A specially appointed prosecutor has reached a determination in the case regarding the police-involved shooting of a Garden City man in October, and no charges will be pressed against the officers involved.
The determination was released late Sunday night by Haskell County Attorney Lynn Koehn, who was appointed by the Finney County Attorney’s Office to review materials provided by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and determine if Master Patrol Officer Roger Montez of the Garden City Police Department and Patrol Corp. Eric Rojas of the Finney County Sheriff’s Office were criminally liable for shooting and killing 29-year-old Cristino Umana-Garcia in Finney County.
The sheriff’s office responded on Oct. 5 to a report of a suspicious person in the remote sandhills area southwest of Garden City, about 10 miles west of U.S. Highway 83. When deputies contacted the man, who they later identified as Umana-Garcia, they found his vehicle stuck in the mud. Deputies described Umana-Garcia as hostile and armed with a knife.
Additional details collected by the KBI factored into the determination released by Koehn late Sunday night.
“After a thorough review of all reports from the KBI as well as all available video footage in the case, I have decided not to file criminal charges against Roger Montez or Eric Rojas,” Koehn wrote. “Corporal Eric Rojas was justified in using deadly force to defend himself; and Officer Roger Montez was justified in using deadly force to protect Eric Rojas.”
Quoting Kansas statute, Koehn noted that state law allows a person to use deadly force “when and to the extent it appears to [the] person… that such use of force is necessary to defend” himself or another person against another’s “imminent use of unlawful force.”
Kansas law, Koehn said, also provides justification and immunity from prosecution for use of deadly force when a person “reasonably believes… deadly force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” to himself or another.
Koehn included a detailed summary of events documented by state law enforcement agencies in his written determination.
He said reports indicated that the GCPD had probable cause to arrest Umana-Garcia on an allegation of felony criminal threat related to an incident that occurred at approximately 4:30 a.m. that morning in Garden City. During that investigation, Koehn wrote, officers learned that Umana-Garcia possessed a handgun and “likely had it in his possession that morning.”
Later that day, at 11:28 a.m., Finney County dispatch was advised of a suspicious vehicle in rural southwest Finney County, Koehn wrote. The vehicle’s license plate indicated that it belonged to Umana-Garcia. Dispatch reportedly informed responding deputies that Umana-Garcia was possibly armed with a handgun and that the GCPD had probable cause to arrest him for the alleged felony criminal threat incident.
When officers arrived at the scene, Koehn wrote, they observed Umana-Garcia in his vehicle. He reportedly had a knife and had used it to cut his neck and his wrist. He also reportedly challenged officers numerous times to shoot him.
Officers attempted to talk Umana-Garcia down and de-escalate the situation, Koehn wrote, and they did not restrict Umana-Garcia’s movements. Meanwhile, Umana-Garcia reportedly got in and out of his vehicle and used his cellphone as officers tried to reason with him from what was considered a safe distance at the time.
Koehn wrote that Umana-Garcia eventually covered his windshield with a visor before exiting his vehicle with a jacket on backwards while keeping his hands hidden from officers. He then reportedly asked officers if they were “ready for this.”
When the officers issued loud verbal commands for Umana-Garcia to stop and show his hands, he reportedly ran toward Rojas with arms covered while extending one arm in Rojas’ direction, which officers described as a “shooting motion,” Koehn wrote.
At approximately 12:43 p.m., Montez and Rojas both reportedly responded by shooting Umana-Garcia with a sidearm weapon and a secondary duty rifle, respectively. When the shots were fired, the distance between Umana-Garcia and Rojas was reportedly less than 20 feet, and Montez was approximately 25 meters away from Umana-Garcia.
“All available evidence suggests that both officers reasonably believed, based upon the circumstances, that Corporal Rojas was in a position of ‘imminent death or great bodily harm,’” Koehn wrote. “Both reasonably believed that Umana’s verbal statements, and his charging motion with an upraised arm, showed his intent to cause Corporal Rojas’s death or great bodily harm.”
He added that both officers believed Umana-Garcia possessed a gun — based on prior information gleaned from the incident that allegedly occurred earlier that morning — but found a knife in the hand that had been hidden from law enforcement after he was shot and killed.
Koehn said Umana-Garcia’s possession of a knife, and not a firearm, is not relevant to the legal determination that use of deadly force was warranted.
“The justifiability of deadly force must be determined from the moment the force is used, based upon the actions of a ‘reasonable person’ in those circumstances, and hindsight cannot be a factor,” Koehn wrote, adding that Umana-Garcia’s hidden hands prevented officers from seeing what kind of weapon he possessed and negated their reasonable ability to use non-lethal force.
“The loss of human life in any sudden situation is tragic — life is precious,” Koehn wrote. “However, our laws allow for situations where the taking of a human life is justified. I know that this is of no comfort to the family and friends of the deceased. Words cannot take away the remorse that those officers have felt and will continue to experience. But to feel remorseful for an act does not negate the necessity of that act: rather, it adds humanity to that act.”
Monica Lucero, Umana-Garcia's sister, said she and the rest of her family members are "devastated" by the news that no charges will be pressed.
Lucero said she had talked to Umana-Garcia on the phone while he was cutting himself and again when he was confronted by police. She says she had called 911 to ask for help, never expecting what would happen.
Now, Lucero is intent on getting justice for her brother. She says that because she was on the phone with Umana-Garcia at the time of the incident, she has identified discrepancies in the version of events given by local authorities. She has retained legal counsel in Mark T. Schoenhofer, a Wichita attorney, and intends to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the county and city.
"It's not over," Lucero said. "It has just begun."
GCPD Chief Michael Utz issued a statement of condolence to the family of Umana-Garcia.
“First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Cristino Umana-Garcia and others involved,” Utz said.
He added that the GCPD’s internal investigation has been completed and found that Montez committed no violation of federal or state law, city policy or GCPD regulations.
Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue said in January that Rojas was returned to regular duty in late November after the conclusion of the department’s internal investigation.
Montez has been on restricted duty since mid-December. GCPD Capt. Randy Ralston said in January that the GCPD would evaluate Montez’s role at the department when the case concludes.
Contact Mark Minton at firstname.lastname@example.org