The family of a Modesto woman who who brandished a BB gun and was shot to death by an off-duty sheriff's detective filed a civil lawsuit in court Friday, alleging the former officer, the sheriff, Stanislaus County and three other defendants are responsible.
Rita Elias, 31, died Sept. 24, 2010, after former Detective Kari Abbey, 34, shot her multiple times during an argument in front of a small duplex apartment on Donald Street in west Modesto.
Elias was staying at the duplex, which was owned and managed by Abbey and her parents. Authorities have said Abbey was trying to unlawfully evict Elias from the home, when a fight ensued and gunfire erupted.
The lawsuit alleges Abbey and other sheriff's detectives were acting as law enforcement officials conducting property management activities for the financial benefit of Abbey and her parents.
Sheriff Adam Christianson and the county allegedly knew or should have known this was happening, according to the lawsuit. The sheriff declined to comment about the allegations.
"While this is a tragic case for everyone involved, it's not appropriate to discuss this case," Christianson said Friday afternoon.
Abbey's parents, James and Denise Abbey, and property manager Jose Flores also are listed as defendants. The Abbeys and Flores could not be reached for comment Friday.
The lawsuit also alleges Christianson tried to cover up the "the unjustified shooting" and "to fabricate a false story that portrayed Kari Abbey as defending her life and the life of her minor child from the acts of Rita A. Elias."
The court document indicates Christianson provided this alleged false story about the shooting to the news media and investigators.
Several days after the shooting, Christianson announced Abbey "acted in self-defense." He said then that the preliminary investigation indicated that Elias threatened Abbey with a .177-caliber Crosman BB gun, a "realistic-looking" replica gun that resembles a semiautomatic handgun.
In the several months after the shooting, Abbey returned to her duties as a detective at the Sheriff's Department, where she had worked for more than six years.
On May 2, Abbey was arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter in Elias' death. Her attorney said then she had been fired from the department on the same day.
The former detective also has been charged with conspiracy, embezzlement, cultivating marijuana, receiving stolen property and child endangerment.
Abbey's criminal case still is pending. Tuesday, a judge scheduled Abbey to appear for a preliminary hearing Dec. 6, when the judge will determine whether there's enough evidence to proceed to a criminal trial.
The civil lawsuit alleges the county and Christianson are responsible for Elias' death because Christianson knew that Abbey "lacked the skill, training, intelligence, control and knowledge" to work as a detective.
"We have information that Abbey was acting under the color of authority and evicting people," said Modesto attorney Lawrence Niermeyer, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Elias' family. "We have information that the sheriff knew about it and failed to do anything."
The lawsuit also alleges Abbey was promoted to detective at the insistence of Christianson and remained in that position with his continued approval.
Elias was intimidated, terrorized and threatened with physical harm, the lawsuit alleges, by the owners and managers of the duplex. After assaulting Elias, Abbey shot Elias at least five times, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit indicates the plaintiffs are seeking damages and the costs of litigation; however, the amount will be determined in trial.
The lawsuit was filed at the Stanislaus County Superior Court. Last spring, Niermeyer filed a claim with the county on behalf of Elias' family seeking damages. The county rejected the claim April 8.
Niermeyer filed the civil lawsuit on behalf of Elias' 8-year-old daughter Angelina Elias, the girl's father Eric Cruz and Elias' father Luis Elias.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.