Jury finds police shooting of 15-year-old justifiable

Las Vegas police officer Derek Colling faced a packed courtroom today and stoically explained his decision to shoot a 15-year-old boy in the head on Sept. 29.

Colling said the boy, who suffered from a mental disorder, left him with no other choice when he held a knife to his mother’s throat and ignored commands to drop the weapon.

“I did what had to be done,” the officer testified at a coroner’s inquest. “He placed me, he placed all of us in that situation.”

Seven jurors agreed and unanimously ruled the shooting justifiable.

Jury forewoman Cynthia Fuller said Colling convinced the jury that he believed the woman’s life was in danger.

“Any twitch and she could have been murdered,” Fuller said. “He had a shot and he took it. He’s just lucky nobody else got hurt.”

Tanner Chamberlain, a Chaparral High School student, died at the scene.

Jurors heard two hours of testimony, primarily from police officers, during the inquest. They also saw a 10-second video of the shooting and heard a recorded statement the boy’s mother, Evie Oquendo, gave police shortly after the incident.

Oquendo, 49, has criticized the officer’s actions since the shooting but did not attend the inquest. When contacted by telephone today, Oquendo said she “couldn’t handle going” to the hearing but had been informed of the verdict.

“I’m sick over it because there’s no way my son would have hurt me,” she said before declining to comment further.

During her emotional police interview after the shooting, Oquendo said she and her son had moved into the Sunridge Apartment Homes at 4855 Vegas Valley Drive a week earlier.

Oquendo, a dealer at the Bellagio, said her son had stayed home from school the day of the shooting because he had been up all night. She said he suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition marked by extreme mood swings, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but refused to take the medication he had been prescribed.

“He hasn’t had an episode since probably since May,” she said.

She said her son had never hit her before, but “today he just really lost it.”

Oquendo said she came home around 4 p.m., and her son helped her with the groceries before she told him to do his homework. He became enraged when she told him he could not go to a friend’s house.

“He choked me, and he punched me in the head, and he kicked me in the stomach,” Oquendo said.

The woman said she called her sister, who called police. The sister, Suzanne Oquendo, attended the inquest but declined to comment on it.

Evie Oquendo said her son, who had a collection of “Ninja knives,” refused to let go of a knife he was holding during their confrontation. The woman, who also suffers from bipolar disorder, said her son took some of her anti-anxiety medication during the incident.

She recalled telling police not to shoot her son as he held the knife to her throat outside their apartment.

“It was over in split seconds,” the mother said.

Evie Oquendo said her son was scared and did not want to die.

Police found a folding knife with a 3 1/2-inch blade near Chamberlain’s body. They also found other knives scattered throughout the apartment, which had been trashed.

Officer Manuel San Martin, who arrived at the scene with Colling, activated a video camera on his Taser when he pulled out the electroshock weapon during the confrontation with Chamberlain.

The video shows a woman being pulled backward by another person amid frantic shouting. San Martin can be heard yelling, “Calm down. Calm down.”

“He didn’t react,” the officer told jurors.

A gunshot is then heard, and the person holding the woman falls to the ground.

San Martin testified that the woman’s son was using her as a shield, preventing the officer from shooting the boy with his Taser.

Colling said he drew his gun when the boy put his knife to the woman’s neck. The officer said he heard the mother tell police not to shoot, but that did not change his perception of the danger she faced.

“I thought for certain that he was either going to stab her in the neck or slash her throat,” Colling testified.

The officer said he took advantage of the opportunity to end the situation when the woman lost her footing and slipped down, giving him a shot at the boy’s head.

“Any other shot than the shot that I took would not have stopped the threat,” Colling testified.

Fuller, a 45-year-old sonographer, recalled reading a newspaper article about the shooting shortly after it happened.

“I initially thought that something else could have been done, but now, after having sat through it, I think that nothing else could have been done,” the jury forewoman said.

Fuller has two sons. She also has a father and five brothers with backgrounds in law enforcement.

“It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” she said.

Fuller said everyone on the jury “wished that there had been more time available to the officers to maybe come to a more peaceful ending.”

The jury’s five men and two women deliberated over the lunch hour before returning with their decision.

“Without the video, I don’t know if we could have come to such a quick verdict,” Fuller said.

Colling, who joined the Metropolitan Police Department four years ago, was involved in another fatal shooting in July 2006. He was one of five officers who fired 29 rounds at a domestic violence suspect outside a convenience store.

Police said the suspect, 43-year-old Shawn Collins, pulled a revolver from his back pocket after being confronted. A coroner’s jury determined the officers’ actions were justifiable.