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Sister of Cuero shooting victim: 'I couldn't save my own brother'

By Sonny Long
June 12, 2010 at 1:12 a.m.

Alfonso Villarreal was buried at Hillside Cemetery in Cuero on Tuesday after he was shot and killed by a Cuero Police officer on Thursday, June 3.

CUERO - Hours before Alfonso Villarreal was laid to rest on Tuesday, his mother stood in the partially open door of her Cuero home and spoke softly about her son's death.

"He would have never killed himself," Janie Villarreal said about the 19-year-old who was shot to death by a Cuero police officer June 3. "He believed in God and knows he wouldn't have a chance to go to heaven if he did that. The police took that chance away from him."

The teenager had threatened suicide and was armed with a pistol that he pointed at officers, according to a Cuero police news release the day after the shooting.

'TOLD NOT TO TALK'

Alfonso's sister, Bethany Villarreal, who made the 911 call that brought police to the house on Terrell Street, said she was in the room when her brother was shot.

She, too, stood in the home's doorway, slightly behind her mother. Also hesitant to talk, Villarreal nonetheless wanted to say some things about her brother.

"He was a good person," she said, her sad eyes looking up briefly. "He had a big heart. I called the police, but I didn't want them to shoot him."

Alfonso's obituary described him as liking to be home with his family, including spending time with his nieces and nephews. A swing set, bicycles and scattered toys in the home's front yard provide signs that the young children often played there.

Asked what happened that night, Bethany declined to answer.

Although both she and Alfonso's mother were interviewed by a San Antonio television station earlier in the week, Bethany said her father, Danny Villarreal, had hired an attorney and they had been given instructions not to discuss the shooting.

"We've been told not to talk about it anymore," she said.

TELEVISION INTERVIEW

In the interview with KABB-TV, Bethany said her brother never pointed the gun at police. Officers entered the house on Terrell Street after hearing what sounded like a disturbance coming from inside.

An officer fired his gun twice, according to a news release from the police department.

"I just want people to know he never raised that gun to the officer. They never gave him a chance to put down the gun. They never talked to him, never tried to negotiate," Bethany told the television station. "All I wanted was help. I never wanted them to come and kill my brother."

Bethany also told the television reporter that her brother had the gun that night because of a family argument earlier in the day and he was "really mad."

She also said Alfonso was bipolar and it was "one of those moments."

"I'm a nurse and I see people die all the time, and I save people all the time," Bethany said in the interview. "I couldn't save my own brother. That's something I'll not ever be able to get rid of."

VETERAN OFFICER

Cuero patrol officer Jeff Thompson will also have to live with the death of Alfonso Villarreal the rest of his life.

Thompson shot Alfonso that night, said the Texas Rangers who are investigating the shooting at the request of the Cuero Police Department.

Alfonso was armed with a semi-automatic handgun, said Tom Vinger, Department of Public Safety spokesman.

Thompson is a 15-year law enforcement veteran who has been with the Cuero department about two years, said Cuero Police Chief Chris Hernandez.

He also worked previously with the Victoria County Sheriff's Office and as a reserve officer for the Yorktown Police Department.

Thompson has accepted Officer of the Year awards in the Victoria County Sheriff's Office in 2005 and in the Cuero Police Department in 2009.

In 2010, he has to accept the consequences of his deadly actions.

Officers involved in shooting deaths can experience post-traumatic symptoms, including hypervigilance, fear, anger, sleeplessness, recurrent nightmares and depression, according to the Police Policy Studies Council.

KILLED BY POLICE

Incidents like the one in Cuero are not infrequent.

Department of Justice statistics indicate deaths at the hands of police officers nationwide have averaged about 300 a year during the past several years, almost one a day.

In 1999, the National Lawyer's Guild published the second edition of "Stolen Lives: Killed By Law Enforcement" documenting more than 2,000 people who died at the hands of police between 1990 and 1998 (this figure included deaths while in custody such as lockup or jail).

Although the Guild did not compile the list for this purpose, it appears that a majority of the cases described involve people with psychiatric disabilities, according to the Center for Public Representation, a public interest law firm dedicated to serving individuals with disabilities.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with psychiatric disabilities are four times as likely to die in encounters with the police as members of the general population.

DEALING WITH SUICIDAL SUBJECTS

Recent changes in state laws regarding treatment of mentally ill individuals have increased the likelihood that law enforcement officers will encounter more of these incidents in the future.

The lack of adequate community-based services leaves both the mentally ill and law enforcement vulnerable, according to the council.

The Victoria Police Academy, where many area law enforcement officers receive their training, provides basic level instruction for officer candidates.

"Over the course of 18 weeks, our students receive a lot of different training," said James Martinez, academy director. "They do receive some training on dealing with the mentally ill as well as basic patrol response to domestic disturbances and subjects with a gun."

There is little data collected on a national level about police killing and injuries of people with psychiatric disabilities. This problem springs from the larger failure to gather data on a national basis about police killings and injuries of civilians, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center.

Lane Johnson, director of clinical services at Victoria's Gulf Bend Center, said dealing with suicide "is a very scary thing."

"It's a decision that can't be taken back," Johnson said. "No. 1, the best thing is to keep the person talking. Feel free to connect with them. Spend time, listen, empathize. Connect like a caring person."

Johnson said that if a person says they are thinking about suicide, in many cases they "don't want to do it."

"Typically, they want to stop struggling, not necessarily stop living. They want other options," he said. "Connect to them like a person, not like a counselor or a doctor. Talk to them about resources for help, phone numbers, family members, a support system. More times than not, that's all that is required."

WHAT'S NEXT?

Alfonso's father, Danny Villarreal, has indeed hired a lawyer, although he won't say who or anything else about his son's death.

Asked if legal action against the city and Thompson would be forthcoming, Villarreal said he would let his lawyer do the talking.

"My attorney will speak to you when the time comes," he said. "He ordered me not to talk. He will prepare a statement when the time comes."

Vinger said the Texas Rangers, who are routinely asked to investigate cases involving law enforcement shootings, are continuing their investigation and will soon turn their findings over to DeWitt County District Attorney Michael Sheppard.

Although he has not seen any details of the case yet and would not comment specifically on it, Sheppard did say the case will likely go to a grand jury.

"I would want a grand jury to look at any use of deadly force by a police officer," said the DA.

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