Denver, CO – A man was shot and killed by police officers who opened fire on a moving vehicle because they believed it was being driven by a dangerous jail escapee they were attempting to capture.
Steven Nguyen, 27, was killed and Rafael Landeros, 23, was wounded after three Denver police officers began chasing the car they were driving and eventually fired several rounds into the vehicle after they claimed the men were not following orders and appeared to be searching for something in the car when they were ordered to show their hands.
The officers apparently believed they were chasing Mauricio Venzor-Gonzalez, 23, a jail inmate who escaped police custody during a medical transport. Police Commander Barb Archer told the Denver Post that police were additionally vigilant when encountering the man they believed was Venzor-Gonzalez because he had shot at police before.
“Officers knew that Venzor-Gonzalez had been arrested in November for attempting to kill a police officer,” Archer said. “They believed the actions being made inside the car were efforts to locate a weapon. So fearing for their safety the officers fired.”
While neither the man they killed nor the man they injured was the jail inmate they believed they were chasing, Archer insisted that “the shooting was justified because the officers reasonably believed they were pursuing Venzor-Gonzalez.”
The officers were conducting surveillance outside of a home when an SUV with two men inside left the house and circled the block. The officers claimed they believed the passenger was Venzor-Gonzalez, so they started following the car and when they pulled the car over, they ordered the occupants to show their hands.
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The officers were quick to open fire on the vehicle and when the bullets hit Nguyen, he lost control of the car and it lurched forward into an embankment. 9News reported that after the car had crashed, the officers said they “still saw movement in the vehicle that looked like the people inside were looking for something, so they fired again.”
The officers then approached the vehicle and removed Nguyen and Landeros from it. The men were then taken to the hospital where Nguyen died from his injuries. Despite the fact that Landeros was mistaken for a convict and injured by police, he was taken into police custody for outstanding warrants after he was released from the hospital.
Although it is unclear how many rounds the officers fired, and they have not publicly stated how many bullet wounds were sustained by Nguyen and Landeros, the car they were driving had at least 20 bullet holes.
While the Denver Police officers wasted their time chasing and killing the wrong man, Venzor-Gonzalez is still on the run. He was initially arrested after he was accused of kidnapping a woman and her daughter, and he engaged in a shootout with police.
“He’s a very dangerous individual,” Archer said. “He remains our top priority. The community isn’t safe with him out there.”
While Police Commander Barb Archer insisted that the officers were justified in firing more than 20 rounds into a car—killing one man and injuring another—because they believed it contained an escaped inmate, the Denver Police Department claims it is investigating the officers’ actions.
The department has refused to release the body camera footage and the officers responsible for the shooting have not been publicly identified. Archer confirmed that the officers have been placed on “desk duty” where they will continue to receive their taxpayer-funded salaries until the investigation is complete.