Crime

Prosecutor rules Bellingham police officer justified in deadly shooting

A deadly police shooting in downtown Bellingham has been ruled justified by the Whatcom County prosecutor.

A 3-page report released Monday by Prosecutor Dave McEachran gives an official narrative of what happened on March 12, when a Bellingham police officer shot Manuel Gonzalez outside Everyday Music, 115 E. Magnolia St.

That Sunday afternoon Gonzalez, 28, asked a woman on East Holly Street for methamphetamine, and she told him she didn’t have any, according to the report.

“He then became upset and called her names and grabbed her arm and told her to kiss him,” the report says.

The woman saw Gonzalez had a knife. She pulled out a knife, too. A 20-year-old man, who was a friend of the woman, 31, saw the confrontation and got between the pair. Cell phone footage from a witness shows the man nearly face-to-face with Gonzalez, who reacts by stabbing him in the neck. The man survived the attack.

Gonzalez ran into an alley behind the Horseshoe Café, lugging a stuffed black plastic bag, as witnesses chased him toward the downtown Bellingham bus station. A city security camera captured the witnesses circling Gonzalez on Railroad Avenue, confronting him, chest-bumping him to the ground, kicking him and – when Gonzalez gets back on his feet – fighting with him. One man in an orange beanie swings what appears to be a chain at the stabbing suspect. Gonzalez slashes at some of the men with the knife. He “made numerous attempts to stab the men that had followed him,” according to the report.

At least three cameras show Officer Jeremiah Leland arriving on scene in his marked patrol SUV.

“Hey! Back up! Five-0! Five-0!” someone says, audible on a witness’ cell phone camera. (“Five-0” is a common street code word for police).

“You stabbed my homeboy in the (expletive) throat!” one man yells.

Leland’s body camera shows him jump out of the driver’s door. He draws his department-issued Glock handgun within 2 seconds. He warns Gonzalez he will shoot. Gonzalez tells him: “Shoot me, (expletive)!”

“Drop the knife!” Leland shouts back, in the split-second before he fires four shots.

The security camera shows, more clearly, that they were about the width of a parking space apart, and that Gonzalez appears to charge toward the officer.

“Mr. Gonzalez disregarded the order of the officer, refused to put his weapon down and charged Officer Leland and lunged at him with the knife,” McEachran wrote.

Gonzalez bled to death at the scene.

An autopsy found three bullet wounds. One shot collapsed his right lung, another hit his right hip, and the third struck the back of his left shoulder. The report notes that Gonzalez’s blood tested positive for meth and marijuana.

“Officer Leland lawfully discharged his firearm in an effort to protect himself and other people in the immediate area,” McEachran concludes.

After the shooting Leland was placed on administrative leave while the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office investigated. He joined the city police department as a new recruit in 2014. Bellingham police began wearing body cams the same year, in a program that has expanded to include all patrol officers.

One year ago, in March, Gonzalez pulled a knife on another Bellingham police officer, who had detained him for shoplifting coconut water. He swung around at the officer holding a folding knife “in an attack position,” but dropped it, eventually, as the officer held him at gunpoint, according to prosecutors. Gonzalez served a 9-month sentence for the second-degree assault of the officer.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb

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