The 24-year-old man accused of fatally shooting North Kansas City police officer Daniel Vasquez in a July 2022 traffic stop could face death penalty charges, according to the Clay County Prosecutor’s Office.
The office has filed a request to seek the death penalty in the case against Joshua T. Rocha, 24, according to Clay County Prosecutor Zachary Thompson.
Rocha was previously charged in Clay County Court with first degree murder and armed criminal action following the officer’s death.
Vasquez, 32, was shot and killed on the morning of July 19 after pulling over a vehicle with an expired license plate. Authorities have said dash cam video and physical evidence from the scene showed a suspect shoot Vasquez as he approached, before exiting the vehicle and firing upon the officer again.
The killing set off a statewide manhunt as authorities sought the suspect vehicle.
Hours later Rocha walked into a Clay County government building and told a clerk he wished to surrender. The vehicle sought by police sat parked in the parking lot, with a weapon on the passenger seat described by Kansas City police as an assault-style rifle.
Rocha allegedly described being pulled over by Vasquez that morning, according to police interviews. The 24-year-old waited with a weapon in hand before fatally shooting Vasquez. When asked why he shot the officer, Rocha allegedly said he did not want to go to jail or have his car towed away.
During a police surveillance operation, Kansas City detectives knocked on the front door of a residence associated with Rocha and met a 47-year-old woman, who said she was Rocha’s mother.
She told police Rocha had returned to the residence the afternoon of the shooting and was “distraught,” a detective wrote in the search warrant application.
His mother recalled hearing Rocha say: “I really (expletive) up this time and I shot a police officer.” She told police Rocha was concerned about having a fully automatic assault rifle “that he made” and “that he couldn’t go to jail.”
She said her son left the house before police arrived after changing his clothes and had left his cellphone there.
She also told police Rocha “makes guns” at the house and that one of his firearms was inside, according to court papers. A Clay County judge granted permission for police to search the house and inside they reported finding a 3D printed handgun, a 3D printer, firearm parts, ammunition, two laptop computers, cellphones and a bullet fragment.
Firearms made with 3D printers are examples of privately-made weapons commonly known as “ghost guns” that often lack serial numbers and are difficult for authorities to trace.
Officer Daniel Francisco Vasquez
Hundreds of people gathered at Vineyard Church in Kansas City’s Northland to honor Officer Daniel Vasquez shortly after his death.
He was described as “shining star to all who crossed paths with him” and dedicated to his loved ones, including his two sisters, his family wrote.
He also loved working out. Many of Vasquez’s friends and colleagues gathered at a local gym to remember him.
Vasquez joined the North Kansas City Police Department in January 2021 as a recruit officer and was promoted to full officer after graduating from the KCPD Regional Police Academy in July 2021.
“Daniel was always smiling, joking around, and friendly to everyone,” his obituary reads. “He was a loving and supportive Uncle. He is best described as respectful, compassionate, dependable, and a protector to all that knew him.”
In a Tuesday news conference, Clay County Prosecutor Zachary Thompson announced the three main reasons his office decided to pursue the death penalty in the case against Rocha.
He referred to the fatal shooting as “outrageously or wantonly vile, inhuman and involving the depravity of mind.” Also, the shooting was perpetrated against a peace officer on duty, he said.
Thompson added that the crime was part of an alleged attempt by Rocha to avoid being arrested and held in custody.
No family or friends spoke during the news conference, although the Vasquez family and North Kansas City police officers were on hand for the announcement.
The prosecutor’s office has not pursued the death penalty for a defendant since 1994, about 28 years ago, Thompson said.
The next hearing in the case is scheduled for May 2.