Human Target

The young man lies dead at the end of the room. I can't stop looking at him.
He's lying in an open casket in front of the altar in the church. His face is unmarked. The bullet that killed him tore into his chest. Although the face is intact, something makes it hard to believe this was a living person less than a week ago. Whatever made him human is gone. He doesn't look like he's asleep. He's dead.

I stare at him from my seat on a pew. Near me, a bunch of his friends cry in each other's arms. Their hurt is almost physically tangible, like a strong odor. I want to move away from them or go toward them. I don't move.

The church is in Tolleson. It's packed. The dead man was a few weeks from his 21st birthday, and most of his friends are around the same age. His father tells me he didn't realize how many friends his son had before now.

Father and son shared the same name, Abdiel Burgueno. A week ago the son was eating, drinking, playing guitar, writing, smoking, applying for jobs, using the toilet, sending letters to friends, planning the rest of his life. Now he's only a collection of anecdotes told by those who loved him, and empty flesh and bone that will be buried tomorrow. His friends stand by the casket and look at the dead face. Nobody knows how he got there.

Imagine this:
You're a cop. You're young, just 32 years old. You've got eight years' service behind you already. You were once honored for resuscitating a suspect who had stopped breathing. You've recently been promoted from detective to sergeant.

There's a 911, and you get called to a scene at five in the morning. It's a street in Scottsdale. A young man has reportedly been trying to break into an apartment using a two-and-a-half-foot-long machete. Other cops are dispached to the scene too.

You find the guy on 78th Street. He's 20 years old, and weighs only about 110 pounds. He's barefoot. He's holding the machete, and he's acting weird. He runs toward you, and you step aside. You keep telling him to stop. Then he charges at you with the machete.

You shoot him. And your shots kill him.
Who could reasonably blame you? It's not like you acted rashly. The kid was using deadly force against you. Even after your bullet dropped him to his knees, he still threw the machete at you--missing you--before he fell over and died. Tragic, sure. But it was him or you. The facts speak for themselves.

But they don't really.

Abdiel Burgueno was killed by Scottsdale police sergeant Scott Popp around 5 a.m. on Sunday, August 2. When I heard about it later that day, my initial reaction was, "So what else is new?" So many people are shot by the police in the Valley that you become hardened to it.

On Monday morning, I read the newspaper reports, and it all seemed pretty cut and dried. There was a photograph of the kid lying dead where he'd fallen, covered by a blanket, one bare foot sticking out from under it, the brown skin against the green grass. The report painted a picture of a psychotic, machete-swinging young thug who'd wrecked his own apartment before taking his madness outside and being brought down by a heroic police officer.

And I bought it.
At first, I wasn't going to write about it. For once, I thought, a police shooting seemed to be justified.

I investigated the incident, not expecting to find anything untoward. I just looked into it as a matter of routine. And found it to be one of the most baffling and terrifying incidents I have ever encountered.

Abdiel Burgueno wasn't a criminal. He was a kid who wrote poetry, took photographs, painted and dreamed of working for National Geographic. He brought out a 'zine, a collection of drawings titled Robots need dreams, too . . . As far as his friends know, he didn't do drugs. When he drank, he wasn't aggressive. He'd just want to talk or play his guitar.

His father doesn't recognize the person described in the newspaper reports. Burgueno Sr. is a minister at Living Word Tabernacle. He's a quiet-spoken, solemn-faced man with a Mexican accent he brought with him when he came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago.

In his house near Deer Valley Road, he tells me what happened when he got home from church that Sunday.

"At about 4:15 p.m., I found a message from the police, asking me to call them. I did, and they said, 'We believe your son was shot and killed by the police.' They said he was waving a machete and refused to obey the police officers.

"Do you mean to tell me that these highly trained men couldn't subdue him? They told me the incident lasted for a couple of minutes. Why did the officer get so close to him? Was there no other option than to kill him? This is a kid I raised for nearly 21 years. He was very intellectual, very brilliant. I can't believe that overnight he became a wild man."

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