Year after fatal shooting, pain remains

Widow files lawsuit against Metro

Rondha Gibson still owns the white 1991 Cadillac, although she can barely look at it.

The car, named "Baby Grace" after her granddaughter, was once the pride of her husband’s life. But now it’s stored away at a friend’s house, riddled with bullet holes, filled with broken glass and bloodstains.

Gulf War veteran Stanley LaVon Gibson, 43, died in the driver’s seat of that car one year ago today after a Las Vegas police officer shot him in the head with an AR-15 rifle.

His death prompted a federal investigation of the Metropolitan Police Department, sweeping changes to use-of-force policies and a grand jury review.

His death also led to the worst year of Rondha’s life – a tearful funeral, sleepless nights, eager lawyers, family strife and constant second-guessing.

Much has changed since the events of Dec. 12, 2011. Only the Cadillac remains the same.

MEMORIES OF FATEFUL DAY

"It’s hard to believe it’s been a year," Rondha Gibson said.

Scarcely a minute goes by without her mind traveling to that day. Could she have done anything more?

Stanley Gibson was confused and disoriented that morning at the Alondra apartments at 2451 N. Rainbow Blvd., near Smoke Ranch Road.

Officers went to the complex on a call about a prowler and used two patrol cars to box in Gibson’s car.

Thought to be suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder, Gibson was off his medications and acting erratically. In the days before the shooting, police had taken him to a hospital for a mental evaluation. He recently had moved to a nearby apartment complex, and in his last phone call to his wife, he said he couldn’t find his way home.

Gibson never threatened anyone and was not armed, but he refused to get out of the car. After a 30-minute standoff, police supervisors used a beanbag shotgun – a weapon designed to subdue but not kill – to shoot out at least one window so that they could toss in a chemical irritant to force him to open his door.

But something went wrong. When the shotgun was fired, officer Jesus Arevalo, a nine-year veteran of the department who was covering the car with his assault rifle, fired at least seven shots, killing Gibson.

HISTORY OF SHOOTINGS BY POLICE

Troubling in its own right, the killing came just days after publication of a Review-Journal investigation of police shootings that found Las Vegas police slow to change and reluctant to hold officers accountable after using deadly force. Gibson’s death and the newspaper’s investigation prompted the Nevada chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to call for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, which began in February.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie began an internal review. In July, he announced a new use-of-force policy intended to reduce shootings by de-escalating situations and emphasizing respect for human life.

Gillespie also made changes to the Use of Force Review Board, broadening the scope of a panel criticized for being a rubber stamp.

The Justice Department’s report, completed last month, confirmed the Review-Journal’s findings, also revealing inconsistent training, cumbersome policies and tactical errors related to police shootings.

Gillespie pledged to implement the suggestions and said many had already been put in place.

In 2010 and 2011, Las Vegas police had a combined 43 on-duty shootings. Las Vegas police killed a record 12 people in 2011. There have been 10 Las Vegas police shootings this year, four of which were fatal.

Critics say it’s impossible to know yet whether the changes will make a lasting difference.

"Until you actually see discipline and change from Metro you can’t say there’s been real reform," said Richard Boulware, vice president of the local NAACP.

PAINFUL AFTERMATH

Rondha Gibson doesn’t care about any of that. She only knows how painful life can be.

"It still feels like it was yesterday. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. Am I supposed to be mad? Angry?" she asked. "People are telling me to move on with my life, but I can’t move on. You can’t move on if you don’t have answers, and that’s all there is to it. Nothing has changed."

Stanley’s mother, Celestine Gibson, and his brother, Rudy, sued the police department in May.

Rondha hired her own lawyer. Her lawsuit would be filed either late Tuesday or early today, a symbolic gesture on the anniversary of Stanley’s death.

She said she doesn’t care whether she receives money from police. That won’t bring back her husband.

"Who cares about money? I don’t. That’s been my motto all along. I was struggling with Stan, I’m struggling now, and I’ll struggle without him," she said.

Rudy, a state veterans representative for Nevada Job Connect, acknowledged he hasn’t been as outspoken as Rondha. But he said his brother’s death has eaten away at him for months.

"I’ve spent the better part of a year struggling with (the fact) that I couldn’t help the most important veteran in my life – my brother," Rudy said. "It’s taken me a long time to come to grips with that and realize I did all I could for him."

He chose the anniversary of his brother’s death to make a written public statement: "I do not feel that Stan is at peace. There is so much controversy surrounding that night and I feel my family and I will never have all of the answers because Metro refuses to provide them."

‘JUSTICE DELAYED IS JUSTICE DENIED’

District Attorney Steve Wolfson has convened a grand jury to investigate the shooting, but no information has been made public, and it’s unclear whether he is seeking an indictment.

Rondha won’t feel at peace until she knows why Arevalo fired upon her husband that night. She believes a coroner’s inquest will be necessary and has campaigned for one.

In early 2011, county commissioners adopted changes that prompted police to file lawsuits alleging the inquests violated their due process rights. The process stalled in the court system and is being reworked by the commission.

"The Stanley Gibson shooting, if nothing else, reiterates the absolute need to actually do the coroner’s inquest the way the county commission had designed them to be back in 2010," said Allen Lichtenstein, Nevada ACLU general counsel.

In its place, Las Vegas police and the district attorney’s office began releasing internal reviews of police shootings. But neither agency has released any reports on Gibson’s death.

A Las Vegas police spokesman declined comment.

Boulware said Gibson’s death is proof that more changes are needed.

"The saddest thing is here we are, a year later, and progress is slow at best," he said. "Justice delayed is justice denied, as far as I’m concerned."

Rondha said the future feels bleak without her husband, whom she met in 2000 and married in 2003.

"Maybe I shouldn’t look at it that way, but I can’t help it. Nobody knows how much this has changed my life. I don’t like me, I don’t like who I am. I used to love the public," she said.

"Now I’m looking over my shoulder."

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.

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