Police shot a pregnant California teen – but with no video, the case dried up

As smartphone videos sparked a national debate about police brutality, Elena Mondragon’s death went largely unnoticed

Elena Mondragon, 16, was shot and killed by police after leaving a swimming pool with friends. She was unarmed.
Elena Mondragon, 16, was shot and killed by police after leaving a swimming pool with friends. She was unarmed. Photograph: Courtesy of family

The undercover officers were dressed in plain clothes and armed with AR-15 rifles when they ambushed the car of teenagers. As the car’s driver attempted to speed away – he later said he thought they were being robbed – two of the policemen fired at the vehicle, missing the driver and striking Elena Mondragon, a 16-year-old girl in the passenger seat, killing her.

The killing of Mondragon – who was pregnant and unarmed – was as shocking and tragic as many of the fatal police shootings that have sparked viral hashtags, national protests and widespread media coverage in recent years. But her death in March last year in Hayward, California, barely made headlines outside local news.

That’s largely because no one recorded the incident on a smartphone. Likewise, none of the officers present turned on the body cameras they were wearing. As a result, law enforcement’s narrative – that the shooting was necessary as they tried to arrest the driver – has largely prevailed. The policemen were cleared and sent back to work.

The case offers a window into how families alleging police brutality struggle to get justice or mainstream support without video evidence, even when many facts of the killing are undisputed and disturbing.

“When there’s no video, that’s a battle for us,” said Melissa Nold, an Oakland attorney whose civil rights law office filed a federal lawsuit against police on Wednesday on behalf of Mondragon’s family. “People just tend to believe what is reported by the police. The public just takes it at face value, and it just sort of disappears.”

Police said officers were attempting to arrest a 19-year-old named Rico Tiger, who was wanted for several armed robberies and was driving the vehicle, which had been reported stolen. A group of officers had been surveilling the teenagers and had planned to arrest Tiger by blocking his car before they drove off, prosecutors said. But the plan failed, and Tiger drove off before police confronted him.

They tried to stop and arrest Tiger, and Sgt Jeremy Miskella and Detective Joel Hernandez of the Fremont police department eventually fired at the vehicle as it accelerated away.

“This is standard procedure. You do not shoot into a moving car,” said John Burris, an attorney for the family, speaking to a row of local television cameras in a small office conference room. About two dozen relatives sat by his side, many sobbing and holding each other, wearing shirts that said “Ebbie”, Mondragon’s nickname.

“It is unconscionable,” said Burris. “What has happened here is a cover-up for that botched police work.”

Although it is widely accepted that officers should not fire into fleeing vehicles, the officers claimed to investigators that they feared the car could kill one of them. The local prosecutor accepted this argument and ruled that the killing of Mondragon, who was not a suspect in the police investigation, was justified.

The Alameda county district attorney’s office has charged Tiger in the murder of the 16-year-old girl – despite the fact that he told investigators he was driving away because he “got scared” and thought the undercover officers were trying to rob them. He said he would have stopped and complied had he known that they were officers. (The officers said they had announced that they were police while pointing their rifles at Tiger.)

The exact sequence of events and commands will forever remain unknown, since the officers chose not to turn on their cameras, even though they had been preparing for the arrest prior to the confrontation.

But even without video, Mondragon’s grieving relatives said it should be obvious that police made a series of egregious errors.

“We’re not getting the justice we deserve,” said Christina Flores, Mondragon’s aunt. “She was taken from us. It was so preventable. It never should have happened.”

A protest in El Cajon, California, following the fatal police shooting of Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man, in 2016.
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A protest in El Cajon, California, following the fatal police shooting of Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man, in 2016. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

The family’s press conference took place just two miles from the Fruitvale station where an unarmed young black man named Oscar Grant was killed by an officer in 2009. It was one of the first in a wave of high-profile killings of black men by US police that was caught on a cellphone camera, sparking major protests. Many well-known cases of police killings since then have received international attention only after footage went viral, including Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Elena Mondragon’s name never trended widely on social media. Her family said they were grateful for the support they’ve received, but her uncle, Miguel Minjares, said he didn’t understand why the killing of a young girl did not get as much coverage as other stories.

“It’s surprising it hasn’t gotten more attention,” he told the Guardian, as his family gathered to head to a vigil for the first anniversary of Mondragon’s death.

Earlier, he told reporters that the family wanted to use the platform they were given to fight for police reforms, and wanted to remind the public that they were still suffering as much as they were the day she died.

“We are sitting here broken-hearted. We will never be the same,” he said.

The prosecutor’s office declined to comment. A Fremont police spokeswoman, Geneva Bosques, said the officers “were found to be within policy” and have “returned to full duty in their same positions”.

The department, she added, has made no policy changes since Mondragon’s death.

I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information. Thomasine, Sweden

Sam Levin, , “Police shot a pregnant California teen – but with no video, the case dried up”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/15/elena-mondragon-police-shooting-california-no-video

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