Trying (and failing) to make sense of the death of Alexander Gonzales

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On Jan. 14 the Austin Police Dept submitted the “custodial death report” to the Texas Attorney General’s office about the death on Jan. 5 of Alexander Gonzales, who was killed after a bizarre, late-night confrontation with an off-duty officer.

Understandably, much of the scrutiny of this case by the media and activists has focused on the on-duty officer who showed up after the initial confrontation and fired the fatal shots. But I think it’s equally important to scrutinize the story told by the off-duty officer who admits to firing on Gonzales’ car –– apparently wounding Gonzales and his girlfriend –– before calling 911. There are many parts of the story that are hard to believe and there is one potentially significant difference between APD’s initial report and the one that it submitted to the AG yesterday.

Both the initial report and yesterday’s report say the unidentified off-duty officer was “driving in a neighborhood” and “noticed there was a car behind him” after turning onto the 2500 block of Wickersham Ln, where he was driving southbound. It doesn’t say what street he was turning from. That probably means he was turning off E. Oltorf:

Next, it says this:

“This car cut the officer off and once it pulled up along side his vehicle, the officer saw the driver point a gun at him. The officer fired at the suspect, and the vehicle continued to travel a short distance southbound on Wickersham Lane where it finally stopped against the curb. The officer stopped behind the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 to advise of the situation.”

Time out. He “cut the officer off”? Usually that expression refers to someone switching lanes in front of you. Wickersham has no marked lanes. Here’s what the street looks like:

Next, it says this:

“This car cut the officer off and once it pulled up along side his vehicle, the officer saw the driver point a gun at him. The officer fired at the suspect, and the vehicle continued to travel a short distance southbound on Wickersham Lane where it finally stopped against the curb. The officer stopped behind the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 to advise of the situation.”

Time out. He “cut the officer off”? Usually that expression refers to someone switching lanes in front of you. Wickersham has no marked lanes. Here’s what the street looks like:

If Gonzales did try to cut in front of the officer, it would almost certainly mean that he drove into the left side of the street to pass the officer on his left.

That means that if Gonzales, who was driving, was pointing a gun at the officer, he was pointing it over his girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat, and threatening to fire through the passenger window.

In the report submitted to the AG’s office, there is no longer any talk of “cutting off.” This time, it just says this:

“This car pulled up alongside his vehicle, the officer saw the driver point a gun at him.”

It’s important to note that this is taking place at 12:30 a.m. There are street lights on Wickersham; I don’t know how easy it would have been in that environment to discern a driver in another vehicle pointing a gun. It doesn’t state whether Gonzales was pointing through an open window.

Both reports follow with this description of what follows:

“The officer fired at the suspect, and the vehicle continued to travel a short distance southbound on Wickersham Lane where it finally stopped against the curb. The officer stopped behind the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 to advise of the situation.”

Neither report describes how the officer fired. Was he firing into Gonzales’ car when it was next to him? Or was he firing through the back of the car after it had pulled in front of him?

Another unanswered question: how long was Gonzales alongside the officer’s car? And how did the officer so quickly pull out his own gun and fire? Did he pull it out of a holster? The glove box?

Finally we get to the issue of motive. Why prompted Gonzales to point a gun at the off-duty officer with his girlfriend and child in the car? This was initially framed as a road rage incident, but nothing in either report hints at what might have provoked the rage. The only way I can understand the actions attributed to Gonzales is if he was having a severe mental health crisis, such as a schizophrenic episode. That’s certainly possible.

Another possible theory is that Gonzales knew who was driving the car and was intentionally threatening or attempting to kill the off-duty officer. Or that he mistook the off-duty officer for someone else who he wanted to threaten or kill. Both are possible.

If the incident actually took place the way it is presented in the reports, then there is substantial context missing for no good reason.

I am awaiting a response from APD about whether the off-duty officer was tested for drugs or alcohol after the incident. That’s one of many questions APD must answer about this story. Others include:

Did the off-duty officer know Gonzales, either personally or through prior interactions as an officer?

Where was the officer coming from that night? Was he coming from a restaurant or bar where he may have been drinking and if so, do credit card records indicate whether he had recently purchased drinks?

There is reason to believe that answers will emerge to these questions more quickly than in past officer-involved shootings. Travis County’s new district attorney, Jose Garza, has made it a priority to investigate police shootings — including the deaths of Mike Ramos and Javier Rambler — and both Gonzales’ parents and his girlfriend are being represented by experienced local attorneys.

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