SAN DIEGO – The parents of a young man shot to death last year during a federal drug sting claim in court the Homeland Security agent who killed their son shot him in the head when he was already on the ground.
In a complaint filed in the Southern District of California on Tuesday, Elizabeth Jiminez and Fernando Llanez say their 22-year-old son Fernando Geovanni Llanez wasn’t caught in a drug bust, but got caught up in the raid due to a misunderstanding.
The also contend the agent who shot him failed to identify himself before opening fire, hitting their son three times, and then shooting him in the back of the head while he was already down.
Llanez was killed on June 14, 2016, during what police described at the time as a drug sting. According to a report in the San Diego Union Tribune, Llanez was part of a larger group of men that attacked an officer during a sting operation in a Chula Vista shopping center.
Chula Vista is south of San Diego, just north of the Mexican border. Five other men were arrested in the operation.
The complaint paints a much different picture of events.
Llanez’s parents claim state and federal law enforcement officials had taken about $1 million worth of marijuana out of Tijuana, Mexico, and stashed it in a safe house in California. They planned to offer to sell the pot for $200,000, arrest the buyers, and seize the money from the illicit transaction to fund future operations.
“Federal agents brought this marijuana across the border,” said attorney Jorge Hernandez, representing the plaintiffs. “I didn’t think the U.S. government was supposed to bring drugs into the United States, but that’s exactly what happened.”
Hernandez said he found out what happened by reviewing interviews of the agents involved conducted by the Chula Vista Police Department.
The Llanezes claim the officers planned to sell the marijuana, but the first two buyers they connected with fell through.
This, the family says, increased the pressure on the officers to get rid of the drugs.
Eventually, the complaint says, they found a new contact, identified as Damian Martinez, who was acting as a go-between for a broker named Sergio.
Martinez was told to provide a van to haul the marijuana and Martinez then paid Llanez $500 to drop off and pick up the van.
Llanez, however, had no idea that anything illegal was involved, according to the complaint.
“He knew these guys from high school, but didn’t know that they were doing a drug deal or anything like that,” Hernandez said.
Llanez’s parents say their son followed the instructions he was given and dropped the van off where he was told.
Agents picked up the van, took it to the safe house and loaded it with marijuana, but instead of returning the van to its original spot, they went to a Chula Vista shopping center and parked near a Home Depot and Wal-Mart, the complaint says.
As recounted in court documents, Undercover Homeland Security agent Ronaldo Gonzalez, acting as the seller, met with Sergio in a Starbucks for about 20 minutes before the buyers, a group of young Hispanic males, arrived in the parking lot.
After viewing the pot and deciding it was too old, they settled on a reduced price of $150,000. They wanted Gonzalez to drive the van back to where it was dropped off, but the agent refused. So, Llanez was dropped off at the site to drive the van back.
Llanez’s parents say the agent and their son walked toward the van together, and that Gonzalez began to open it when he suddenly turned and ran off with the van’s only set of keys.
They say their son had no idea what was happening and he gave chase, pulling out a stun gun Martinez had given him to protect the van.
It was at this point, the complaint says, that Gonzalez pulled his firearm and began firing, striking Llanez in the face and hand. But they say, it was the fourth shot, fired into the back of their son’s head, that killed him.
In an audio recording of the incident, Gonzalez can be heard saying “I think I killed that guy.”
A second agent tells him, “Don’t worry about it. You’re good man. Don’t worry about it.”
After another agent points out that everything they say is being recorded by Gonzalez’s recorder, the recorder is shut off.
Audio of radio traffic immediately after the shooting is now on YouTube.
A few minutes in, an officer makes a very loud confirmation that a suspect is down and needs medical assistance. Television news reports said Llanez was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died.
Llanez’s family says Gonzalez had no reason to fear for his safety because he was part of a team of six undercover agents who were prepared to protect him.
They say San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies were also nearby, waiting to follow the van, that there was a helicopter watching from above; and that several members of the Chula Vista Police Department were on hand as well.
“This was a completely botched operation,” Hernandez said.
The family seeks general, special and punitive damages and repayment for Llanez’s funeral expenses on multiple claims of wrongful death, negligence and assault and battery.
In addition to the United States, the defendants include the Chula Vista Police Department; the city of Chula Vista; Homeland Security agents Ronaldo Gonzalez, Marcus Osorio, Chris Baroni, Angela Sanchez, Michael Burbank, Jeremy Dorn, Anthony Castellanos; and Chula Vista Police Officer Mark Meredith.
The family is represented by Hernandez, of Chula Vista, Calif., and Daniel Smith, of San Diego Defenders, also in Chula Vista.
Representatives of the defendants could not immediately be reached for comment.