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Family hopes rare inquest order yields answers about Andrés Guardado's killing by sheriff's deputy

"The veil of secrecy must be lifted," said Adam Shea, the Guardado family attorney. It's the first inquest the county is conducting in 30 years.
Relatives of Andres Guardado, who was fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy in Gardena, hold a rally
Jennifer Guardado, sister of Andres Guardado, who was fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy in Gardena, Calif., embraces relatives as they speak at a rally seeking justice on June 28, 2020, in Gardena.Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, file

The parents of Andrés Guardado say they have been waiting for more than five months to get answers on their son's fatal shooting involving two sheriff's deputies.

Now, they may be getting some.

Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas said in a statement Tuesday that he appointed former Court of Appeals Justice Candace Cooper to conduct an independent inquest beginning Nov. 30 into the circumstances, manner and cause of death of Guardado. This will be the first inquest held in Los Angeles County in more than 30 years, he said.

Guardado, 18, was shot five times in the back June 18 while working as a security guard at an auto body shop in Gardena, California. The deputies involved in his killing have been identified as Deputies Miguel Vega, who opened fire, and Chris Hernandez, who didn't shoot. Both are deputies at the sheriff's station in Compton, which is part of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Deputies allegedly saw Guardado with a gun on the day of the shooting. Guardado then ran away and deputies chased him into an alley in the back of a building where he was killed, Capt. Kent Wegener, head of the homicide bureau, said at a news conference in June. While a 40-caliber semiautomatic pistol that hadn't been fired was found at the scene, authorities are unable to clarify whether Guardado ever aimed the gun at deputies.

Investigators have said there is no video of the shooting because deputies had no body cameras; they said a program to provide the cameras had been stalled for years. They also said deputies were unable to find video footage of the shooting from surrounding businesses.

"The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has failed to be transparent in its investigation into the circumstances, manner and cause of Andres' death," Adam Shea, an attorney for the Guardado family, said in a statement Wednesday. "The Guardado family remains diligent in seeking justice for Andres and hopeful that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department will change its course of conduct for this independent investigation by formal inquest. The veil of secrecy must be lifted."

Lucas made Guardado's autopsy findings public in July, a few days after a private autopsy made public by Guardado’s family reached the same conclusion, that he was shot five times in the back. His decision to release the autopsy came despite Sheriff Alex Villanueva's efforts to place a “security hold” on the case and block the autopsy's release.

Villanueva’s handling of the investigation and attempts to block information from being released are among a long list of criticisms he has faced over the past several months, leading the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to narrowly approve a motion Tuesday to explore options that could lead to his removal from office, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Villanueva told NBC News in a statement that he "is committed to transparency" and welcomed the news of the inquest, saying the "process can be beneficial in bringing to light facts to the public."

"We welcome and will fully participate in the inquest," he said.

The Medical Examiner-Coroner will be able to subpoena "relevant witnesses" to testify and present documents during the inquest. Justice Candace Cooper will later "forward her decision and recommendation to the Medical Examiner-Coroner," according to Lucas.

“The Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner is committed to transparency,” he said. “An inquest ensures that our residents will have an independent review of all the evidence and findings of our office and of the cause and manner of death of Mr. Guardado.”

The news of the inquest comes two months after the Guardado family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Los Angeles County and its sheriff's department.

Adam Marangell, Vega's attorney, has said the Guardado's "lawsuit is filled with reckless and erroneous allegations" and that his client "looks forward to the actual facts of this matter being made public."

The homicide investigation to determine if criminal charges should be filed against Vega and Hernandez in Guardado's fatal shooting remains ongoing. The FBI and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department have not yet said whether the deputies followed appropriate policies on the night of Guardado's killing.

The decision on whether to charge the deputies will fall to the newly elected District Attorney George Gascón, who will take office next month.

Tom Yu, Hernandez's attorney, told NBC News in September that he hopes that the District Attorney's Office will do a "fair analysis of the case" and that he will do "my job as a lawyer to defend my client if it goes anywhere, civilly, criminally, or administratively."

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