A murder charges was filed Wednesday against a former Long Beach school safety officer who shot an unarmed 18-year-old in the head near a high school last month, prosecutors said.
The decision came less than a year after Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón swept into office on a criminal justice platform that included a vow to aggressively pursue law enforcement officers who use excessive force.
The school safety officer, Eddie F. Gonzalez, 51, fired into a fleeing vehicle in late September after a fight between Manuela “Mona” Rodriguez and an unidentified 15-year-old girl one block from Millikan High School. Video from the scene appears to show Gonzalez fire at least two rounds after screaming at the vehicle as it speeds off.
Rodriguez, who was in the vehicle’s passenger seat, was struck in the head, police said. Her 20-year-old boyfriend, Rafeul Chowdhury, and his 16-year-old brother were inside the car when Gonzalez opened fire. They were not hit.
The injury left the 18-year-old mother brain-dead. Rodriguez was taken off life support and her organs were donated before she died Oct. 5.
Gascón announced the charge during a news conference in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday.
“This case really illustrates the importance of holding public officials accountable,” he said. “Especially public officials that are entrusted with the safety of our family and our kids.”
Standing outside the building where Gascón announced the charge, Rodriguez’s older brother held a T-shirt emblazoned with his sister’s face. Though he was thankful Gonzalez was being prosecuted, Oscar Rodriguez questioned why the officer wasn’t immediately arrested after opening fire in a crowded area where others could have been hurt.
“This is a first step toward justice, and hopefully our healing process…. I’ve waited a long time for something that was pretty obvious, but I guess this is how the justice system works,” he said.
Gascón said Gonzalez was arrested Wednesday in Orange and charged with one count of murder. The Long Beach Board of Education voted unanimously this month to fire Gonzalez for violating its use-of-force policy.
Gonzalez could not immediately be reached for comment, and it was not clear who his attorney was. He was being held at the Long Beach jail in lieu of $2-million bail and is expected to be arraigned Friday in a Long Beach courtroom.
The charge came exactly one month after the shooting and eight months after Gascón first announced plans to hire an outside prosecutor to reexamine fatal police shootings that his predecessor, Jackie Lacey, declined to charge as crimes. .
Lacey’s 2020 reelection bid was strongly supported by law enforcement unions, leading some to question whether her office was truly independent enough to hold police accountable. She did file manslaughter charges against an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy in 2018 in a case somewhat similar to Mona Rodriguez’s slaying, but that marked only the second time the office chose to prosecute an officer in an on-duty shooting since 2000.
Gonzalez was employed by the Long Beach Unified School District and not the Police Department, and school safety officers do not have the same level of authority as sworn police officers. Still, some expressed optimism that Wednesday’s charge could mark a sea change in the way police shooting cases are handled in L.A. County.
“For so many years, those in positions of authority escaped responsibility [for] these types of criminal acts,” Chowdhury’s attorney, Robin Perry, said. “The community demanded more and D.A. Gascón has answered the call. The Long Beach Police Department answered the call.”
The shooting drew widespread criticism from law enforcement experts, who said it violated established police policies that warn against shooting at moving vehicles if they don’t pose an imminent threat to life and safety. Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia had previously called for charges against Gonzalez.
But Gascón’s decision to seek a murder charge, as opposed to manslaughter, troubled some legal experts. Police officers are rarely charged with murder in on-duty shootings as juries are not considered likely to convict police of that crime.
Since 2005, 142 police officers have been arrested on suspicion of murder or manslaughter in the U.S., according to data tracked by Philip M. Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Only 44 of those officers were convicted of any crime, according to Stinson’s research, and just seven were convicted of murder.
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Charles “Sid” Heal, a use-of-force expert, said he wasn’t surprised that Gonzalez was criminally charged but added that murder — which implies premeditation — may be an overreach.
“This was an in-the-heat-of-the-moment act,” he said.
Dmitry Gorin, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, said he would have argued for a charge of “implied malice” murder because Gonzalez’s conduct was “so reckless it amounts to indifference to human life.”
“An officer should have known better that someone would die,” Gorin said, while noting that a defense attorney will probably argue Gonzalez never intended to kill anyone.
Video footage from the scene shows the car nearly clipping Gonzalez as it speeds away, although other experts have noted that he could have eliminated any potential threat by simply stepping out of its path.
The shooting occurred after Gonzalez, on patrol driving through the Millikan High School area, observed a fight between Rodriguez and the unidentified 15-year-old girl that had spilled into traffic, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna said.
The 15-year-old was a student at Millikan, Luna said. Rodriguez’s family previously said neither she nor the other two individuals in the car were students at the school. Luna said he did not know whether Gonzalez had previously interacted with Rodriguez or any of the people involved in the fight.
“This really impacted our community heavily,” Luna said. “This is just a step in trying to bring some closure to this very unfortunate and impactful incident, not only to our city but the Rodriguez family.”
Investigators have said Rodriguez initiated the fight that preceded the gunfire; there is no evidence that she or anyone else involved in the melee was armed. Gascón said there were no plans to prosecute any of the people involved in the fight..
In a statement, school district officials thanked the Police Department and the district attorney’s office for their “diligent work and swift action on this case.”
“We acknowledge the impact of this tragedy and we again extend our sincerest condolences to everyone who has been impacted, especially the family, friends and loved ones of the shooting victim, Manuela Rodriguez,” they said.
Rodriguez‘s son, Isael, was 5 months old at the time of the shooting.
“It’s an unfortunate and unnecessary death that left a 6-month-old without a mother, a family without a daughter and clearly a tremendous loss to our entire community,” Gascón said.
Before serving as a school safety officer, Gonzalez had two brief stints as a city police officer.
He worked for the Los Alamitos Police Department from January to April 2019, according to city officials who declined to provide details about his departure.
Gonzalez later joined the Sierra Madre Police Department in September 2019, but again left after less than a year on the job, according to police spokeswoman Laura Aguilar. She said the city “chose to separate from Officer Gonzalez” but would not provide additional information.
Police officer disciplinary records are largely shielded from public view under California law, unless the officer has used deadly force, been accused of sexual misconduct or dishonesty on duty.
Given Gonzalez’s career history, Oscar Rodriguez said he was incredibly frustrated that the man who shot his sister was employed by Long Beach’s school system in the first place.
“I don’t get how these people get hired,” he said. “How is it hard for you guys to fire, or not hire, someone that already has a bad history?”