Surviving families lack support to handle grief after fatal shootings


To better understand what loved ones experience in the wake of a police shooting, the Review-Journal interviewed several families of those killed in the Las Vegas Valley since 1990.

Some of the incidents were controversial. Others weren't.

Some survivors fault police. Others believe the police had no choice.

Many spoke of a stigma, a widespread belief that anyone killed by police was a bad person who deserved it.

Some carry the added trauma of having themselves started the deadly chain of events by calling police for help.

All struggle with grief long after the events fade from the headlines.


At the inquest into the death of John Hampton Haines, Las Vegas police officer Jeremy Landers explained why six cops fired 21 rounds at the troubled man: He had one gun in his hand and another to his head as he walked toward his family's home.

 "If Mr. Haines got into that residence, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have taken the life of his wife, possibly his child, and himself," Landers said. "In my heart, I know that's what would have happened if we hadn't reacted the way we did."

Another officer, Christopher Sjoblom, said he had gone over the events of that February night in 2009 "hundreds if not thousands of times" in his own mind before concluding he and other officers had no choice but to use deadly force.

Haines, 30, suffered bipolar disorder and was under the influence of alcohol and prescription methadone when he died. Police arrived at the house at 7712 Golden Talon Ave. that night in response to a domestic disturbance call from his wife, who became concerned when he refused to put his guns down.

For Sarah Haines, who remembers details right down to the type of weapon each officer fired, the circumstances of her husband's death are far less clear-cut. He was behaving erratically, but she didn't consider him a danger to himself or anyone else. As a police helicopter flew low overhead, he repeatedly screamed her name, she believes, because he was confused and simply wanted to see her.

"He wasn't a violent person," she said in an interview. "He just wanted them to leave him alone."

Coping with the death of her husband was hard enough, but the version of events described in news stories and at inquest compounded her pain: Police killed her husband to protect her and her son. Truth is, no one knows what might have happened if Haines had reached his house that night.

The Clark County coroner's inquest jury unanimously ruled the shooting justified, and the officers returned to work. If troubled by the incident, they could seek counseling at department expense.

For Sarah Haines there was nowhere to turn. In the context of a justified police shooting, neither she nor her late husband are crime victims. There are no support groups for families with this kind of grief.

Regardless of what was said after his death, nobody can tell Sarah Haines her husband wasn't a good man. He lived many more nights than his last.

The obituary she wrote summed up how she will remember him: "John was a loving husband to Sarah and father to Logan. ... He could have the worst day. Logan (would) run up and say 'Dada' and a smile would appear. He loved that boy more than words can express."

'I JUST WANT TO DIE'

If the memory of her 15-year-old son Tanner holding a knife near her throat isn't traumatic enough, Evie Oquendo will always live with the sight of Las Vegas police officer Derek Colling shooting him in the head.

Tanner Chamberlain was the youngest subject of a fatal police shooting in the Las Vegas Valley since 1990.

Oquendo told police after the incident that her son suffered bipolar disorder and experienced extreme mood swings. He hadn't taken his medication that day in September 2009.

At the inquest, Colling explained his decision to shoot Chamberlain.

"I did what had to be done," he said. "He placed me — he placed all of us — in that situation."

Oquendo was too distraught to attend the inquest. Other families go, seeking some kind of closure.

She couldn't function for months after the incident. Even simple tasks became difficult, and she was hospitalized, being fed through a tube. She summoned the resolve to live, but that doesn't mean her life will ever be the same.

"I'm not going to commit suicide, but I just want to die," Oquendo said. "That's all I look forward to, is being with my son."

Oquendo, who earlier this year filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Las Vegas police, tries to fill the void in her life by continuing to buy her son Christmas gifts and his favorite foods.

She also has become involved in community activism, especially on police-related issues. She attended the coroner's inquests into the 2010 shootings of Trevon Cole and Erik Scott, and she has researched police methods for dealing with mentally ill people.

'IT WASN'T NECESSARY'

Nearly five years after she saw her husband shot and killed by Las Vegas police, Nacina Ariza still can't sleep.

"You don't get over something like this," she said. "You think the pain will go away, but it doesn't. You go crazy in the head."

On New Year's Day 2007, Ivan Guajardo Ariza, 37, was holding a butcher knife at his apartment complex on North Rainbow Boulevard when officers arrived in response to Nacina's 911 call. Police later said her husband made an aggressive motion toward them with the knife, prompting four officers to shoot.

The full extent of her grief hadn't set in when Nacina Ariza appeared at the inquest. She testified that she felt police had acted appropriately.

The inquest jury was less sure.

Ivan Ariza's death was unanimously ruled excusable, a finding more often used when a cop unintentionally kills and a sign the jurors questioned if deadly force was justified.

As the months and years passed, Nacina Ariza changed her opinion of the incident: "It wasn't necessary. I know (police) have to shoot people sometimes, but this time it was a mistake."

'HOW COULD WE BLAME THEM?'

Not all families react with anger when police kill a loved one.

Kathy and Larry Gaddis mourned when their son, Jeffrey, was killed by Las Vegas police in January 2005, but they felt officers had little choice.

Jeffrey Gaddis, once an honors student at Chaparral High School, was addicted to painkillers. He told his parents he wanted to die, and that if he couldn't kill himself he would make police do it for him.

On the night he died, the 28-year-old was caught stealing from a drugstore. After a car chase, he pulled a gun and was shot eight times.

At the inquest where his death was ruled justified, Kathy Gaddis spoke to the three officers, David Brian Dilullo, David Garris, and Sean Malia, who shot her son. They had tears in their eyes, she said. The mother hugged them.

"Knowing what (Jeffrey) said to us, how could we blame them?" Kathy Gaddis said. "They're owed an apology, because he put them in that position, and it's terrible to do that to them."

In the place of anger, there is only sorrow. The Gaddis family maintains an online guestbook they use to communicate with Jeffrey. Earlier this year, his father wrote, "it has been 6 years & it hasn't really gotten any easier. I so hope you are with everyone we have lost in recent years. We love & miss you so much."


Review-Journal reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report. Alan Maimon is a Review-Journal special correspondent.

 

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