Family says Billings police shooting 'not fair'

2014-04-15T19:15:00Z 2014-05-16T15:09:15Z Family says Billings police shooting 'not fair'By Nick Balatsos nbalatsos@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The family of Richard Ramirez says he was a hardworking, single father helping to raise a young son.

Ramirez, 38, has been identified as the man who died in an officer-involved shooting Monday night, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said.

Ramirez had been riding in a car with three other people in the area of Fifth Avenue South and State Avenue, St. John said during a press conference Tuesday morning at City Hall.

Police were looking for Ramirez as a suspect in a robbery in which a 61-year-old man had been shot in the arm Sunday. The victim in that shooting had identified Ramirez as the shooter.

At about 11 p.m. on Monday, the officer who had responded to the robbery Sunday was in the area of Fifth Avenue South and South 33rd Street when he spotted a car with Ramirez in the back seat and pulled it over in an alley.

The officer called dispatch, and police were sent to the scene.  

Then, without backup, the officer approached the vehicle from the right side and opened the door to talk with Ramirez, St. John said.

After ignoring the officer's commands not to move and to keep his hands in sight, St. John said Ramirez made a "downward-reaching movement."

"This movement resulted in the officer drawing his weapon and firing three rounds, striking Ramirez in the torso," St. John said.

What Ramirez was reaching for is unclear, and is under investigation, St. John said. No weapon was found on Ramirez, St. John said.

"The vehicle was impounded pending a search of the vehicle," St. John said. A warrant to search the vehicle will be obtained and executed Tuesday.

Family calls shooting 'not fair'

Ramirez had been in trouble with police in the past, mostly for drugs, his mother, Betty Ramirez, said Tuesday. But he wasn’t the type to carry a weapon, she said, struggling for words as she wept.

He wasn’t a troublemaker, she said. “He’s not violent like that.”

She said her son was scared of guns and said he was afraid to die.

“I know my son didn’t do nothing. He didn’t have no weapons, no guns, no nothing,” she said. “And they shot him in a vehicle, for God’s sake. That’s not fair."

Billings Police Lt. Kevin Iffland said he had reviewed video from a dashboard-mounted camera in the officer's patrol car and it showed the officer did not draw his gun until after Ramirez ignored the officer's orders.

Ramirez was treated at the scene and then taken to Billings Clinic, where he died. The name of the officer, who has been on the force for five years, has not been released because of threats against law enforcement over the shooting, St. John said.

The officer has been placed on leave, as is required in an officer-involved shooting. A coroner’s inquest will be held to investigate.

A search of court records indicates Ramirez has previous convictions for felony possession of dangerous drugs.

Betty Ramirez and her husband, Julio Ramirez, have eight children. The family said they have recently had a run of health problems.

“We don’t have any money to bury my son,” Betty said.

Betty had to bury another son, Julian Ramirez, in 1992, after he died in a car wreck. 

Ramirez's friend, Dustin Halberson, 22, claimed to be driving the vehicle. He said they were headed to a friend's house when a police officer pulled them over. 

He said the police officer went straight to Ramirez's window and opened the door.

"He was telling him to get out of the car or he would shoot. He didn’t give him a chance to do anything and then he shot him three times ... as fast as he could pull that trigger," Halberson said. 

Crystal Jones, 19, claimed she was in the passenger seat.

Richard Ramirez's father, Julio, said he and several family members went to Billings Clinic early Tuesday morning — around 1:30 a.m. — where Richard Ramirez was taken after he was shot. The family wanted to see the body.

“Richard was shot three times here,” Julio said, drawing his hand across his own belly. “We wanted to see Richard, to see his body.”

After gathering in the hospital’s emergency room, the family said they were met by police officers.

“They said, ‘No, you can’t see him,' ” Julio said. “They told us to leave. They said if we didn’t leave they would take us to jail.”

Brandon Higerada is a nephew of Richard Ramirez's and was with the family at the hospital.

He said he "flipped out," and when he threw a cup of coffee on the floor, he said a police officer threatened him with a stun gun.

With tensions escalating, the police department’s Iffland said “the entire shift” of available police officers was dispatched to the hospital.

“There were more cops there than if there had been a terrorist bombing or something,” Higareda said.

As of 8 p.m. Tuesday, the family said they still hadn't seen the body.

Previous officer-involved shootings

Ramirez's death marks the fifth officer-involved shooting in Billings in less than two years.

An inquest is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Wednesday in a fatal July 5 shooting by a Yellowstone County sheriff's deputy outside a Billings shopping center. In that case, Sheriff's Lt. Shane Skillen shot 42-year-old Dean Randolph Jess days after Jess escaped from the state prison in Deer Lodge. Jess was in a stolen vehicle and was shot during a standoff with law enforcement.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said he expects 11 people, including witnesses and Skillen, to testify at Wednesday's inquest, which will be held at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility. He said he hopes the inquest will finish by the end of Wednesday.

Since May 2012, there have been three other fatal shootings involving Billings police officers. Each was ruled to be justified during subsequent coroner's inquests.

An autopsy of Ramirez and search of the vehicle he was traveling in was planned for Tuesday. The results were not immediately disclosed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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