Phoenix police face three wrongful death suits over shootings, crash | Phoenix New Times

Fiery crash and 2 shootings: Phoenix cops face 3 wrongful death suits

The suits involve the 2023 fatal shootings of Raul Mendez and Juan Manuel Reynoso and a car crash that killed Ashley Vailes.
Phoenix cops are defendants in three wrongful death cases, including two related to 2023 police shootings.
Phoenix cops are defendants in three wrongful death cases, including two related to 2023 police shootings. Phoenix Police Department
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Phoenix police officers fatally shot Raul Mendez and Juan Manuel Reynoso in the summer of 2023. In December, another officer steered his cruiser into a car driven by Ashley Vailes, sending it spinning into a telephone pole where it burst into flames and left her dead.

This year, in a four-day span, the surviving loved ones of all three victims filed wrongful death lawsuits in Maricopa County Superior Court against the city of Phoenix and the officers involved.

The families of Mendez, 35, and Reynoso, 26, sued on June 28, roughly a year after both men were killed. The shootings happened mere days apart in 2023, representing the eighth and ninth of the department’s 12 killings that year. Vailes’ family sued on July 1.

The lawsuits also were filed less than a month after a long-awaited report from the U.S. Department of Justice found Phoenix police have engaged in discriminatory policing of minorities and used excessive force for years. Responding to questions from Phoenix New Times, police spokesperson Sgt. Phil Krynsky said the Reynoso incident was still under internal investigation, but Mendez's killing was found to be within the department's policy.

Eric Jeide, the lawyer for the families of the two men shot by police, declined to comment. Michael Grubbs, the attorney for Vailes’ family, did not respond to an inquiry from New Times.

All three lawsuits seek compensatory and punitive damages for the families of the deceased, as well as funeral and burial expenses. At the end of 2023, the Phoenix City Council approved three settlements for different death or injury cases involving police officers. Those settlements added up to more than $11 million.

Here is a closer look at the three cases.

A fiery crash

Vailes was 19 years old when she died in the collision.

In their lawsuit, Vailes’ parents accused the city and Officer Javon Brown of negligence in their daughter’s death. According to their lawsuit, Brown committed a traffic violation when he “failed to ensure the intersection was clear before executing a left hand turn, failed to yield to oncoming traffic when executing the turn, (and) failed to slow down or stop to avoid the collision.”

The suit also named the city as a defendant, stating that the city had “a non-delegable duty to the public not to permit unfit employees to operate its vehicles” and “a duty to train, supervise, or otherwise ensure Brown would not operate its vehicle negligently.”

Brown had just taken a suspect into custody. Police said Vailes entered the intersection during a red light. The lawsuit makes no mention of that detail.

click to enlarge body-cam footage of arms reaching out to grab a shirtless man
A lawsuit claimed Phoenix cops attempted to detain — and ultimately shot — Juan Manuel Reynoso despite there being no reason to arrest him.
Phoenix Police Department

‘False report’ turns fatal

Reynoso’s death was the subject of a “critical incident briefing” released by the department two weeks after police killed him. The briefings are narrated by officers and include edited compilations of body camera footage, dispatch audio and other information regarding an incident.

Officer Christopher Spelts arrived at Reynoso's home near 19th Avenue and Buckeye Road on June 28, 2023, after receiving a 911 call in which a neighbor claimed she witnessed Reynoso assault his wife. "It's not the first time he hits her," the unidentified neighbor told the dispatcher, according to an audio clip. "He grabbed her by the neck and threw her back inside."

But Reynoso’s family — including his wife, Maria Garcia — told New Times last July that the neighbor, with whom they had an ongoing conflict, made a false report to police. Garcia said that Reynoso had not been physically violent to her.

"Everything that they said that he did was not true," Garcia said at the time. "I don't know why they would say something like that, to make him sound like he's dangerous. He's not."

The department did not release footage from the beginning of the couple's interaction with Spelts. In the footage that was released, a shirtless Reynoso could be seen pacing in his yard and repeatedly saying he wanted to die.

“Kill me, please,” he told Spelts, though both men remained calm. A minute into the footage, a second officer, Aaron Chaumont, arrived. Spelts then told Reynoso to “stop messing around.”

“All right,” Reynoso replied.

Spelts and Chaumont quickly backed Reynoso into a wall in an apparent attempt to detain him. It’s unclear why. One officer instructed Reynoso to put his hands behind his back, but Reynoso instead took off running across the street toward a neighbor’s house. Body-cam video showed Reynoso bending down and then continuing to walk away.

Spelts shouted that Reynoso had a gun and commanded him to “put it down.” Within seconds, both officers fired a total of seven shots at Reynoso as he was turned away from them, the video showed. According to the lawsuit, Reynoso was hit with all seven shots: one in the left bicep, one in the upper chest, two in the left center of his chest, one in his left abdomen and two in his right shin.

Reynoso then started howling in pain, yelling at officers that the gun was fake. Indeed, the gun recovered on the scene was a pellet gun, according to police. A 15-year-old witness with a clear view of the events told New Times last year that she did not see Reynoso point any weapon at the officers.

The lawsuit accused Spelts and Chaumont of failing to properly investigate the reason for the 911 call. The officers “further breached the duty of care when attempting to detain” Reynoso, the lawsuit said, including “not having any reasonable suspicion that Mr. Reynoso had committed a crime.” It noted that there was no physical altercation between Garcia and Reynoso and that Garcia told the officers before the shooting that she was not pressing charges.

Additionally, the suit said Spelts and Chaumont “fired their weapons at Mr. Reynoso as he was moving away from them, with his arms down by his sides, as observed and reported in the police report by a witness." The lawsuit also claimed that five officers failed to administer aid to Reynoso, instead standing around his body “for approximately three minutes as he writhed in pain.”

Reynoso was ultimately taken to a hospital and pronounced dead. The suit states that Garcia brought the claims on behalf of their four children “who lost their father that day.”

click to enlarge body-cam footage of arms holding down a man while a taser is being pointed at him
According to a lawsuit, a Phoenix cop fatally shot Raul Mendez in 2023 despite having no reason to suspect him of breaking the law.
Phoenix Police Department

Shot in the back

Three days later, Phoenix police killed Mendez with three shots while he was pinned down by two officers and another man. The critical incident briefing provided footage from the incident, but little is visible in crucial moments leading up to Mendez's death.

The chain of events that the lawsuit said led to his death — outside of a friend’s storage locker, after the storage facility manager told police he was allowed to be there — is bewildering.

The shooting took place at roughly 3:45 p.m. at a storage facility at 31st and Washington streets, where Mendez's friend had a locker. According to the lawsuit, the facility’s manager and the manager’s boyfriend told Mendez that the lock on the unit was faulty and that Mendez and his companion that day — Sonya Gonzalez, who was renting the locker — would have to “force it.”

Mendez and Gonzalez followed those directions, but someone called 911 to report a commercial burglary.

Officers Taylor Drake and Alexander Cowan responded and were allowed into the facility by the manager, though the lawsuit said the manager “did not tell the officers there was a concern or a problem.” Drake and Cowan found Mendez and Gonzalez standing next to storage units and detained them, “even though there was no sign of damage to any storage unit,” according to the lawsuit. Gonzalez told the officers that they were instructed to try to force the lock and that the storage unit was hers.

The officers ordered them to sit down — both Mendez and Gonzalez complied — and asked for identification. Gonzalez handed the officers an ID, but Mendez didn’t have one. From the video footage, he apparently told officers his name was Roberto Gallo, using the last name of his father, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

While Drake was running a record check of the two, according to the lawsuit, the boyfriend of the facility manager arrived and told the officers that Mendez and Gonzalez were “permitted to be there.” He also offered to help the two once the officers left.

But when Drake returned to speak with Mendez and Gonzalez, the video showed him asking Mendez to spell his name. Shortly after, the cop announced, “Right now, you’re being detained.” According to the lawsuit, Drake said it was because Mendez provided the wrong birthdate.

The two officers closed in on the sitting Mendez, who briefly broke away from them before they pinned him down. Drake and Cowan then asked the manager’s boyfriend to help them hold Mendez down, which he did, according to the lawsuit. Little could be seen on the body-cam footage at this point, though audio depicts all four struggling for about a minute as officers tried to handcuff Mendez.

According to the lawsuit, Drake delivered knee strikes to Mendez’s back and spine before pulling out his gun. Around this time, Drake drew his service weapon, shouting, “Stop fucking grabbing the taser, or I’m going to shoot you!”

As the lawsuit notes, Drake “intentionally chose not to use his taser, despite the fact that he was within a foot or two of Mr. Mendez,” instead deciding to pull out a firearm.

The suit also claimed that Mendez “did not have Officer Cowan’s taser or any other weapon in his hand.” Indeed, the taser is the only thing visible in the frame, and while Drake told Mendez to drop the taser, there wasn’t a hand around it.

After telling Mendez to “let go of the taser” three more times, Drake fired three shots. According to the lawsuit, the bullets entered Mendez’s back. Mendez was taken to a hospital, where he died.

The lawsuit claimed Cowan and Drake breached the duty of care by detaining Mendez and Gonzalez despite being told the two were allowed to be in the facility. It also claimed Drake violated the standard of care when he fired his gun over “less lethal options like pepper spray or his taser.”

Mendez died, the suit said, even though there was “no evidence a crime had been committed” and “no reason to believe Mr. Mendez or Ms. Gonzalez had done anything wrong.”
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