in the tire burning.

Family members of all three men denied the accusations.

Ferreiro is no longer with the state government and declined by text message to discuss the episode with Reuters. Gisela Rodriguez, the mayor whose house had been targeted by the protests, didn’t respond to phone calls or emails seeking comment.

After the killings, protests in El Tocuyo waned. “It’s as if the whole town died,” said Omar Escalona, Ramos’ uncle.

In late July, a video https://twitter.com/NTN24ve/status/1156953427441795073 circulated online showing a dozen unidentified young men firing guns into the air in Altagracia de Orituco, a town of 50,000 in the state of Guarico. The video, allegedly of members of a drug-trafficking gang known as the “Tren del Llano,” was widely considered a challenge by the gang to authorities.

Reuters couldn’t determine who authored the video.

On August 2, the FAES posted an Instagram video https://www.instagram.com/p/B0qdHkejMFU of heavily-armed officers patrolling the town. It said the FAES had launched a mission to “bring peace, tranquility and security” to the area. Over the next eight days, the FAES in statements said it killed 18 alleged criminals there who had resisted arrest.

One CICPC officer, who saw the scenes of the FAES shootings and is familiar with the Tren del Llano gang, said he didn’t believe those killed had anything to do with the group. FAES officers, he added, removed bodies from the scenes before he and other CICPC colleagues arrived.

The operation, which surprised even local police, was a FAES “media show,” the officer told Reuters.

Families of three of those killed, along with other witnesses, told Reuters that FAES officers grabbed their targets off the street without provocation and then killed them several kilometers away. The relatives denied that any of the three men were members of the gang. Reuters couldn’t independently confirm whether they in fact had any connections to the group or why the FAES may have targeted them.

One of the three men was 25-year-old Jor-Rafer Nares, a mechanic who repaired trucks used by nearby farms to haul crops. Nares was walking in the small town of San Rafael, just south of Altagracia, on August 5 at about 6 p.m. According to his mother, who was nearby, and another eyewitness, a black FAES pickup truck pulled alongside and ordered him to get in. The mother and the witness asked to remain anonymous.

Several hours later, Nares’ mother said, she went to a local police station to determine her son’s whereabouts. An officer told her, “FAES headquarters here is the morgue.” He suggested she go there to look.

There, the mother said, she found the body.

She saw two bullet wounds in her son’s chest, another in his head, and deep bruising along his ribs and arms. His house keys, a debit card and a few dollars he carried were missing, she said. The head wound is visible in a photo – reviewed by Reuters, the CICPC officer, and a physician – taken of Nares at the morgue.

A FAES statement the next day said officers shot Nares after he fired upon them in a rural area 6 kilometers north of where the police allegedly approached him. The site described in the statement is the area where the Tren del Llano video had been filmed.

The FAES, along with its statement, included a photo of a bloodstain and a shotgun on the ground at the scene. The weapon, however, was missing a trigger. The CICPC officer and another policeman told Reuters the gun wouldn’t have fired.

A death certificate reviewed by Reuters said Nares died at 9 p.m., three hours after the witnesses said he entered the FAES truck. The certificate lists the gunshots to his thorax, but not the bullet wound in his head.

Israel Nares, his father, didn’t see his son the day of his death. Like many other relatives of those killed, he sees a willful lack of accountability around the FAES and its operations. “There is an institutional and complicit silence here,” he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Keren Torres in Barquisimeto and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Texas woman shot by officer had picked up gun after hearing noises, warrant says

FILE PHOTO: Fort Worth Police Department officer Aaron York Dean is seen in a booking photo at the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth, Texas, U.S. October 14, 2019. Tarrant County Jail/Handout via REUTERS.

(Reuters) – A Texas woman was shot dead by a Fort Worth police officer through the window of her home after she heard noises outside late at night and picked up her handgun, the officer’s arrest warrant showed on Tuesday.

Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew around 2:30 am on Saturday when she heard noises in her backyard, according to the warrant for former Fort Worth Police Officer Dean Aaron’s arrest for alleged murder.

The noises were Dean and his partner creeping around the back of her home after they were called to investigate why her front door was open.

Dean resigned on Monday before he was fired for breaching a string of police policies in shooting Jefferson dead with a single shot, according to Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus.

Jefferson’s death brought outraged calls for an investigation into Fort Worth Police, whose officers are accused by her family’s lawyer, Lee Merritt, of fatally shooting seven people in under six months.

“She heard noises coming from outside, and she took her handgun from her purse,” Jefferson’s nephew told police, according to the warrant. His name was redacted from the warrant.

“Jefferson raised her handgun, pointed it toward the window, then Jefferson was shot and fell to the ground,” the warrant said.

Dean’s partner, identified as Officer Darch, said she could see Jefferson when Dean shot her.

“She could only see Jefferson’s face through the window when Officer Dean discharged his weapon,” the warrant said.

The officers did not knock on the front door of the home or announce they were police before Dean fired his weapon, according to Kraus.

“It makes sense she would have a gun if she felt threatened or if there was someone in the backyard,” Kraus said, ending a press conference after eight minutes as he grew emotional talking about the impact of the killing on police morale.

Fort Worth has called in an independent panel of experts to evaluate the police department after the shooting.

Jefferson was killed the same month another former Texas police officer, Amber Guyger, was convicted of murdering Botham Jean, a black man, as he sat in his home eating ice cream.

Jefferson’s family has called for the swift prosecution of Dean, who was arrested on Monday and posted bond overnight.

“#AtatianaJefferson deserved to live in a world where she was safe from brutality playing video games in her home with her nephew,” Merritt tweeted.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Jury finds Dallas police officer guilty in shooting death of her neighbor

FILE PHOTO: Amber Guyger, who is charged in the killing of Botham Jean in his own home, arrives on the first day of the trial in Dallas, Texas, U.S., September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Jeremy Lock/File Photo

By Bruce Tomaso

DALLAS (Reuters) – A Dallas jury found former police officer Amber Guyger guilty on Tuesday of murder when she accidentally walked into a neighbor’s apartment thinking it was her own and shot him dead as he ate ice cream.

The Sept. 6, 2018, killing of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old black PwC accountant, by a white officer sparked street protests, particularly when prosecutors initially opted to bring the lesser charge of manslaughter against Guyger, 31.

“We the jury unanimously find the defendant Amber Guyger guilty of murder as charged in the indictment,” Judge Tammy Kemp read aloud to the courtroom from the jurors’ statement. A sob, which sounded like it came from Guyger’s bench, cut the judge off and Kemp paused to address the courtroom: “No outbursts.”

Guyger, who spent four years on the force before the killing, faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison for the slaying. She took the rare step of testifying in her own defense during her trial, tearfully expressing regret for shooting Jean but saying she had believed her life was in danger when she pulled the trigger.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I have to live with this every single day,” Guyger told the jury of eight women and four men.

In cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Jason Hermus asked her, “When you shot him twice, you intended to kill him, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Guyger responded, in a calm voice.

Prosecutors also argued that Guyger did little to help Jean even after realizing her mistake, calling the 911 emergency phone number for an ambulance but not administering first aid.

Hermus also told the jury that Guyger missed blatant clues that she was not in her own apartment – including the smell of marijuana smoke – because she was distracted after a 16-minute phone conversation on her commute with her former police partner. Guyger testified that the call was in relation to work.

The shooting stood in contrast to cases like the killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Philando Castile in Minnesota. Guyger shot Jean while she was off duty, rather than while responding to a reported crime.

In her testimony, Guyger told jurors that the shooting “is not about hate; it’s about being scared.”

Neither prosecutors nor the defense focused on race during the trial.

(Reporting by Bruce Tomaso in Dallas, additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin; Editing by Scott Malone, Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis)

Texas gunman fired from job before massacre; victim IDs emerge: media

People gather for a vigil following Saturday's shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

By Keith Coffman and Rich McKay

(Reuters) – The man who killed seven people and wounded 22 others in a rolling rampage across West Texas on Saturday was fired from his trucking job hours before the massacre, media and officials reported.

Details about the Labor Day weekend shooting and the names of some of the victims were emerging online and from officials on Sunday and early Monday. Police continued to comb through 15 different crime scenes in neighboring Midland and Odessa, Texas.

The gunman, identified by police as Seth Aaron Ator, 36, of Odessa, had been fired from his truck-driving job in Odessa on Saturday morning, the New York Times and other media reported.

Hours later, Ator was pulled over in Midland by Texas state troopers on Interstate 20 for failing to use a turn signal, police said.

Armed with an AR-type rifle, Ator fired out the back window of his vehicle, injuring one trooper. Then he drove away spraying gunfire indiscriminately, the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement.

At one point, Ator abandoned his vehicle and hijacked a U.S. postal van and mortally wounded the postal carrier, identified postal officials as Mary Grandos, 29.

Ator was later cornered by officers in the parking lot of a cinema complex in Odessa. He was shot and killed.

“There are no definitive answers as to motive or reasons at this point, but we are fairly certain that the subject did act alone,” Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke said at a news conference.

Online court records showed Ator had convictions in 2002 for criminal trespass and evading arrest. The Midland Reporter-Telegram newspaper quoted a state lawmaker, Rep. Tom Craddick, as saying he had previously failed a background check.

Gerke offered his condolences to their families of the dead and wounded.

A man holds flowers and a candle as people gather for a vigil following Saturday's shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

A man holds flowers and a candle as people gather for a vigil following Saturday’s shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. September 1, 2019. REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare

“My heart aches for them all,” he said.

Among the dead was Grandos, who various news media reported was at the end of her shift and on the telephone with her twin sister Rosie Grandos.

“She didn’t deserve this,” a tearful Rosie Grandos said in an interview with CNN late Sunday. “I was talking to her on the phone and she said she heard gunshots but didn’t know where they were coming from.

“I heard her screaming,” she said. “I was hearing her cry and scream for help. I didn’t know what was happening.”

Rosie Grandos said got in her car and drove to her sister. By the time she arrived, she saw her sister lying on the ground, she said.

The Washington Post reported that others among the dead were Edwin Peregrino, 25, who was killed outside of the home he moved into a few weeks ago.

Also killed was Leilah Hernandez, 15, who had just celebrated a coming of age party, the newspaper reported.

Joseph Griffith, 40, was killed as he waited at a traffic light with his wife and two children, the newspaper reported.

Among the wounded was a 17-month-old girl, Anderson Davis, who was shot in the face, according to officials and an online fundraising campaign started by her family.

In numerous media interviews, her family that the child underwent surgery and will recover.

Three police officers were shot and wounded – one from Midland, one from Odessa and one state trooper – and were in stable condition.

It was the second mass shooting in Texas in four weeks. On Aug. 3, a gunman from the Dallas area killed 22 people in another Saturday shooting at a Walmart store about 255 miles (410 km) west of Midland in the city of El Paso, Texas.

President Donald Trump called the Odessa-Midland shooter “a very sick person,” but said background checks on gun buyers would not have prevented recent U.S. gun violence.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver and Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Larry King)

Five killed, including gunman, 21 injured in West Texas rampage

People are evacuated from Cinergy Odessa cinema following a shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. in this still image taken from a social media video August 31, 2019. Rick Lobo via REUTERS

By Andrew Hay

(Reuters) – A white male in his 30s who was known to police killed four people and wounded 21 others on Saturday in a gun rampage between the West Texas cities of Midland and Odessa that started with a traffic stop and ended when he was killed by officers, authorities said.

The suspect hijacked a postal van and opened fire on police officers, motorists and shoppers on a busy Labor Day holiday weekend before being shot dead outside a multiplex cinema complex in Odessa, police said.

Authorities originally thought there were two shooters driving two vehicles, but Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke told a news conference on Saturday evening that he believed there was only one.

The gunman was heading from Midland to Odessa on Interstate 20 when he was stopped at 3:17 p.m. local time, Gerke said. He shot the police officer, took off west on I-20 and then exited at Odessa. There he drove to a Home Depot and opened fire on passersby.

“At some point, the suspect stole a mail truck and ditched his car,” Gerke said. He drove the mail truck back east, pursued by police, before crashing into a stationary vehicle behind the Odessa Cinergy multiplex complex, where he engaged in a gun battle with police and was shot dead, Gerke said.

Video shown by a local CBS affiliate showed the white postal van crashing into a vehicle at high speed outside the movie theater complex before the man believed to be the shooter was swarmed by police. Screaming theater goers ran from the complex.

Gerke said the suspect was known to him but declined to comment on a motive for the shootings.

The Medical Center Hospital in Odessa took in 13 victims, including one who died, the hospital’s director, Russell Tippin, told reporters. Seven were in critical condition, two serious, and two were treated and released. One “pediatric patient” under the age of 2 was transferred to another facility, he said.

“Grab onto your loved ones, pray for this town, stop and give your prayers for the victims,” Tippin said.

People are evacuated from Cinergy Odessa cinema following a shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. in this still image taken from a social media video August 31, 2019. Rick Lobo via REUTERS

People are evacuated from Cinergy Odessa cinema following a shooting in Odessa, Texas, U.S. in this still image taken from a social media video August 31, 2019. Rick Lobo via REUTERS

Midland Mayor Jerry Morales said hundreds of people were enjoying the holiday weekend inside the Cinergy complex when the gunman was confronted by officers who boxed in his vehicle in the parking lot before shots were exchanged.

He said the suspect used a rifle to shoot the Texas Department of Public Safety officer who had stopped his vehicle but did not know any more details about the weapon.

Morales said three police officers – one from Midland, one from Odessa and the Department of Public Safety officer – were wounded by gunfire. At one point, Midland police barricaded the highway to stop the suspect leaving Odessa, about 20 miles (32 km) away in the Permian oil boom area of West Texas.

“It was very chaotic,” Morales said by telephone. “There were rumors flying that the shooter was at shopping malls, the movie theater.”

Retail stores, a shopping mall and the University of Texas Permian Basin were locked down as rumors spread of the shootings and sightings, he said.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said that as two state troopers made the initial traffic stop on I-20, the suspect pointed a rifle toward the rear window of his car and fired several shots toward their patrol vehicle, hitting of them.

The wounded trooper is in serious but stable condition, and two other wounded police officers are in stable condition at a local hospital, the department said in a statement.

At one point armed police ran through the Music City Mall in Odessa, forcing anchors for television station CBS 7, located inside, to duck off-screen as the building went into lockdown.

Saturday’s shooting came after 22 people were killed at a Walmart store about 255 miles west of Midland in the city of El Paso, Texas on Aug. 3.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston and Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Dan Grebler)

Dayton shooter spent two hours in area before attack, likely acted alone: police

FILE PHOTO: A Oregon District resident stands at a memorial for those killed during Sunday morning's a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, U.S. August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A gunman who killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio earlier this month spent two hours in the nightlife neighborhood before unleashing an attack on bar-goers and probably carried it out alone, police said on Tuesday.

The Aug. 4 attack, which ended when police shot and killed the gunman, 24-year-old Connor Betts, was one of three high- profile mass shootings over three weeks that stunned the United States and stoked its long-running debate on gun rights.

During an afternoon news conference, Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl used footage from video cameras from several businesses in the neighborhood to lay out a detailed timeline of the gunman’s movements around the neighborhood known for its nightlife before the early Sunday morning shooting.

At 11:04 p.m., Betts arrived in his car with his sister and a companion. The trio went to a tavern known as Blind Bob’s. Some 69 minutes later, Betts left the bar alone and went to Ned Pepper’s, a bar across the street, Biehl said as he showed the footage.

Betts stayed at Ned Pepper’s for 28 minutes before heading back to his car, where he spent nine minutes. He changed his clothes, got his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, body armor and a mask and placed some of the items in a backpack.

Twenty minutes later at 1:04 a.m., two hours after he arrived in the neighborhood, he went back to Ned Pepper’s and opened fire outside the bar, shooting 17 people and killing nine, including his sister, Biehl said.

It is a “strong probability” that Betts went into Ned Pepper’s beforehand to case the establishment, Biehl said.

“He was very familiar with the Oregon District,” he said. “This was a plan well before he got to the Oregon District.”

Biehl said the video footage indicated that Betts acted alone that night.

“Clearly, that day during that time period, we don’t see anyone assisting in committing this horrendous crime,” he said.

The investigation also “seems to strongly suggest” that his companion, who was wounded in the rampage, did not know Betts was planning to carry out the shooting or that he had weapons in the vehicle.

But investigators “have radically different views” on whether Betts targeted his sister and his companion.

“Based on what we know now, we cannot make that call conclusively,” Biehl said.

The FBI said last week that Betts had a history of violent obsessions and had mused about committing mass murder before his rampage in Dayton’s historic downtown.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Colorado police probe what sparked deadly shooting at suburban school

People wait outside near the STEM School during a shooting incident in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S. in this May 7, 2019 image obtained via social media. SHREYA NALLAPATI/VIA REUTERS

By Keith Coffman

HIGHLANDS RANCH, Colo. (Reuters) – Colorado police on Wednesday tried to determine why two students walked into their school and allegedly opened fire with handguns, killing one person and wounding eight, miles from the site of one of the nation’s deadliest school massacres.

Douglas County sheriff Tony Spurlock told a morning news conference that one of the suspected shooters at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, previously identified as male, was a female under the age of 18. The other suspect was Devon Erickson, 18, he said.

A police officer reassures people waiting outside near the STEM School during a shooting incident in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S. in this May 7, 2019 still frame obtained via social media video. SHREYA NALLAPATI/VIA REUTERS

A police officer reassures people waiting outside near the STEM School during a shooting incident in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, U.S. in this May 7, 2019 still frame obtained via social media video. SHREYA NALLAPATI/VIA REUTERS

He declined to identify the person slain in the attack, other than to say he was an 18-year-old male who had been due to graduate in the three days.

The reason for the attack remained unclear, Spurlock said.

Denver’s ABC television affiliate, citing an unidentified police source, reported on Tuesday that one of the suspects wanted to transition to male from female and had been bullied for it.

Spurlock declined to answer a reporter’s question about whether the younger suspect was transgender.

“Right now we are identifying the individual as a female, because that’s where we’re at,” he said. “We originally thought the juvenile was a male by appearance.”

Spurlock said the suspect had been identified as male “before the detectives were able to get the medical – and detectives were able to speak to her.”

Erickson was expected in Douglas County District Court in nearby Castle Rock at 1:30 p.m. MDT (1830 GMT). The second suspect also will appear in court on Wednesday, said District Attorney George Brauchler.

The two suspects opened fire in two separate classrooms and were arrested within minutes at the public charter school about 25 miles (40 km) south of Denver, Spurlock said.

“A student’s life was taken too soon by this act of violence,” Colorado Governor Jared Polis said at a news conference. “I share the heartbreak, the frustration, the sickness.”

Some of the worst mass shootings in the United States have occurred in Colorado.

The attack occurred less than a month after the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in nearby Littleton, about 5 miles (8 km) from the Highlands Ranch school.

In 2012 a man opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, another Denver suburb, killing 12 people and wounding scores more.

What happened inside the STEM school remains unclear.

Spurlock said there was a “struggle” as officers entered the building and some students said one victim was shot in the chest as he tried to tackle a shooter.

A man who identified himself as Fernando Montoya said his 17-year-old son, a junior at STEM, was shot three times when a shooter walked into his classroom and opened fire.

“He said a guy pulled a pistol out of a guitar case and started to shoot,” Montoya told the Denver TV station.

The bloodshed shocked the affluent suburb of Highlands Ranch. Parents and students had considered the school a safe place for its 1,850 pupils ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.

The attack came a week after a gunman opened fire on the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina, killing two people and wounding four others.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Bill Trott)

Special teams at U.S. universities try to identify students at risk of violence

FILE PHOTO: Patrons sign a board to show their sentiments in support of UNC Charlotte after the recent shooting deaths during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament at the Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S., May 3, 2019. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo

By Alex Dobuzinskis and Alissa Greenberg

(Reuters) – Last week’s shooting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte that killed two students and wounded four was just the kind of tragedy a team of officials at the school was trying to prevent.

UNC Charlotte has a behavioral intervention team (BIT) tasked with reviewing reports about troubled students and intervening to prevent harm to themselves or others. Similar teams meet regularly at hundreds of other U.S. universities.

U.S. law enforcement has cited the growing use of such teams, which bring together officials from different branches of a campus to compare notes on troubled students with the aim of spotting signs of potential violence, as a key strategy to prevent mass shootings.

Last year, the U.S. Secret Service recommended schools set up threat assessment teams to meet regularly to discuss potentially troubled students. The gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety has echoed that call.

But last week’s shooting at UNC Charlotte illustrates the challenges such teams face in an environment where anyone can walk onto a campus and blend into a population of thousands of students.

The accused gunman in Charlotte, 22-year-old former student Trystan Andrew Terrell, has been charged with two counts of murder and four of attempted murder. Terrell withdrew from the school on Feb. 14, UNC Charlotte spokeswoman Buffie Stephens said in an email.

University officials, citing privacy rules, declined to say if the BIT had discussed Terrell.

UNC Charlotte Police Chief Jeff Baker, who participates in BIT meetings himself or through a representative, told reporters that Terrell had not been on “our radar.”

“NO ONE CONNECTED ALL THE DOTS”

“Obviously, this week as you know, we can’t identify everybody who might be posing a risk, but I think we have a pretty good track record,” David Spano, associate vice chancellor for student affairs at UNC Charlotte and a BIT member, said in a phone interview on Friday. “No, I think we have an excellent track record.”

The team, which includes the campus dean of students, the director of housing and other school officials, meets once a month but can convene more urgently if a dangerous case comes to its attention.

The BIT often receives reports of troubling behavior, such as threatening emails or phone calls, harassment or stalking, through a tool on the university’s website, said Spano, who is also the university’s director of counseling.

In dozens of cases, the team has arranged for a potentially troubled student to meet with an official in charge of assistance and support services, Spano said. A counselor sometimes joins that initial meeting, and in many cases, the student receives mental health care afterward.

In a handful of cases, where drastic action is needed to protect people, the BIT has referred a student to a panel for “involuntary withdrawal” from UNC Charlotte, Spano said.

Even that may not prevent a tragic outcome, as in Parkland, Florida, last year when authorities said that a former student expelled from Stoneman Douglas High School returned and killed 17 people.

At UNC Charlotte, the behavioral intervention team has been in place for more than a decade.

In 2007, a massacre by a student of 32 classmates at Virginia Tech led to calls to share information on campuses. In that case, a state investigation found that warning signs about the student had gone unheeded and “no one connected all the dots.”

At least one active shooter incident occurred at a U.S. college in seven of the 10 years after the Virginia Tech rampage, based on figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

SUCCESS VIA TREATMENT

Officials involved with BIT teams say their work prevents violence, although they acknowledge their effectiveness is hard to measure.

Adam Lankford, a criminologist at the University of Alabama whose research has found mass shooters are often depressed and motivated to die in a spectacular attack, said compiling data on the prevention of mass shootings was all but impossible. In some cases, he said, police arrest a person with weapons who has posted a threatening message online.

“Perhaps equally important in the success category are cases that are stopped much earlier, because somebody gets treatment, for example,” Lankford said in a phone interview.

A BIT can help the small subset of suicidal people who might want to stage a mass shooting, but determining how often that heads off violence would involve guesswork, he said.

A BIT does not always connect a student directly with mental health care. Sometimes, officials instead contact the student’s parents, said Brian Van Brunt, executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association.

At the association’s regional conference last month in Pleasant Hill, outside San Francisco, Van Brunt told attendees their work was similar to the mandate an “air traffic control” unit has to prevent crashes.

“Campuses can’t dictate laws about firearms. That’s a national debate,” Belinda Guthrie, a member of Santa Clara University’s BIT in California, told Reuters at the conference.

Even so, a BIT provides a way to take steps to create a safe environment, Guthrie said, adding that her team focuses largely on helping students in crisis who are not necessarily violent.

“Without a BIT, you have more students that fall through the cracks,” she said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Alissa Greenberg in Pleasant Hill, California; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)

California synagogue mourns woman who ‘took the bullet’ in weekend shooting

A candlelight vigil is held at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church for victims of a shooting incident at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 27, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

By Joseph Ax and Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – The woman who was killed in a deadly shooting at a Southern California synagogue will be buried on Monday after being hailed as a hero, as police continue to investigate the motive of the 19-year-old suspect.

Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, had attended services at Chabad of Poway in suburban San Diego on Saturday, the last day of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover, to honor her recently deceased mother. Her daughter, Hannah, and her husband, Howard, were with her.

She was one of four people shot, and the only one killed, when a gunman stormed in with an assault-style rifle, six months to the day after 11 worshippers were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest attack on American Jewry. Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was shot in both hands during the attack and lost a finger, described seeing Kaye’s lifeless body on the floor, as her husband tried to resuscitate her before fainting.

“It’s the most heart-wrenching sight I could have seen,” Goldstein told reporters on Sunday. “Lori took the bullet for all of us … She died to protect all of us.”

The gunman, identified by police as John Earnest, fled after his weapon jammed and eventually called police in order to surrender.

Earnest, who is being held without bail, appears to have authored an online manifesto in which he claimed to have set a nearby mosque on fire last month and drawn inspiration from mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people in March.

Local and federal authorities also are examining Earnest’s possible involvement in the March 24 pre-dawn arson fire at the Islamic Center of Escondido, about 15 miles (24 km) north of Poway, Gore said.

Kaye, one of the synagogue’s founding members more than three decades ago, was a deeply caring member of the community, her friends said. When one congregant developed breast cancer, Kaye drove her to every appointment and helped take care of her children, Goldstein said.

“She is a person of unconditional love,” Goldstein said.

In a Facebook post, a friend, Audrey Jacobs, called her a “woman of valor” whose final act was to protect others.

“You were always running to do a mitzvah (good deed) and gave tzedaka (charity) to everyone,” she wrote.

Another close friend, Roneet Lev, said on CNN that Kaye’s life was defined by giving, whether money to charities, greeting cards to friends or a bagel and coffee to a homeless person.

“She is the symbol of random acts of kindness,” Lev said on CNN. “She’s had ups and downs in her life like all of us, but no matter what, in her darkest days – and she’s had trauma in her life – she always, always looked at the positive.”

Her funeral will take place at the synagogue on Monday afternoon.

Earnest is scheduled to appear in a San Diego court on Wednesday. Authorities believe he acted alone.

The other two wounded victims were Noya Dahan, 9, and her uncle, Almog Peretz, 34, both Israeli citizens. They were released from the hospital after getting hit by shrapnel.

Dahan’s family moved to the United States in search of a safer life after their home was repeatedly shelled by Palestinian rockets.

At a vigil on Sunday, Dahan rode on her father’s shoulders, wrapped in an Israeli flag, as people cheered.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York, and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Trott)

Former Florida policeman guilty in killing of motorist

FILE PHOTO: Family and supporters attend the funeral for Corey Jones at the Payne Chapel AME of West Palm Beach, Florida October 31, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Stocker/Pool/File Photo

By Gina Cherelus

(Reuters) – A Florida jury on Thursday convicted a former police officer for manslaughter and attempted first-degree murder in the fatal 2015 shooting of a black motorist who was waiting for his car to be towed off the highway.

Nouman Raja, 41, was charged in 2016 after a grand jury found he had used unjustified force when he shot and killed 31-year-old Corey Jones while wearing plainclothes on a highway exit ramp in West Palm Beach. Prosecutors said he did not identify himself as a police officer.

Raja looked distraught as the jury read their verdict after five hours of deliberations, then he was placed in handcuffs and escorted out of the courtroom. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison when he is sentenced on April 26.

Relatives of Jones left the West Palm Beach courtroom in tears, hugging each other and raising their hands in praise.

“It was truth that convicted him. It was truth that brought him to justice. It was the truth that sent him to jail,” the victim’s father, Clinton Jones, told reporters outside. “It was truth that gave us justice for Corey.”

Prosecutor Adrienne Ellis thanked the jury for their service.

“They’re a smart group and they were fair,” Ellis said. “When I say I’m speechless, it’s because I’m overwhelmed with just gratitude.”

Raja’s lawyer, Richard Lubin, had argued on Wednesday that the police officer feared for his life when Jones pulled out a gun during the roadside encounter, according to WPEC CBS12 News.

Lubin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

Raja was driving an unmarked van when he approached Jones early on Oct. 18, 2015, and fired six shots at the victim within 13 seconds, according to prosecutors.

Jones, who was a drummer, had pulled out a .380-caliber handgun that he had legally purchased three days earlier. He was hit three times and died of a gunshot wound to his chest.

Audio from the incident was captured on a recording of a roadside assistance call that Jones had placed before Raja arrived. According to prosecutors, the recording showed that Raja did not identify himself as a police officer.

Protesters held a peaceful rally in Palm Beach Gardens four days after Jones was killed, and dozens of mourners attended his funeral more than a week later.

Reverend Al Sharpton was among those who spoke at the memorial service, where the pallbearers wore hats and jerseys of the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders, Jones’ favorite team.

Lawyers for Jones’ family, including civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, said in a statement that the verdict was “a vindication of the good man that was Corey Jones, and an utter repudiation of a criminal who tried to hide behind a badge.”

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)