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Fatal police shooting settled

Estate awarded $335,000; videos to stay sealed

Lemus- Rodriguez

The city of Fort Wayne agreed to pay $335,000 to the estate of Jose Baudilio Lemus-Rodriguez as an out-of-court settlement, terminating a lawsuit related to a fatal police-action shooting.

But city officials promised to keep the videos of the event – in which a rookie police officer reportedly can be seen firing 18 rounds at his vehicle – forever sealed.

Filed Thursday in local U.S. District Court, the settlement is good for all parties involved, according to the attorneys.

In late 2008, the estate of Lemus-Rodriguez filed a six-count lawsuit against the city and Fort Wayne Police Officer James Arnold in his individual capacity, alleging excessive force, failure to train and supervise, a state law claim for a wrongful death, negligence, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Lemus-Rodriguez’s estate includes a young daughter in Guatemala.

In December 2007, Lemus-Rodriguez, a 24-year-old illegal immigrant from Guatemala, disregarded a stop sign and led police on a brief chase, crashing into a sign in front of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.

Arnold, who had been on the force for less than four months, emptied his handgun into Lemus-Rodriguez’s car. According to the court documents, Lemus-Rodriguez began backing his car away from an officer who was trying to reach into the vehicle, causing Arnold to believe the other officer was in danger.

Lemus-Rodriguez was unarmed but was wanted in connection with a parole violation for a drunken-driving conviction at the time he fled police. His blood-alcohol content was well over the limit for driving at the time of the shooting, an autopsy later found.

Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards declined to file charges in the case, and a private consultant hired by the city found Arnold’s actions “objectively reasonable.”

The consultant, a master instructor at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, found Arnold’s military training – the officer was a former Marine with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan – did not negatively affect his decision-making that day.

The event was captured on videotape – from the in-car video cameras in the police cruisers on the scene – but the city has steadfastly refused to release the tapes to the public.

A few people have seen the tape as the case progressed, including local business owner Larry Lee, who watched with the permission of the estate’s representative. He called the tapes “shocking” and called the city’s refusal to release them “shameful.”

The city has cited a number of reasons for not releasing the tapes – a pending investigation, pending litigation and out of respect for Lemus-Rodriguez’s family. Now, and forever, the records will be declared investigatory, even though there are no ongoing investigations, because they were created in the course of an investigation, city officials said.

“The city is going to continue to hold to the fact that the tapes are investigatory records,” City Attorney Carol Taylor said. “Indeed our opinion was supported by (the Indiana public access counselor).”

Mark GiaQuinta, the plaintiff’s attorney, returned his copies of the tapes to the city for city officials to do with what they want, he said.

As part of the settlement, neither the city nor the officer admitted wrongdoing, Taylor said.

The settlement was fair not only to the city and Lemus-Rodriguez’s family, but to taxpayers as well because legal fees were fast approaching the amount of the settlement, Taylor said.

GiaQuinta said Lemus-Rodriguez’s family in Guatemala agreed with the terms of the deal.

“When you’re down there talking to Jose’s mother, it drives home the point that everybody has a mother, everybody has a father,” GiaQuinta said. “It really was a tragedy. We just appreciate the fact we were able to work it out with the city.”

Police Chief Rusty York declined to comment on the outcome of the suit.

But, he said, the department closely examines every officer-involved shooting and this case was no different.

“We learned lessons on this incident as well,” he said. “I think that’s appropriate.”

rgreen@jg.net

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