A coroner’s jury ruled Friday two Las Vegas police officers were justified in shooting to death a Las Vegas man who answered his door with a gun drawn.
The panel deliberated about 50 minutes before finding unanimously in favor of officers Gary Casper, 28, and Cindy Rodriguez, 25, who, on Nov. 2, responded to a disturbance call at the Sunrise Pointe Mobile Home Community, 4800 E. Cheyenne Ave.
Casper said he had no choice but to fire three shots into the chest of Chuck Walthers, 44, when Walthers opened his door with a handgun pointed directly at Casper’s waist.
"I felt something was coming my way to do me harm," Casper testified about stomping sounds and a slamming noise coming from inside the mobile home after he knocked. "If I had not taken action, I don’t believe I’d be sitting here today."
The call began, Casper said, when he and Rodriguez arrived in separate patrol cars to respond to a report about threats Walthers and his girlfriend, Wendy Crabtree, reportedly made to a neighbor.
Casper said the neighbor, Patty Simmons, reported to him that Walthers told her to "watch your back," and that he could "be very looney."
The couple, Simmons testified, were angry with her because they believed she was responsible for reporting to authorities welfare violations on Crabtree’s part. She said Walthers told her in the confrontation he was her worst nightmare.
With the threats in mind, Casper said, he knocked several times on a wall of Walthers’ mobile home, receiving no response. The five-year Metro officer said he then knocked on the door and, a few seconds later, heard the stomping of feet and the sound of a door or a drawer slamming shut.
Casper said within seconds, Walthers flung the door wide open, and he immediately saw "a blue steel automatic pistol pointed at my waist area.
"There was no time for a verbal command," Casper said, adding he was five to eight feet from Walthers when he began firing.
Casper said in the past he had used his gun to defuse other potentially life-threatening situations because he had options available that were absent in the Walthers case.
Rodriguez, in tearful testimony, said she shot toward the mobile home after she heard the gunshots. She said she believed it was Casper who was being shot, and she fired her weapon twice just to the right of him.
The rookie officer, who was working her first day of regular patrol duty, described hearing the same commotion inside the mobile home.
"I felt we were in danger, that this wasn’t normal," she said.
Several witnesses addressed the issue of whether the officers should have identified themselves.
Crabtree testified she and Walthers were in a back bedroom and she hollered, "Who is it?" after the first knocks. No response was given, she said, stating the couple surmised it might have been Crabtree’s ex-boyfriend at the door.
She said Walthers was struggling to put on his pants while approaching the doorway, but she did not see the fatal altercation.
Casper said he didn’t identify himself because of the "highly volatile" nature of disturbance calls. He said it is not department policy to make an identification unless the purpose is to serve a search warrant and forcibly enter.
Training officer Joseph Gemma said if police officers announce their presence in such calls, they give up a tactical advantage because the person behind the door, if he is armed, gets the chance to ascertain an officer’s whereabouts.
Walthers had a single bullet chambered in his .22 caliber pistol.
Officers are trained to decide within a half-second, Gemma said, whether an assailant has the ability and opportunity to attack, whether they are in imminent danger, and whether they have options besides firing.
If they can’t make that decision in the half-second, he said, "they are likely to lose."
Richard Whitaker, an FBI supervisory agent, testified 55 police officers have been killed across the country in 1991 and of those, 13 were the result of domestic disturbance calls.
Crabtree said she and Walthers had two shots of Jack Daniel’s bourbon and a few beers before the incident. She described herself as "a little tipsy," but said Walthers was OK because he could hold his liquor.
Walthers’ blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.22 percent, more than twice the legal limit for drivers.
After the verdict, relatives of Walthers were upset, saying Casper acted too hastily and the whole situation could have been avoided if the officers had identified themselves.
Coroner’s inquests are held in Clark County any time an individual dies at the hands of police. Inquest verdicts are not binding on the district attorney.