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Family of man shot multiple times by Tulare police files wrongful-death claim

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Just under 20 seconds into a foot pursuit with Tulare police, 34-year-old Joel Villegas paused for less than a second as two pursuing officers issued a final verbal warning to drop a knife.

Villegas crossed a pair of railroad tracks along a gravelly path, turned toward law enforcement, then turned his back to them as he continued to flee in the direction of a gated back entrance to a lumber yard.

That’s when Tulare Officers Daniel Bradley and Adan Barragan fired multiple rounds into Villegas, mortally wounding the father of four, according to recently released body cam footage of the April 16 incident.

Those actions taken by officers, including medical care as Villegas lay dying, are part of a claim the family filed late last month against the city of Tulare, the Tulare Police Department and the individual officers.

The claim, which alleges wrongful death, negligence and a failure to summon medical assistance, among several accusations, will likely pave the way for a lawsuit over the killing. The claim does not cite a dollar amount but says damages will be “in an amount to be determined at trial.”

“He’s shot clearly in the back while he’s running away,” said Joshua Henderson, the lawyer who filed the claim on behalf of the family. “During the entire time of those 17 seconds, he’s trying to essentially get distance between him and the officers.”

A spokesperson for the Tulare Police Department did not respond to a request for more information but confirmed both officers had been placed on paid administrative leave while the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department investigates the incident.

Tulare police reported that they responded to a call regarding a male armed with a knife in the area of Bardsley Avenue and Vetter Street on April 16 at 3:15 p.m., according to a news release. The release said officers “made contact with the male and an officer involved shooting occurred.”

A body camera image shows an officer's hands raised with a gun as a man runs away.

An image from body camera shows the moment before two police officers fire on Tulare resident Joel Villegas, killing the 34-year-old, on April 16.

(Tulare Police)

Henderson said police told him a knife was recovered at the scene, but have not confirmed what type of blade Villegas was carrying. The emergency call is believed to have been prompted by a dispute inside Villegas’ sister’s house, according to Henderson.

Officers are seen in the video getting out of their car near a bend along I Street and West Bardsley Avenue and immediately yelling at Villegas to “drop the f— knife.” Villegas can be seen sprinting past a homeless encampment, tumbling and falling but getting back up and continuing to run.

Villegas is seen crossing railroad tracks as officers chase and continue to tell him to drop the knife.

Villegas is then shot and falls in a weed patch.

Henderson said he counted 13 rounds fired by the officers, “but wasn’t sure” of a total number.

The claim alleges the officers “were not in imminent harm during the foot chase and at the time of the shooting and used unreasonable and excessive force.”

Bradley can be seen shaking after firing on Villegas on the body cam footage. He called into police dispatch to ask for medical assistance while saying Villegas refused to show his hands. He then told dispatchers that Villegas “turned and was charging at us.”

“The officer’s statement is important because in my mind, it shows a consciousness of guilt because the officer knows he has to say something that would justify his actions,” Henderson said. “Thankfully we have video, otherwise his… statement would have been the evidence of what transpired.”

The officers dragged a moaning and still breathing Villegas into a flat dirt patch and cuffed him. It took about three minutes from the time Villegas was shot until an officer arrived with an emergency medical kit, according to body cam footage.

Villegas appears to stop breathing on the video as officers and then emergency medical technicians administer chest compressions. No official report has been released that shows a time of death.

A spokesperson from the sheriff’s department, which also provides coroner services for the county, did not respond to a call for comment. The department declined a request from The Times for any records, including any coroner’s reports, regarding the incident.

“This matter is still being evaluated by law enforcement and/or the district attorney’s office and disclosure of these records is reasonably expected to interfere with that process,” the sheriff’s statement read.

Villegas’ death certificate, written by Deputy Coroner Tomas Lopez, said that “the decedent suffered multiple gunshot wounds by the hands of a police officer pursuant to penal code 196(b),” which allows for justifiable homicide.

The California attorney general’s office confirmed that it is also conducting a simultaneous investigation that “remains ongoing,” according to a statement. No further comment was offered.

Henderson said Villegas’ widow, Delilah Villegas, was too “overwhelmed” to speak with The Times.

She issued a brief statement saying she “doesn’t know why the officers would do what they did. She fears they won’t be held responsible while her boys will never be able to speak to their dad again.”

The family has created an online fundraising site to pay for funeral expenses: https://gofund.me/50450d6e.

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