An Anaheim police officer was justified when he shot and killed a 25-year-old man last summer in the first of two shootings that sparked days of unrest that at times became violent, the Orange County District Attorney announced Wednesday.
The findings exempt Officer Nicholas Bennallack from being charged in Manuel Diaz’s death because the prosecution would be unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer did not act in self-defense or the defense of others when he shot Diaz, according to the DA.
Authorities said Diaz was a documented gang member from Santa Ana, an allegation his family has denied.
"The police always turn it around to their favor," Diaz’s mother, Genevieve Huizar, said of the findings. "Manuel’s the one that’s dead, not Bennallack."
Diaz was unarmed at the time of the shooting, but investigators said Bennallack had three facts to suggest the man could have had a weapon:
- Diaz had a prior felony conviction for possessing a gun for the "benefit of the gang,"
- a cellphone found nearby included photos of Diaz posing with a gun days before,
- and a raid weeks later on gang members found 40 guns.
Officers Bennallack and Brett Heitmann were patrolling an area known for gang activity on July 21 when they spotted several people hanging around a car in an alley behind the 700 block of North Anna Drive.
Diaz was standing outside the car, leaning into the front passenger window.
"Believing that criminal activity might be taking place," the officers stopped their squad car and approached the group, according to a 20-page letter released Wednesday by OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
Diaz ran from the officers, who were ordering him to stop.
Investigators said that during the chase, Diaz’s elbows were angled at his side as if he were holding something in front of him. An attorney for Diaz’s family said it’s likely the 25-year-old was trying to hold up his baggy pants as he ran.
Diaz ultimately stopped. He began to turn toward the officers and "simultaneously, he raised he hands."
Bennallack testified that he noticed an object in Diaz’s hands and, fearing it was a weapon, fired two shots at the man, killing him. Diaz was struck in the head and the buttocks, an autopsy shows.
Though the object does not match the description of a handgun, the DA’s letter notes there must be an "allowance for the 'split-second judgments in tense circumstances' required of Officer Bennallack."
The DA’s letter of findings includes statements from the officers and three witnesses, a rundown of the evidence, details from the autopsy and a summary of YouTube video taken after the shooting. It also includes details on Diaz's criminal history and Bennallack's job history, along with a legal analysis of the shooting.
The fatal shooting of Diaz and that of second man by another Anaheim officer touched off a wave of unrest last summer in Anaheim, where residents accused the police force of racial profiling and abusive tactics.
In the months that followed, Anaheim police implemented anti-gang programs and new foot patrols, among other changes, to help ease the tension.
Diaz’s mother has filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against the officer and the city.