Video contradicts police in Texas boy’s shooting death, family says

Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott
Friends and family members of 13-year-old Andre Hernandez hold signs outside Millers Pond Park as they try to attract motorists to a food plate sale to raise money for Hernandez’s funeral on June 11, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.

The family of a 13-year-old San Antonio boy who was shot and killed by police earlier this month says body-camera footage of the incident contradicts the official account and they plan to bring a civil rights lawsuit against the city’s police department.

Andre “AJ” Hernandez Jr. was driving a car — which police later said was determined to have been stolen — with two other teens on June 3 when he encountered city police officers responding to reports of a shooting near the Southwest Side neighborhood where he lived.

San Antonio Police Sgt. Washington Moscoso said in a statement that officer Stephen Ramos shot the teen after he rammed the vehicle into a patrol car, putting Ramos’s fellow officer in danger. But Hernandez’s mother and an attorney representing her said video footage they saw showed a panicked boy who tried to maneuver the car and rolled forward slowly before hitting the police car.

Ramos “opens his door, gets out with his weapon drawn, and in a single motion shoots over his door into the vehicle and fires one time,” said attorney Lee Merritt, who is representing the boy’s mother, Lynda Espinoza. “The gunshot happens so quickly that there was no time for the officer to acquire a target.”

The boy then opened his door, put his hands up and collapsed to the ground, the attorney said. He was pronounced dead at the hospital minutes later, according to San Antonio police.

Police officials showed clips of the body-camera footage to Merritt and Espinoza on Monday, after the family reached out to local activists for help obtaining access to the video. Ramos, who has been with the department for three years, has been placed on administrative leave. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Merritt said in a news conference on Tuesday that family members met with the civil rights division of the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office and are expecting prosecutors to present the case against the officer to a grand jury soon.

“We anticipate that will result in an indictment,” Merritt said. The family is expected to file its federal civil rights lawsuit next week against Ramos and the San Antonio Police Department, alleging a pattern of abuse by the department and inappropriate training, he added.

Yet Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales said the case is still under investigation by police and has not been forwarded to his office. In a statement, he declined to comment on whether members of the office met with Merritt or Hernandez’s family. But he said the civil rights division reviews all police shootings to determine if “there is sufficient evidence to send the case to a trial court.”

San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said the police investigation is “active and ongoing” and would be provided to the district attorney’s office for an independent review.

“Of course without waiting for the facts, Mr. Merritt will say the shooting was not justified; he is advocating for his client,” he said. “We also expect any information shared publicly by Mr. Merritt concerning the video will be calculated to advance his perspective.”

San Antonio police have declined to answer specific questions about the shooting beyond details released in a statement from Moscoso days after the shooting. According to that statement, at around 1 a.m. on June 3 patrol officers were trying to stop the car Hernandez was driving when it “accelerated towards a marked SAPD patrol vehicle, crashing into the officer’s patrol vehicle.”

“A second officer, fearing that the other officer would be struck by the suspect vehicle, discharged his firearm and struck the suspect driver,” the statement said.

The police statement did not indicate whether the impact happened before or after the officer fired. But the family attorney said the events seemed simultaneous. Police officials did not respond to questions seeking clarification.

Police said they detained and later released a 16-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy who were also inside the car but were not injured. Investigators also said in the statement that the car involved had been stolen 12 days before but that no suspects in the theft had been identified.

Merritt, the family and police all acknowledge there was contact between the stolen vehicle and the patrol car. But the family and its lawyer questioned the intensity of that impact and the level of danger it posed.

Merritt said he viewed clips from three different body cameras that showed Hernandez was driving in the 5100 block of War Cloud Street and the interior lights of the car were on, allowing onlookers to see that children were inside. The 13-year-old then appeared to notice a patrol car coming toward him.

The boy reversed the car into a driveway and attempted to drive away, but a second police car cut him off, Merritt said the video showed. The bumper of Andre’s car hit the driver-side door of the patrol vehicle just as an officer tried to step out, he said, but he had time to retreat back inside before contact.

Merritt said the video showed Ramos firing a shot without warning from about five yards away while standing outside a separate police vehicle. The bullet went through the open driver-side window and struck the boy’s upper chest, he said.

“There was contact but this was not a deadly threat,” Merritt said. “It was a little boy behind the wheel. The threat was over before a single shot was fired.”

Espinoza, the boy’s mother, said her son had fallen in with bad influences while grieving the killing of his older sister two weeks earlier. Naveah Martinez, 16, was found shot to death in a car not far from the family’s home and near the same block where her brother was shot by police.

Hernandez ran away after Naveah was killed and was deeply affected by her death, she said. Five days passed before San Antonio police told her an officer was involved, the mother said. She first learned of police involvement from a local news story.

The mother of 10 said losing two children within weeks of each other has devastated her.

“I just buried a child and now my son is gone,” Espinoza said in an interview. “He was a little boy.”

Four children were removed from Espinoza’s home last week, state officials confirmed. They are in the custody of Texas Child Protective Services. Espinoza said the state agency had been in contact with her since her daughter’s slaying. Last week, officials served her with papers saying the concurrent deaths of her children while in the mother’s custody demonstrated negligence and possible danger to the others.

The mother and family members said none of her other children were present when Hernandez and Martinez were killed. She had moved her children from the family home and in with relatives after Naveah’s death because she feared the killer was on the loose, said Stephanie Martinez, the children’s aunt.

Ananda Tomas, executive director of the police reform organization ACT 4 SA, has been working with Espinoza and others whose relatives have been shot by police. Her organization has for years pressed local police to adopt reforms and increase accessibility to police body-camera footage quickly after an incident with contradictory narratives.

Espinoza and Martinez reached out to Tomas for help. “There was little to no damage and the car wasn’t moving fast,” Tomas said. “Since when do we value property over the life of a 13-year-old boy?”