Erik Talavera was holding a knife and surrounded by police with no place to go. Body camera video shows him bending down, his hand nearly touching the ground, when two San Diego County sheriff’s deputies fire a volley of shots at him, striking him 16 times.
Deputies would later say that during the Feb. 16, 2022, shooting, they believed that Talavera, who survived, was holding a small gun when they shot the 33-year-old from about 40 feet away.
Aattorneys for Talavera allege that the entire incident in El Cajon was a nearly fatal mess created by the deputies, who they say shouted contradicting commands at Talavera, were unable to communicate with other officers at the scene, and fired more than a dozen shots even while other officers were in the line of fire.
Erik Talavera sued the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department after deputies shot him 16 times after he stole a trailer. His attorneys say he had a knife but was not a threat to deputies who were about 40 feet away.
On Monday, Talavera’s attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against San Diego County and its Sheriff’s Department, alleging that the shooting was the result of excessive force, assault and battery, and negligence. The attorneys say Talaversa — despite holding a knife— posed no threat when officers opened fire.
“At no time did Mr. Talavera do anything to provoke the use of deadly force,” according to the complaint. “Mr. Talavera did not threaten any member of law enforcement, nor would a reasonable deputy interpret Mr. Talavera’s conduct as a threat of violence or endangering anyone.”
The San Diego County district attorney’s office determined on Sept. 22, 2022, that Deputies David Lovejoy and Johnathan Young, who fired on Talavera, were not criminally liable in the shooting and believed the “black metallic object” that Talavera pulled from his waistband was a small gun.
According to the district attorney’s findings, Lovejoy initially fired 10 rounds at Talavera, and Young fired five times. After being shot, Talavera still reached for the knife, pulled it to his chest, and Lovejoy fired another two rounds. Talavera was hit a total of 16 times, according to his lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.
Talavera, who spent months in the hospital recovering, is slowing building up the ability to walk once more. At a news conference Tuesday, he said he now relies on the help of his fiancee, friends, and neighbors for daily tasks.
“I can’t bend my waist. I’m still working on walking. I can’t eat regular food, take a regular shower or even tie my shoes,” he said. “But somehow, I survived.”
According to the suit, police began trailing Talavera on Feb. 16, 2022, after he allegedly stole a “bait trailer” equipped with a GPS tracker and set up by the Regional Auto Theft Task Force, or RATT, to lure and catch suspected thieves.
San Diego County deputies who were also responding to the theft did not have a way to communicate directly with the task force by radio. Instead, deputies used cellphones to relay radio chatter from the task force and pass it to deputies through a radio channel, according to the suit. The effect, the suit claims, was that information was delayed reaching deputies, who could also not communicate directly with members of the task force.
Talavera was surrounded when, video shows, Lovejoy and Young arrived in marked cars, lights flashing, and began to scream “Don’t move” and “Get on the ground.”
Lovejoy would later tell investigators that, before he turned on his body camera, Talavera had repeatedly said to”just shoot me.”
Body camera video then shows that Talavera appears to be bending toward the ground when Lovejoy begins to shoot, striking Talavera several times.
After being shot, Talavera still reaches for the knife and two more shots are fired, the video shows.
“It’s a knife,” one deputy is heard saying after the shooting.
Marcus Bourassa, an attorney representing Talavera, said in a news conference Tuesday that his client was surrounded and complying with commands to get on the ground when he was shot.
The County of San Diego Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, which reviews complaints against the county Sheriff’s and Probation departments, found that Talavera was complying with commands and facing away from deputies when the shots were fired.
Bourassa said Talavera was homeless and looking for a way to make money. According to court records, Talavera pleaded guilty to the theft of the trailer and a misdemeanor offense for the knife. He was sentenced to probation.
A police officer who was involved in the operation that day and was struck in the leg by one of the deputies’ shots, also filed a federal lawsuit against San Diego County earlier this year, calling the deputies’ actions “reckless.”
According to that federal suit, filed on May 24 by National City Police Det. Rowdy Pauu, Lovejoy told officers he could see that Pauu was in his line of sight before he began to shoot but decided to fire anyway because he thought “he could make it.”
“These deputies were concerned with neither the safety of law enforcement officers on the scene nor the bystanders when they fired their weapons,” Pauu’s suit against the county reads, pointing out Talavera was surrounded and the two deputies were standing behind the doors of their patrol cars. “They had no need to immediately and recklessly fire their weapons.”
Pauu, according to the suit, still has the bullet lodged in his leg.
According to court records, the county has asked the court to dismiss Pauu’s lawsuit, arguing that there is no law that would make a law enforcement officer liable for accidentally shooting another officer while on duty.
A spokesperson for San Diego County did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department told The Times that the department does not comment on pending litigation.
In his claim, Talavera, said the officers’ actions were troubling from the very beginning.
Despite having no direct way to communicate with other agencies, the task force set up the “bait trailer” and requested Sheriff’s Department assistance to track it after Talavera took it.
“I know some folks will believe his involvement in taking the trailer will be enough to condemn him,” Bourassa said. “But [Talavera] is a very kind man, a generous person.”