Vancouver police officer on trial in wrongful death suit

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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A Vancouver police officer is one of two former Fresno Police Department officers on trial this week in a federal wrongful death lawsuit in the California city for shooting a man to death in March 2009 in the parking lot of an apartment complex.

The lawsuit, filed by the parents of Stephen Willis, 23, accuses Greg Catton of Vancouver and Daniel Astacio of the Fresno area of shooting Willis without identifying themselves as police officers and without warning him.

Following an investigation, the former officers were cleared of any wrongdoing. Both left the Fresno Police Department after the incident but are not allowed to say whether they were fired or resigned, according to the Fresno Bee newspaper. The Vancouver Police Department hired Catton in September, and department leadership was aware of the pending litigation against him, said Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp. He is on leave without pay during the trial, Kapp said.

The former Fresno officers’ defense has been that Catton told Willis he was a police officer. Then, Willis pulled a handgun from a holster and fired a shot at Catton, prompting Astacio, and then Catton, to open fire. However, during testimony in the trial, their accounts of the event have differed, according to the Fresno Bee.

Catton on Monday testified that Willis hadn’t fired at him before Astacio shot Willis, but Willis was pulling the gun from its holster, the newspaper reported. Astacio testified last week that he fired at Willis after Willis pointed that gun at Catton and fired it, according to the newspaper.

Fired 35 times

On the night of March 28, 2009, Willis and his girlfriend returned home to his apartment complex in Fresno and parked in the parking lot. The plaintiffs, Chris and Mary Willis, allege that Willis’ girlfriend ran inside to use the toilet, according to court documents. Meanwhile, Willis went to the trunk of his vehicle to remove his belongings, including a firearm in its case. He had used the firearm at a firing range earlier in the day.

Without warning or identifying themselves, the officers fired 35 times at Willis until he was dead and riddled with 14 bullets, according to the plaintiffs.

Catton and Astacio testified that just prior to the confrontation with Willis, they and other officers were investigating a gang disturbance outside of the apartment complex when a black car struck a gate to the complex, according to the Fresno Bee. Catton and Astacio said they volunteered to investigate, the newspaper reported.

According to the newspaper, Catton testified that he walked up to Willis, shined a spotlight on his body and said, “ ‘Fresno police, can we talk to you?’ ”

Catton said he saw Willis holding a holster in his left hand and ordered him to drop the gun, the newspaper reported. But Willis reportedly grabbed the handgun and began to draw it from the holster. That’s when Astacio began shooting at Willis, the newspaper reported. Catton followed suit.

In July 2011, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill dismissed the lawsuit because he said Catton and Astacio used reasonable force.

That decision was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco earlier this year. The Court of Appeals ordered that Catton and Astacio stand trial because of disputed facts about whether the officers properly identified themselves and who shot first.

The trial began Dec. 4 in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara McAuliffe in U.S. District Court in Fresno. It’s expected to last for about another week.