A Life That Almost Happened

A Phoenix cop gunned down Alfonso Celaya four months ago. His family still waits for justice, or at least an explanation.

Even though he picked a fight with his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend, drew a gun, chambered a round and shot twice, police decided to take Omar's word for it when he said he didn't intend to fire the gun. It didn't matter that Rafa Espinoza says Omar was trying to shoot him in the head, and just barely missed.

Whether or not Omar meant to shoot the gun, or was trying to kill Rafa, Omar did recklessly fire a gun within the city, which could subject him to either a misdemeanor or felony charge. But instead of arresting Omar, police tested Alfonso Celaya's dead hand for powder residue, to determine if maybe he fired the gun. After all, in spite of witness testimony, Omar wasn't their gunman -- Celaya was.

Test results later confirmed Celaya did not fire the gun. A toxicology report also showed he was sober.

Celaya's killing was Spalla's second fatal shooting in the line of duty. The County Attorney's Office has not yet received the results of PPD's internal investigation of the Celaya shooting, but Spalla is back working at Club Orfeón. He cannot comment on his decision to use deadly force that night, as a civil suit is pending.

The family has hired lawyers Joel Robbins and David Don to investigate what happened to Alfonso and to pursue a lawsuit against the police. The police themselves, the family believes, have little interest in finding out what really happened that night.

Police investigators may be able to dismiss the eyewitness testimony of Narvel Murrieta, Estrella Sanchez, Rafael Espinoza, Mariana Espinoza and Antonio Mendez, all of whom agree Alfonso never pointed the gun at them. After all, it was a shadowy street, and civilians aren't trained to look for the details police officers seek when ascertaining a threat.

But Officer Benjamin Mayer is.

Mayer crossed the street with Spalla that night, and according to the police report, was actually closer to Spalla than Officer Wubker was at the time Spalla fired. If Mayer had a better vantage point than the other officer, why did Mayer report that he saw nothing? An officer trained to hone in on danger claims it was too dark to see anything at all. This, in spite of streetlamps on the southwest corner, northwest corner and mid-block of Monroe. If Mayer didn't see anything, how did the other officers so clearly see what they would later describe in their reports? For that matter, how did Spalla see a black handgun flying through the air if the street was as dark as Mayer claims? Mayer would not respond to any of these questions.

There are other troubling aspects of the police story. Spalla says he saw someone throw the gun to Alfonso, that it flew through the air and Alfonso caught it with both hands. Witnesses testify the gun was never thrown at all. But even if it were, why would Omar throw the gun to a person he didn't even know?

And why was the gun found next to Alfonso Celaya's left hand, when he was right-handed?

In the end, if the county attorney and the police use-of-force board find that Sergeant Spalla reasonably believed the shooting was necessary to defend himself or a third person from the use or imminent use of deadly force, then the official version of this shooting will be rubber-stamped.

Spalla says he believed Alfonso Celaya was about to use deadly force. But was that belief reasonable? And if it was, did Spalla have to shoot?

Most police departments follow what's known as a "continuum of force" policy. If a suspect is believed to be a threat, an officer is first supposed to issue a verbal command to drop the gun. A progression of force -- physical contact, pepper spray, use of a baton -- is supposed to be used before the officer actually shoots.

Last year, the Phoenix PD removed that continuum from its policy on the use of force. In the name of allowing officers to make quick decisions in the field, the policy was rewritten to eliminate the stair-step approach to violence, requiring only that officers take action that they consider to be justified. "In a case where a suspect is armed with a weapon, then the officer basically can use almost any means of force necessary to remedy that situation," Sergeant Randy Force says.

So because Alfonso Celaya was holding a weapon, Spalla was not required to order Alfonso to drop the gun. Spalla is not required to explain why he didn't first try to remedy the situation with any less severe, permanent and devastating tactic before killing Alfonso Celaya.

If a suspect has a weapon, the officer need not explain shooting first and asking questions later. That is something Phoenix police officers have done more than 100 times in the past five years.

Lidia Caudillo sits in her daughter Miriam's kitchen and flips through photos of her son Alfonso. She explains that he loved to visit the family ranch in Mexico, and she holds up a picture of Alfonso atop a horse. Tears slide down her cheeks and filter into the tributary laugh lines around her eyes as she smiles back at the photo of her youngest child.

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Is Lowell Spalla related to the special operations officer Leon Spalla in Tucson?

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