Family seeks more information on Estrada shooting

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation summary into a fatal shooting by a Shelbyville police officer last March "raises more questions ... than it answers," say survivors who've sued the city for $50 million and alleged wrongful death.

That's according to a prepared response issued Thursday afternoon by lawyers on behalf of the children of Fermin Estrada, 47, who died of a gunshot wound to the head on March 18 during a party on his 15 acres in western Shelbyville.

Memphis-based attorneys Chuck Blatteis and Stephen King, counsel for the Estrada family, were asked about six weeks ago for a reaction to a summary of the report prepared by District Attorney Chuck Crawford.

Crawford says the TBI report states the Shelbyville grocer fired at least one shot toward Officers James Wilkerson and Bruce Davis. Wilkerson said he shot back.

"The district attorney's statement contains no concrete evidence to back up what it claims," Blatteis and King said.

State law makes TBI reports confidential with two exceptions.

Since they are prepared for state prosecutors, district attorneys can summarize them and issue such statements. Crawford did so on Nov. 14, five days after King and Blatteis announced the Estradas were suing Wilkerson, the city and its police department in U.S. District Court at Winchester. The case was filed Nov. 13.

Since then, Crawford has noted that because the lawsuit has been filed, the complainants may obtain a copy of the TBI report through the discovery process as they move toward a civil trial.

Blatteis and King represent Ezekiel, William, Fermin Jr. and Patricia Estrada. The children's' father named his grocery, Tienda Mexicana "Paty" (Paty Mexican Store), to honor his daughter.

The lawyers' statement also responds to information released by police.

"The family ... has not been given access to any of the ballistic information found at the scene, specifically, the number, trajectory and location of the bullets which might contradict what [Crawford] or ... Wilkerson claim in their statements," the lawyers wrote.

Crawford's summary states that part of the TBI investigation includes "bullet path reconstruction. The location and angle of a bullet from Mr. Estrada's pistol established that he fired at least one round in the direction of the officers."

During a gathering at the Estrada house in October, when his relatives and friends who'd been at the party were available for news interviews, several people pointed to a hole in the bumper of a panel van, saying they thought it should have been examined by law enforcement officers.

Its location, they say, appears to be a logical extension of a line between where Estrada fell and where Wilkerson was during what officials describe as an exchange of gunshots. The panel van had reportedly not been moved since the shooting.

The response complains that the prosecutor and police didn't state that Estrada was "always on his own 15-acre property during the entire course of events that day..."

Wilkerson and Davis were responding to a complaint from a woman who reported three men, one of which matched a description of Estrada, were on her "property line." She said one of the three men had a pistol and described a man wearing a shirt and hat like those Estrada was wearing.

"The woman who originally placed the call to the police that started the incident had several pit bull dogs in a pen, but had no fence on her backyard which adjoined Mr. Estrada's property," the statement points out. "This is the second time a person was seriously injured or killed this year in an incident involving Officer Davis and pit bulls."

Davis was coming on duty that Saturday and rode with Wilkerson in the patrol car that had just returned to headquarters. Nearly eight months later, Davis responded to a 911 dispatcher's report about dogs running at large in eastern Shelbyville on Nov. 12, an incident that included a grandmother being mauled by two pit bull dogs while she attempted to protect her dog.

The Estrada family statement also complains, "The police crossed over an approximately 10-acre, wooded tract of land belonging to Mr. Estrada without a warrant to shoot Mr. Estrada in his own backyard in front of his family and friends..."

Much of the statement complains about explanatory information not being made available. Blatteis has said a chief reason for the civil rights suit is to force the city to explain its conduct.

As it became clear that Estrada's children would file a lawsuit alleging wrongful death, more information was sought by this newspaper, WTVF (Channel 5) and the lawyers.

"There were various calls to the 911 call center as well as police radio traffic regarding the police shooting which are not particularly favorable to the police and that were specifically excluded from the information provided the family and the press," the statement alleges. "Yet, the information that was presented to the public and the Estrada family by the Shelbyville Police Department was represented as being all the information available."

City police turned the investigation over to the TBI so the department wouldn't be investigating itself.

"There were videotaped statements at the police station on the day of the killing about what happened both from the officers involved and from a few of the witnesses," the family statement says.

The Times-Gazette reported on Nov. 27 that Shelbyville attorney Sam Short was called in by the Estrada family on the day of the shooting. Short confirmed information that he attended at least one of the video tape-recorded interviews, conducted by the TBI, at police headquarters on the evening of March 18.

"Yet only the officers' brief written summaries ... were provided to Mr. Estrada's family, and none of the witness statements were provided," the family alleges.

The information provided to the family is from the city police record, not from the TBI.

After describing Crawford's summary as an "interpretation of the evidence found in the TBI report of the police shooting," the family statement concludes that there's "important evidence missing, or made reference to but not provided" by city police.

"This has led the children of Mr. Estrada to have to sue the Shelbyville Police Department for wrongful death to have the TBI report released and get access to the information the police have, so as to have access to the evidence, so that Mr. Estrada's children can engage outside experts to conduct their own independent investigation," the family said in response to the summary of the TBI report.