News Conference Announces Wrongful Death Claim Against So Pas, Police

The mother of Vanessa Marquez, who was shot and killed in an officer involved shooting last summer, has filed a wrongful death claim against South Pasadena and the Police Department. Photos by Steve Whitmore

Under a steady rainfall, an emotional news conference was held on Feb. 20 in the front courtyard of South Pasadena City Hall to announce the filing of a wrongful death claim against the city and the Police Department over the death of Vanessa Marquez, the South Pasadena resident who lost her life at her apartment during an officer involved shooting (OIS) last summer.

The filing of a legal claim is the precursor to a lawsuit, according to Vicki Sarmiento, the civil rights attorney representing Marquez’s mother, Delia McElfresh.

The claim is seeking monetary damages of more than $20 million, according to the claim that was presented at the press conference in the courtyard of City Hall under a steady, chilly rainstorm.

The claim’s damages include funeral and burial expenses, punitive damages and attorney fees and costs, among others.

Civil rights attorney Vicki Sarmiento explains the wrongful death claim against the city and So Pas Police Department.

The claim also names the involved police officers, who are not listed in the claim because they have not been publicly identified; Interim Police Chief Brian Solinsky; as well as “other unknown individuals who were involved in events, including but not limited to the dispatcher who took the call regarding the alleged welfare check and all those involved in the events preceding, during, and following the incident.”

City and police officials declined to comment, saying the OIS is still under investigation, but did confirm receipt of the claim.

The city has 45 days from the filing to respond to the claim or it can go silent and not respond at all.

“Those are our options,” said John Pope, the city’s public information officer. “We do have the option to not respond at all or do so within 45 days. That’s the clock we’re under.”

The city has vowed to cooperate fully with the ongoing investigation.

Sarmiento told the assembled television news crews Feb. 20, a Wednesday night, and other media representatives that Marquez’s mother was nearby but not able to address the press conference.

“Vanessa is survived by her mother, Delia McElfresh, and Delia will be joining us,” Sarmiento said. “She actually thought she would have the emotional strength to speak to everyone but she’s having a very bad day. She’s overcome with emotions. It’s very close to the six-month anniversary. She wants to thank everybody here for the interest that is given to the life of her daughter.”

Others did speak about Marquez. One friend broke down and cried during her speech in front of the television news crews.

The OIS probe is being handled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as well as the Justice System Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Also, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office is in charge of the official cause of death report. Sheriff investigators have put a “security hold” on the coroner’s report, which means the coroner can’t talk about its findings.

The District Attorney’s Office will render its opinion as to whether the shooting was justified or not. Investigations such as these can take anywhere from six months to a year to complete, according to officials. Local officials, including police, have already unofficially determined that the OIS was justified.

The three local officers involved in the Aug. 30 incident were placed on administrative leave as per department policy and have long since returned to patrol duties, police said.

The 49-year-old Marquez died in the OIS that occurred at about 1:48 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, just about six months ago, at her residence on Fremont Avenue.

So Pas Interim Police Chief Brian Solinsky publicly recounted the incident at a City Council meeting last year.

A broken window at the apartment. Photo by Steve Whitmore

“On Aug. 30…police were called to a residence in the 1100 block of Fremont Avenue for a welfare check,” Solinsky said at the City Council meeting last year. “The caller was concerned about the subject’s well-being and asked police to investigate. Officers arrived on scene with a mental health professional to assist in the investigation. The officers and the mental health professional talked to the subject for approximately 90 minutes. It was during that time she appeared to demonstrate mental health issues. An additional officer was called to assist. At one point, the subject armed herself with a handgun and drew it on the officers. At which time an officer-involved shooting occurred. The subject was transported to a local hospital where she was pronounced dead.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lt. Joe Mendoza, the lead investigator in the case, said the weapon turned out to be a replica semi-automatic handgun. Mendoza also said a health clinician just happened to be riding with the So Pas police the day of the incident. Initially, two officers responded to the situation and as Marquez’s behavior allegedly became more unpredictable and problematic, they called in a third officer with the health clinician.

Marquez then armed herself with what looked like a handgun and pointed it at the officers, at which time an officer-involved shooting occurred, Mendoza said. The weapon turned out to be a replica semi-automatic BB gun, Mendoza said.

No officers were injured during the incident. Marquez was an actress, most notably with roles on “ER” and “Stand and Deliver.” Marquez was transported to a local hospital where she was pronounced dead.

Mendoza also said this past week that the Sheriff’s investigation is completed and they are waiting for the District Attorney to render it’s opinion.

“This case has been presented to the Justice System Integrity Division of the District Attorney’s Office and we are awaiting the letter of opinion,” Mendoza said in an email to The Review.

Meanwhile, Sarmiento disputes the accounts of investigators, saying she doesn’t know what actually happened, but she doesn’t believe the information that has been publicly released so far.

Sarmiento presented her version contained in the “statement of facts” in the claim filed Feb. 20.

“On August 30, 2018, at approximately 11:45 a.m. or sometime before 2:oo p.m., police officers with the South Pasadena Police Department … went to Ms. Marquez’s second floor apartment at 1133 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena to presumably conduct a welfare check,” the claim states. “Ms. Marquez was a physically frail and petite female who weighed approximately 80-90 lbs. She had not committed a crime and was in the sanctity of her home when the … officers arrived to her home. Based on information and belief, a mental health clinician who was either an agent of the City of South Pasadena and/or an agent of the County of Los Angeles … was also present with the police officers. Based on information and belief …(officers and others present) mishandled the encounter with Ms. Marquez, including the (person) who took the alleged ‘welfare check’ call. Claimant contends that the entry to Ms. Marquez’s home was without warrant or exigent circumstances. Based on information and belief, (officers) attempted to cause the removal of Ms. Marquez from her home without legal justification. Thereafter, the … officers caused the situation to escalate and used unjustifiable deadly force against Ms. Marquez by shooting at her multiple times. Ms. Marquez’s death was the result of the officers’ negligence, poor tactics, overreaction and use of excessive force under the circumstances.”

The claim goes on to assert that So Pas police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department conspired to unjustifiably seize Marquez’s personal items “to wit: a laptop and her cell phone by causing a search warrant to be obtained for these personal items based on false, misleading and/or pretextual information.”

The claim was filed Feb. 20 because the statute of limitation runs out after six months from the date of the incident.

“A claim must be filed with the City Clerk of the City of South Pasadena within six months after the date on which the incident or event occurred,” according to the claim document.