Denver, CO

Denver to settle wrongful death lawsuit in mistaken identity shooting

David Heitz
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David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) The City and County of Denver will consider a resolution Monday to settle a lawsuit against the police department.

The litigation stems from police officers shooting and killing Steven Nguyen and injuring Rafael Landeros on March 19, 2018. Officers fired at a moving vehicle. Officers are not allowed to fire at a moving vehicle unless its occupants use deadly force.

The department suspended two officers, Austin Barela and Susan Mercado, for 90 days without pay for the shooting. The District Attorney's office later cleared them of any wrongdoing.

Barela and Mercado had been watching the girlfriend of Mauricio Venzor-Gonalez, a prisoner who escaped from custody at Denver Health, at her home in Aurora. When they thought they saw Venzor-Gonzalez leave the home in an SUV, they pursued the vehicle.

Officers fire at fleeing SUV

Police tried to stop the vehicle to no avail. Three officers discharged their weapons, striking Nguyen and Landeros.

According to the resolution, the city will pay $365,000 to the victims' families to satisfy "all claims related to Claim Number 2021-005614 brought by the estate of Steven Nguyen and Rafael Landeros arising from an incident which occurred on March 19, 2018, involving officers from the Denver Police Department."

Disbursements will be made to:

  • Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC, $25,000
  • Bryan and Terrill Law, PLLC, $25,000
  • Bryan and Terrill Law, PLLC, $191,944.11
  • Denver Probate Court, $183,005.89.

Before his escape, Venzor-Gonzalez had been in custody for the attempted first-degree murder of a Denver police officer. He had fired shots at a police officer trying to pursue him. "It was believed that Venzor-Gonazales' girlfriend, Samantha Adams, aided in his escape, so the efforts included conducting surveillance with the assistance of members of the Aurora Police Department at her home in Aurora," according to the disciplinary letter.

Venzor-Gonzalez was later apprehended. In 2019, he was convicted and sentenced to 32 years in prison for the attempted-murder case. He also pleaded guilty to felony charges of escape and possession of a weapon by a previous offender and was sentenced to four years in prison. That sentence will run consecutively to the 32-year sentence.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO

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