Cop feared for life in Fermi shooting, authorities say

 
 
Updated 4/20/2012 7:36 PM

An off-duty West Chicago police officer who shot at a car full of young people and wounded a 17-year-old will not face criminal charges, authorities announced Friday.

DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin declined to file charges because there were indications the officer followed proper protocol and believed his life was in danger when he shot at the car on Feb. 18.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Authorities said the West Chicago Police Department is conducting its own internal investigation to determine if the officer -- whom officials have not named -- will face disciplinary action because of the off-duty shooting.

The officer has been on administrative leave since the shooting, authorities said.

Police said they will not release any further information until the internal investigation is complete.

The shooting occurred shortly after midnight Friday, Feb. 17, on the property of Fermilab near Batavia. One bullet struck Juan Carlos Ruiz of Cicero in the back and exited through his stomach. He is now at home recovering but has not yet returned to school.

Ruiz was one of six people, ages 17 to 24 and all from Cicero, who were traveling in a green Honda and realized they were lost in West Chicago.

For the first time Friday, the state's attorney's office presented the police officer's version of the story:

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• The officer was driving home from his shift when he saw a vehicle heading south on Route 59 sideswipe another vehicle and continue south at a high speed. When the vehicle stopped at Route 59 and Mack Road, the officer pulled up to the driver's side, identified himself as a police officer and exited his vehicle seeking the offending car's license plate number.

• The vehicle sped away. The officer continued to follow it and called DU-COMM, or DuPage Public Safety Communications, to announce he was an off-duty officer chasing a hit-and-run driver.

• The Honda entered Fermilab property after turning west on Batavia Road and driving past a gate staffed with a security guard without slowing down or stopping. The car then turned south toward a dead-end; the officer identified himself to the security guard and stopped about 300 yards away from the vehicle, near the beginning of the dead-end street.

• The officer waved his badge over his head and yelled at the vehicle to stop as it turned around in the dead-end and began heading toward him. Authorities said the officer then fired his weapon because he believed the vehicle was trying to hit him. One of the bullets entered the trunk of the car and hit Ruiz, who was a back seat passenger. Authorities did not say how many bullets the officer fired.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The occupants of the Honda have given a different version of events. They told the Daily Herald in February the officer's vehicle hit their Honda before he began chasing them. Passenger Joaquin Ruiz, 19, said he and his friends felt they were in danger after the officer hit their car, so they continued driving until they ran into a dead-end at Fermilab. When they turned around, they saw the officer standing in front of their vehicle with his gun drawn.

"He jumped out in front of his car, waited for us, standing in a position that he was holding his gun firm and steady like an officer would," Joaquin Ruiz told the Daily Herald a few days after the shooting. "But he didn't identify himself, he didn't show no badge, he didn't yell out nothing. And then he just started shooting at us five or six times."

The shots continued after the car drove past the officer, passengers said.

Videotaped statements, witness accounts and physical evidence were examined during the nine-week investigation by the state's attorney office and the DuPage County Sheriff's office. Investigators also conducted site visits.

In his statement Friday, Berlin said he would not file charges because it would be impossible to "prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer's belief that the car was intentionally being driven at him was unreasonable." He said prosecutors would not be able to meet the burden of proof if they charged the officer for the shooting.

While the officer won't be charged criminally, he and the city of West Chicago are facing a civil lawsuit filed in federal court Feb. 28 by the occupants of the Honda. The lawsuit accuses the officer of using excessive force against six teens and young adults who "were not posing any immediate threat of imminent danger."

"There is not going to be a stay on the civil proceedings," attorney Fred Acosta said. "We definitely are going to pursue this full-throttle."

Rosalba Barrera, mother of 24-year-old passenger David Barrera, said she is frustrated the officer's name and photo have not been released. She said she worries he may be able to use his position as a police officer to track down and harm her son and his friends.

Acosta said even he has not been told the officer's name and he's awaiting West Chicago's response to the lawsuit. He said he expects the response to come in the next week or so, which will begin the process of bringing the civil case to trial.

Acosta said he was not surprised to hear the officer will not face criminal charges.

"It's certainly disheartening to see that an officer can actually perpetrate this type of act on the public in general and get away with it," Acosta said. "We just have to push through with the civil case. He won't get away with it civilly. We will hold him and West Chicago accountable."

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