Lawsuit: 15-year-old boy was unarmed, running away when shot by Ceres officer

The Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department has said a 15-year-old boy was armed with a handgun when he got out of a Lexus sedan that had led police on a high-speed chase before a Ceres officer fatally shot him on a Saturday afternoon in August.

But a lawsuit filed Dec. 10 in federal court in Fresno on behalf of the teenager’s estate and his family claims the teen was not armed and was running into an orchard when the officer — without warning — shot the teen several times from behind. The teen had been a passenger in the car.

The wrongful-death and civil-rights lawsuit also accuses Ceres and its police department of “multiple past instances of excessive and unreasonable force by law enforcement officers under their command” and cites 10 federal lawsuits filed against the city and its officers in the last two decades as evidence of that.

Bee archives and court records show Ceres settled at least two of the lawsuits, one for $312,500 and another for $50,000. But it appears that in at least one instance, Ceres had a lawsuit dismissed. Some of the lawsuits are pending.

Authorities have identified the officer who shot the teenager as Ross Bays and the teenager as Carmen Spencer Mendez of Hughson. The shooting took place at about 3 p.m. on Aug. 18 after the Lexus stopped on Sperry Road just north of Service Road in a rural area between Denair and Hughson.

The shooting came after a pursuit that began several miles away in Ceres, with officers responding to reports of someone in the Lexus brandishing a gun in a Ceres park, and the car then being involved in a hit-and-run accident. Authorities have said there were two stolen guns in the Lexus besides the gun they say Mendez had.

Mendez’s estate and family are represented by the Sacramento-based Law Office of Mark E. Merin and Lodi-based Law Offices of A. Peter Rausch Jr.

Merin alleges that people who saw Mendez’s body in the morgue say he appeared to have been shot in the back, and people working in the vicinity of the shooting also witnessed the incident and gave the same account as the young people who remained inside the Lexus when Mendez got out and ran.

“The account is undisputed by everyone,” Merin said. “After a brief chase, the car was stopped, he ran into an orchard, and was shot from behind at least four times.”

Authorities have said Bays was by himself when he shot Mendez, but other officers soon arrived. The lawsuit alleges they were outraged by the shooting. “Other law enforcement officers at the scene reacted with anger to (the Ceres officer’s) unnecessary shooting,” according to the lawsuit.

Merin said the Ceres officer could have waited for other officers to arrive. He said officers could have set up a perimeter around the orchard and used nonlethal methods to capture Mendez.

Ceres City Manager Toby Wells said in an email in late December that city officials cannot comment on the allegations because the lawsuit has been filed. Wells said the lawsuit will be assigned to outside counsel through the risk management association the city belongs to. “Once we have the RMA attorney assigned,” Wells wrote, “then any communications would be through that office.”

Wells said Bays remains with the city, and Ceres has completed its internal investigation. Bays could not be reached for comment via two family members and did not respond to an email.

A law firm representing Ceres filed court documents Monday denying the the lawsuit’s account of the shooting and claimed Ceres police “acted in good faith, without malice, and within the scope of their duties.”

Bruce D. Praet with the Ferguson, Praet & Sherman law firm also wrote that “any force used was objectively reasonable under the totality of the individual officers at the time.”

Mendez’s father, Jorge Mendez Sr., referred questions to Merin and the other attorneys representing his son’s estate and the family.

The Sheriff’s Department is investigating the shooting and expects to forward its investigation to the district attorney’s office for review as soon as this week, said Sgt. Tom Letras, a department spokesman, on Monday. He said investigators are waiting for information from the state Department of Justice to complete the investigation, and that information is expected this week.

This was the second fatal shooting involving Ceres police in roughly a year. In October 2017, authorities have said Bays and Sgt. Darren Venn fired at a drunken driver who had led them on a high-speed pursuit and then drove at them in his pickup truck.

The district attorney’s office in September released a letter of its review of the fatal shooting of Modesto resident Nicholas Adam Pimentel saying it was justified and stating: “The shooting by Sgt. Venn and Off. Bays was in self defense and/or in the defense of others and to prevent the escape of a dangerous suspect.”

Pimentel’s family and his girlfriend in September filed a federal lawsuit against Ceres and are represented by Merin. The girlfriend — Maria Rivera — was in Pimentel’s pickup when the Ceres officers shot him. A family member and Rivera declined to comment.

“I’m so sorry,” Rivera said in a text message. “It’s very hard to be questioned about that night.”

The Bee asked Wells for the body camera footage from the Pimentel and Mendez incidents. He said Ceres would not release it at this time. “As an ongoing legal matter, the body camera and dash camera footage is evidence in both cases and will not be released until directed by the court,” Wells wrote in an email.

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.