Updated April 17, 2021 - 2:04 pm
For nearly a year, the Metropolitan Police Department maintained that Jorge Gomez, an armed Black Lives Matter protester, raised one of his guns at a group of officers during a demonstration in downtown Las Vegas.
His actions, the department has said, prompted four police officers in the area to fire a combined 19 rounds, killing Gomez. He was 25.
But on Friday, Metro Detective Jason Leavitt, who led the investigation into the officers’ deadly force, revealed in testimony during a public review of the shooting that detectives have been unable to locate any videos to support that narrative.
“You can’t find videos of something that never happened,” Gomez’s mother, Jeanne Llera, later told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The only video evidence available in the case is footage captured by surveillance cameras and witnesses. The officers who opened fire — Ryan Fryman, Dan Emerton, Vernon Ferguson and Andrew Locher — were not wearing body cameras.
“When you watched the video evidence in this case, did you see Mr. Gomez level a weapon?” Josh Tomsheck, the ombudsman appointed to represent the interests of Gomez’s family and the public, asked the detective.
“I did not,” Leavitt said.
The audience erupted in applause.
Tomsheck continued: “Do you agree with me that, from the evidence, there is not a clear depiction of him raising the weapon?”
“I would agree with that,” Leavitt responded.
Formal decision to come
In the coming weeks, Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson will make a final decision regarding the prosecution of the four officers.
But Gomez’s parents and police accountability activists said Friday they have little faith in Wolfson to bring charges against the officers, who initially were placed on paid leave after the shooting but have since returned to duty.
“I already know the DA wasn’t going to press charges since the first moment I spoke with him in July,” Gomez’s mother said.
Friday’s case review — formally known as a fact-finding review — was scheduled after the district attorney’s office made a “preliminary determination” last month that the shooting was justified. It marked the 86th review held in Clark County since the process was adopted in 2013.
In the near decade that the fact-finding review has been in place, not a single preliminary determination has been overturned following a review, and only one officer in that time has been charged in connection with a police killing.
The review, which was held inside the Clark County Commission chambers, also came amid the murder trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a white man, in the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.
Floyd’s death set in motion a wave of protests against police brutality and racism around the country, including in Nevada.
Gomez participated in several local demonstrations before he was killed on June 1, the third straight night of major protests in Las Vegas, outside the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse in downtown.
That evening, Gomez had a Glock 19 handgun holstered on his hip and a Glock 23 pistol, nestled into a carbine conversion kit, slung over his shoulder. A third weapon, which Metro said had been converted into a short-barreled rifle, later was found in his backpack.
Neither Gomez’s parents nor their counsel have denied that he was armed.
Rodolfo Gonzalez, one of the family’s attorneys, has said that Gomez was wearing a ballistics vest and was in compliance with Nevada’s open carry laws that evening when “he was exercising his Second Amendment right to bear arms.”
But in his testimony Friday, Leavitt, the investigating officer, said Gomez would have faced charges of carrying a concealed weapon without a permit and unlawful possession of a short-barreled rifle had he survived the shooting. Those charges, according to Leavitt, stem from the weapon concealed in his backpack.
In addition, Leavitt said, Gomez would have faced four counts of assault with a deadly weapon on a protected person — because the four officers who shot him claimed Gomez leveled a weapon at police.
Gomez’s parents have said that he was trying to get to his vehicle, parked a block away from the courthouse, when he encountered Metro officer John Squeo, who was among a group of officers stationed on the steps of the courthouse.
According to Leavitt’s testimony, Squeo instructed Gomez to stay away from a set of barriers set up around the courthouse steps.
“What barriers?” Gomez apparently responded.
Squeo then fired non-lethal beanbag rounds at Gomez, around the same time officers Fryman, Emerton, Vernon and Locher happened to be driving past the courthouse.
Shot eight times, Gomez was dead within seconds.
The missing red truck
Absent from the review were firsthand accounts of the shooting from the four involved officers, because the district attorney’s office does not have subpoena power in fact-finding reviews.
Instead, Leavitt, the investigating officer, provided several hours of testimony, including extensive background information on Gomez. That type of information is not commonly presented in fact-finding reviews.
Leavitt spoke about a prior marijuana-related arrest, Gomez’s claims about an upcoming “revolution” in social media posts and text messages he sent to his father prior to the shooting.
Scoffing at the detective’s testimony, one of the police accountability activists in the audience said, “They’re putting the victim on trial.”
Gonzalez, part of a team of attorneys retained by the Gomez family, later said of the presentation: “They dragged Jorge Gomez’s name through the mud. They spent 95 percent of the time talking bad about Jorge Gomez, things that were irrelevant.”
And despite nearly four hours of questioning, little new information was released Friday.
The only previously unreleased video shown during the review was footage captured several days after the shooting, outside the law offices of Edgar Flores and Gonzalez, who have been retained by the Gomez family. Flores is a Nevada assemblyman.
According to Leavitt, in the days following the shooting, detectives were unable to locate the red pickup truck that Gomez had driven on June 1 to downtown Las Vegas. The truck belonged to his father.
Leavitt said the family and its team of attorneys knew police were searching for the vehicle for further evidence collection. But Steve Jimenez, part of the family’s legal team, later disputed this claim in a brief interview with the Review-Journal.
“We were not made aware,” he said.
On June 6, five days after the shooting, a patrol officer found the pickup truck parked outside the attorneys’ law offices, according to Leavitt, who said investigators determined that the attorneys had it towed from downtown to their offices a day earlier.
The video presented on Friday showed a man, identified by Leavitt as Gomez’s father, removing a black garbage bag from the red truck.
“No idea what was in the bag,” Leavitt said, adding that, by the time police had located and reviewed the videos from the law offices, investigators were unable to interview the father because he had retained counsel.
Jimenez said the bag contained “work items.”
“Everything in that truck was mine, because it was my truck,” the father told the Review-Journal. “I gave him permission to use it. I gave him the keys.”
‘Keep up the fight’
Due to capacity restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, only 50 people were allowed inside the commission chambers for the review.
So as testimony unfolded Friday, dozens of protesters rallied outside in the parking lot — their goal to put pressure on the district attorney’s office to pursue charges in the case. Many of them wore black T-shirts labeled with a clear demand: “Justice for Jorge Gomez.”
Throughout the review, the protesters could be heard from inside the chambers, their voices echoing in the large room.
In unison, they chanted: “Arrest the officers who killed Jorge Gomez!”
“We’re not going to let up,” said one of the protesters, 20-year-old Kianna Grant. “We’re definitely going to keep up the fight.”
The fact-finding review concluded just before noon. The process retraumatized a family that is still grieving.
“I have never watched the videos. I can’t,” Gomez’s father, Jorge Sr., said after the review. He sat inside the chambers during the presentation but mostly kept his head down as he sobbed into his hands. “I want to remember my son as the man he was, not him bleeding on the ground.”
Gomez’s parents suspect they never will find closure in their son’s death. Instead, they will continue to channel their grief into action.
Llera, Gomez’s mother, implored the community on Friday to voice its support for two bills currently in the Nevada Legislature — Assembly Bill 131, which would require all police officers to wear body cameras, and Assembly Bill 133, which would require officers to undergo mandatory training related to interactions with people who openly carry firearms.