RENO — Reno police officers likely saved many lives when they fatally shot a potentially homicidal California man who drove a mini-van into the middle of a chicken wing festival on a crowded downtown street last Fourth of July weekend, the Washoe County district attorney said Thursday.
“A tragedy was prevented,” Chris Hicks said, calling the officers heroes as he released a 26-page summary of the investigation into the killing of Raul Saavedra-Vargas of Morgan Hill.
One officer jumped into the van after the suspect had been shot four times in the chest and was able to slam the vehicle into park just as it crashed into a vendor’s booth while more than 100 people dove for cover, Hicks said.
Several witnesses compared the chaotic scene on a hot Sunday afternoon to the killing of six people when a woman deliberately drove her car onto a downtown Reno sidewalk on Thanksgiving Day 1980, the report said.
“The heroic and disciplined actions of the involved officers cannot be overstated nor can the public threat presented by Saavedra be denied,” Hicks said. “The officers’ actions were undoubtedly justifiable.”
Officer Marshall Eason fired a total of six shots, four that struck and eventually killed Saavedra-Vargos, the report said.
Saavedra-Vargos, who is referred to in the report as Saavedra, has a long criminal history, including evading a police officer and at least three DUI convictions, Hicks said.
The investigation led by the Washoe County sheriff’s office with assistance from Sparks police determined Saavedra had been in an argument with his girlfriend the night before and she told him she was going to fly back home to California.
He was driving her minivan on July 3 when he first struck another car while driving the wrong direction on a one-way street and fled a motorcycle officer. That officer alerted others that the suspect was heading for Virginia Street, where thousands had gathered for the chicken wing cook-off.
Officers patrolling the festival soon encountered the “unhinged, potentially homicidal and highly intoxicated” suspect, the report said.
Eason ordered him to stop, but he swerved toward the officer and nearby bystanders. Eason fired his gun at Saavedra, but he barreled past a barrier onto the closed North Virginia Street toward the festivalgoers, the report said.
“Chaos ensued. People began to scream and attempt to flee the area,” said the report, which included surveillance video of people “falling to the ground and being stepped on.”
Eason and Officer Bryan Schuster chased the van into the crowd. Eason managed to get next to the passenger-side window and again order Saavedra to stop. But Saavedra revved the engine and drove on, so Eason fired additional shots.
Schuster didn’t shoot, the report said, partly because he was concerned he’d be firing toward the crowd on the other side of the vehicle.
But Eason fired a final time, and Schuster “was able to open the passenger door, jump into the van and slam the car into park just as it crashed into a vendor’s booth,” the report said.
Numerous witnesses said they feared for their lives. Several of them referenced the 1980 incident involving Priscilla Ford, who was the only woman on Nevada’s death row when she died in 2005.
Witnesses estimated Saavedra was driving 70 mph or faster when he ran through the barrier on the closed street.
“The gist of their statements involved a genuine fear that Saavedra was trying to rundown citizens,” Hicks said, adding that several witnesses “commended the actions of the officers as heroic, life-saving and necessary.”