Stanislaus DA not charging Modesto officer who shot intoxicated man holding trailer hitch

Andy Alfaro/

No charges will be filed against the Modesto police officer who this summer fatally shot an intoxicated man who was holding a trailer hitch, Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager announced late Monday afternoon.

A news release from the District Attorney’s Office said the decision was made “after a thorough review of all the relevant evidence gathered during the investigation.” The release included a copy of a letter from the DA’s Office to Police Chief Brandon Gillespie.

The incident occurred July 14. Paul Chavez Jr., 30, was fatally shot by Officer Sam Muncy, a nine-year veteran of the Police Department, in the front yard of a house on the 1400 block of Entrada Way. Chavez’s father-in-law had called 911 to report Chavez was drunk and trying to break into the house. He called again to say Chavez had picked up the trailer hitch, according to police.

Officer Sergio Valencia also responded to the call. Modesto police released body camera footage of the incident. In the video, when the officers encounter Chavez, he is carrying the hitch and they tell him several times to put it down or he will be Tased.

He is Tased by Valencia and immediately pulls out the prongs as the officers continue to tell him to put the hitch down, to which he can be heard replying, “No.” The firing of the Taser comes 15 seconds after Chavez is told to drop the hitch.

The shooting, by Muncy, follows about six seconds later. Chavez remains standing for approximately 15 seconds and takes several steps toward the house before falling into bushes.

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Fladager’s letter to Gillespie recounts the events at the scene of the officer-involved shooting and includes what a “premise history check” revealed about prior interactions between Chavez and officers.

Those interactions include Chavez’s wife on June 17 reporting to police that he was drinking and threatening their children. “He threatened officers and had to be placed in a padded cell to prevent injuries,” the letter says.

It also says that on June 26, his wife called police to report that Chavez sent her a video of an attempt to hang himself. “When officers arrived, Chavez held a hatchet to his own neck telling officers to kill him.” He eventually surrendered and was placed under a 5150 hold for psychiatric evaluation.

Fladager’s letter concludes, “Common sense tells us that 15 feet is not a lot of distance between you and someone who means to do you harm. An average person can cover that distance in 1.5 seconds or less. Officer Valencia was even closer to Chavez than the 15-foot distance Chavez’s mother-in law estimated that she was. Distance/threat/reaction time is something all officers are trained in as part of their mandated “defensive tactics” by POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training). This is another factor in determining the reasonableness of the officers’ conduct in this case. Officer Muncy could not wait to see what would happen next. Chavez forced him to make a decision. Based on the law, it is clear that Officer Samuel Muncy and Officer Sergio Valencia were both performing their jobs as police officers when they attempted to contact Chavez. Chavez was armed, intoxicated and had threatened someone with harm — the officers couldn’t leave and come back later. They attempted to speak to Chavez, order Chavez to comply, use less-lethal force (the Taser) and yet he continued on his path. Officer Muncy used the only level of force left available to him at that point, and only fired as he believed was needed and then reassessed.”

Chavez’s widow, Brittoni Estrella, and the couple’s three children filed a federal lawsuit later in July alleging wrongful death, excessive force and other civil rights violations.

At the news conference to announce the lawsuit, Estrella said, “I can’t stop seeing what I saw: my husband being Tased, shot, looking at his bullet wound, how they wouldn’t let me be by his side to hold his hand, to lift his head … because he was still gasping for his life.”

In tears, she added, “Every time I tried to run to him, the cops screamed, ‘Back up.’ I said, ‘He needs me, let me be with him.’ Instead, the cop turned and yelled and looked at me as if I was going to be next.”

The Bee reached Estrella on Tuesday morning to seek comment, but she replied, “My remarks will be heard at tonight’s (city) council meeting.