Ex-Long Beach school safety officer to stand trial on murder charge
A former Long Beach Unified School District safety officer was ordered Wednesday to stand trial on a murder charge stemming from an 18- year-old woman’s fatal shooting near a high school last year.
Eddie Gonzalez — who was fired by the district about a week after shooting Manuela “Mona” Rodriguez in the head Sept. 27 as she sat inside a moving car — was charged a month later with her killing. He pleaded not guilty at a Dec. 8 hearing.
Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Lowenthal rejected defense attorney Michael Schwartz’s request to reduce the charge to manslaughter or to lower Gonzalez’s $2 million bail, citing “the senselessness of this act.”
Gonzalez has remained jailed since his arrest Oct. 27 by Long Beach police detectives in Orange. He is due back in a Long Beach courtroom Feb. 3 for arraignment.
Following a nearly daylong hearing, the judge said it was “simply a tragic and heartbreaking case” primarily for the family and friends of Rodriguez, but also to the community of the nearby Millikan High School and the family and friends of the defendant, whom he said “didn’t set out to kill someone on that day.”
The judge said there was “no evidence at any point, though, that he (Gonzalez) actually was afraid of the car” and “didn’t dive away from the car” as it moved, despite the defendant’s statement to a Long Beach police detective soon afterward that he had feared that the vehicle was going to strike him after he ordered the vehicle’s occupants to stop near Spring Street and Palo Verde Avenue.
The judge called a video of the shooting “very clear” and “powerful.”
Gonzalez — who relayed that he wanted to be a “positive influence” for school children — told police shortly after the shooting that he had come upon a fight in the street between Rodriguez and a female student from Millikan High School and that he asked the two to sit down after breaking up the altercation but that Rodriguez fled to the nearby car, according to Long Beach police Detective Donald Collier.
“He said, `Why did he have to try to run me over?”‘ the detective said of his interview with Gonzalez shortly after the shooting. “He stated he was not struck by the car.”
Rodriguez was struck once in the back of the head and was on life support until Oct. 5. Her family’s lawyer said her heart, lungs, liver and both kidneys were donated that day, saving the lives of five people.
The young woman, who was the mother of an infant son, was in the front passenger seat of a car that was being driven away from the scene of the altercation.
Deputy District Attorney Saeed Teymouri called it a case of “second-degree murder,” telling the judge that Gonzalez was “in no danger.” The prosecutor argued that he believed the school safety officer had acted “out of anger” and not fear — an accusation that Gonzalez’s attorney said was “utterly ridiculous.”
Gonzalez’s attorney countered that the vehicle’s driver decided to go forward rather than stopping as the school safety officer demanded, and that his client feared for his life. Schwartz said that the events involved in a “very unique set of circumstances,” and that Gonzalez was not a threat to the community.
Then-Long Beach Police Department Chief Robert Luna, who has since retired, said last year that detectives determined the school safety officer was driving on patrol when he saw a physical altercation between Rodriguez and a 15-year-old girl occurring in the lanes of traffic.
Rodriguez was accompanied by a 20-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy “whose level of participation is still under investigation,” the police chief said then.
When Rodriguez, the man and the boy attempted to flee in a four-door sedan, the school safety officer approached the car and discharged his weapon as the driver began driving away, Luna said.
“Mona was in the front passenger seat of the vehicle and was struck by the gunfire,” Luna said.
One bullet went through the rear passenger window, with the other striking just below the door handle of the rear passenger door, and two casings were found, Long Beach police Detective Ethan Shear testified during the hearing.
The woman’s boyfriend, Rafeul Chowdhury, who was driving the Infiniti, told police that they were in the area of Millikan High School to purchase a pair of baby shoes that were being sold through an online site and that Rodriguez got out of the car when she saw the teenage girl with whom she had been involved in an online dispute following a fight between the teen and someone Rodriguez knew, according to Shear.
The detective testified that Chowdhury told police that the school safety officer threatened to pepper-spray his girlfriend and the teenager if they didn’t stop fighting, and that he “basically panicked” and began screaming for help upon realizing that Rodriguez had been shot as he tried to drive away from Gonzalez.
The teenage girl who had been involved in the altercation with Rodriguez told police that a phone had fallen from her pocket and had been taken but was placed on the ground before the group got into the vehicle, and that there had been threats made toward her, according to Collier.
Chowdhury’s younger brother told police that the group had followed the girl from the high school, Collier said.
A motorist who was stopped at a light nearby subsequently called police to report that he believed Gonzalez had been in danger of being struck by the car, with its tires heard screeching in the video.
The teenage girl involved in the confrontation told police that she believed the vehicle had almost run the school safety officer over after he ordered the car’s occupants to stop, Collier said.
At a news conference the day Gonzalez was charged with murder, Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon lauded the Long Beach Police Department for conducting a “very complex investigation in record time.”
Along with reviewing video footage, investigators also canvassed the area and interviewed witnesses, according to Luna.
The former chief — who was succeeded by his one-time assistant chief, Wally Hebeish — said the highly publicized shooting “really impacted our community heavily,” and called the ensuing investigation and criminal case “just a step in trying to bring some closure to this very unfortunate and impactful incident not only to our city, but the family, the Rodriguez family.”
Shortly after the announcement that the former school safety officer had been charged, one of the woman’s brothers, Oscar Rodriguez, told reporters that it was the “first step of justice and hopefully our healing process.”
“I’ve waited a long time for something that is pretty obvious, but I guess this is how the justice system works,” he said.
In a letter sent earlier to Gascon that urged charges against the officer, an attorney for the woman’s family wrote that “various videos of the incident were captured by bystanders showing Officer Gonzalez taking reckless action when he shot into a moving vehicle and gravely injured” the woman.
“This officer had no justification to use deadly force against Ms. Rodriguez because Ms. Rodriguez did not pose an imminent threat to the officer when she was shot by the officer,” attorney Luis Carrillo wrote in the letter to Gascon.
“The actions of this officer constitute a serious violation of state and federal constitutional rights. The unjustified use of deadly force by this officer also meet the threshold for criminal charges against the officer for murder or for manslaughter.”
On Oct. 6, the school district announced that Gonzalez had violated district policies on use of force and had been fired.
“After our internal review, we clearly saw areas where the employee violated district policy and did not meet our standards and expectations,” LBUSD Superintendent Jill Baker said.
“We believe the decision to terminate this officer’s employment is warranted, justified and quite frankly, the right thing to do.
“The use-of-force policy used by our school safety office states officers shall not fire at a fleeing person, shall not fire at a moving vehicle and shall not fire through a vehicle window unless circumstances clearly warrant the use of a firearm as a final means of defense. Again, based on our review, we believe our internal policy was violated.”
It is unclear whether Gonzalez is the first school safety officer to be charged with murder. Gascon said prosecutors were not able to find any other school safety officers who had faced a murder count, but added, “That’s not to say that it hasn’t occurred before.”