In under four-tenths of a second, six 9-millimeter bullets spit from officer Kristopher Walb’s MP5 submachine gun and tore into 27-year-old Angel Lopez.
One bullet pierced the right side of Lopez’s lower back, another drilled into Lopez’s right shoulder blade; the fatal shot bore through the base of Lopez’s skull before bursting into three pieces, shooting fragments of skull and brain tissue out from his forehead.
Approximately eight seconds earlier, officer Walb caught up to Lopez in a narrow hallway on the third story of an apartment complex near San Diego State University. Lopez had run from officers in the parking lot and retreated toward his friend’s apartment. He was wanted. He knew he was going to jail for several years. He panicked. He died because of it.
Walb later testified that Lopez turned toward him from left to right as he dug into his pants pocket for a firearm. But Lopez did not have a firearm. He carried a needle and a small amount of heroin. A forensics expert says Lopez wasn’t turning toward the officers but was kneeling, on his way to the ground, just as officers had ordered him to do.
Lopez’s wife, and mother of his twin sons, is suing the City of San Diego, its police force, and Officer Walb for the wrongful death of her husband. Her attorneys accuse the San Diego Police Department of justifying the shooting by painting Lopez as a crazy, gun-toting gang-banger who wanted nothing more than to shoot a police officer in retaliation for a fallen gang member. To make their story stick, Lopez’s attorneys say, the police department and the city attorney are ignoring the physical evidence and promoting a story wherein bullets defy gravity.
The shooting raised questions regarding the police department’s use of submachine guns and the deployment of heavily armed officers who look and act more like soldiers engaged in urban warfare rather than peace officers dispatched to protect the public.
The militarization of police forces and their use of high-powered artillery and armored vehicles became a news topic across the country in 2014 after demonstrators assembled in Ferguson, Missouri, to protest the shooting death of Michael Brown; the protesters were met by machine-gun-toting officers sitting atop armored tanks.
The Americans for Civil Liberties Union has since criticized heavily armed police platoons. In a 2014 report, the civil liberties group suggested that with heavier firepower comes a “warrior type mentality” that encourages some officers to “think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies.”
Lopez’s widow agrees.
Nothing angelic about Angel
Judging by appearance alone, Lopez was a thug from head to toe. Tattoos covered nearly all five feet six inches of his body. His allegiance to the Latino gang San Ysidro Locos was shown in tattoo ink. “South Side San Diego” was scribed into the back of his neck. “Sidro,” short for San Ysidro Locos, spanned the width of his chest. The initials “SY” were inked into his left arm and left thigh.
Lopez’s head was shaved. He sported a thin mustache and goatee. He tucked tight, white wife-beater undershirts into his ankle-length shorts, which were so long they looked more like trousers.
On the street, people knew Lopez as “Necio,” which means foolish or stubborn in Spanish.
Lopez had served time in prison. While incarcerated he became addicted to heroin. At the time of his death, Lopez’s rap sheet had as much ink as his skin. He liked guns. During a traffic stop, officers found a gun stowed under the dashboard. In late 2012, police arrested him on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs. His parole officer once asked him why he had pictures of a shotgun and pistol on his phone. Lopez responded that he liked guns. Yes, Lopez was a thug, through and through.
But for his widow, Lydia Lopez, tattoos, gang-banger garb, and rap sheets don’t define a person. She says there was more to Angel than just a scary façade and boulevard bravado. He was a father. The couple’s twin sons were born in early 2012. He was getting his life together for his kids. He worked at an auto dealership in Oceanside. He promised his wife he would turn himself in for the parole violations, serve the time so he could spend time with his kids.
“Angel, he was a joker...
...more than anything,” says Lydia Lopez.
Lydia sits inside her attorney’s office. In her late-20s, she wears torn jeans and a black sweater. Her long black sleeves hide cursive tattoos on her arms. Ink lettering is visible above her sweater’s neckline. She closes her eyes as she pauses to describe her dead husband and the last time she saw him. Her jet-black, long, fake eyelashes flitter wildly in the air. “I mean, he couldn’t do anything without that mischievous smile on his face. He wasn’t a threat. He had a good heart. He loved me, and he loved his kids.
“The last time I saw him was in the morning before he was killed. Oddly enough, it was my birthday that day.”
A dubious informant
The series of events leading to Lopez’s death began with phone calls between Lopez’s parole officer and an anonymous source, later identified as Lopez’s drug dealer, Alec Pojas.
Minutes after 8 a.m. on January 17, 2013, Lopez’s state parole officer, Louis Torres, received a phone call from an unidentified man. The caller knew Lopez was wanted on a parole violation. He told Torres where Lopez was staying. He said he was left-handed and most likely carrying a .25 caliber pistol in his left pocket.
Torres jumped to action. He drove to the San Diego Police Department’s Eastern Division and waited for a follow-up call from the mystery source. The second call was placed and Torres briefed police captain Andy Mills.
Before vetting the caller, Captain Mills started setting up a command post near the Reservoir Drive location. Meanwhile, Torres and detective Steven Riddle drove to National City to meet the caller in person. Upon arriving at the designated meeting place on two occasions, Pojas was nowhere to be found. However, the calls continued. After a handful of calls, Pojas identified himself. He claimed that he had been held hostage by Lopez and Lopez’s father Alex, also wanted by police and also a known gang member, inside the Reservoir Drive apartment. Pojas claimed that he escaped after jumping from a third-story window. Besides the pistol, Pojas informed the parole officer that Lopez had an AK-47 as well as a sawed-off shotgun in the apartment.