A federal jury in California on Tuesday awarded $1.5 million to the parents of a 23-year-old man shot to death in March 2009 by two former Fresno Police Department officers, including one who is now a Vancouver police officer.
The jury found that Stephen Willis was 80 percent at fault for his death, while former Fresno police Officer Greg Catton of Vancouver was 20 percent at fault for Willis’ death. They found that the other former officer, Daniel Astacio, now a security guard in the Fresno area, was not at fault in Willis’ death.
The verdict means that Willis’ parents, Chris and Mary Willis, will receive just $300,000 of the $1.5 million award in their wrongful death lawsuit.
In their complaint, the parents accused Catton and Astacio of shooting Willis to death in the parking lot of a Fresno apartment complex without identifying themselves as police officers.
Following an investigation, the former officers were cleared of 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 was on leave without pay during the trial, Kapp said.
On Wednesday, Kapp said the verdict will not affect Catton’s employment with the VPD.
The former Fresno officers’ defense was that Catton did, in fact, tell Willis that 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 differed, the Fresno Bee reported.
Catton testified last week 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. 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 about who shot first.
The trial began Dec. 4 in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara McAuliffe in U.S. District Court in Fresno.