At Santa Rosa’s Courthouse Square last Saturday, July 29, dozens gathered to demand justice and honor the life of David Pelaez-Chavez, who was shot last year in a police pursuit through Knight’s Valley.
In the bright afternoon sun, people prayed. Silent moments became filled with the gusts of wind that rippled off a banner that read, “It’s been 365 days. Justice for David Pelaez-Chavez.”
Pelaez-Chavez’s family huddled together near the front of the crowd wearing shirts with his picture on the back, listening to speakers one by one express condolences and frustration. Then, one of them walked up to the microphone.
“We were supposed to have answers,” Jose Pelaez, Pelaez-Chavez’s oldest brother, said through an interpreter to the crowd. “We were supposed to have more information, and to this day, we don’t know anything.”
It has officially been one year since Sheriff Michael Dietrick fatally shot Pelaez-Chavez, and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office has yet to make a decision to prosecute, making it difficult for the family and community members to move forward.
Last year Dietrick and fellow deputy Aaron Powers chased the immigrant vineyard worker up the yellow, sun-dried hills of Knight’s Valley and into a shallow creek after a nearby resident called 911, saying that Pelaez-Chavez attempted to break into their home. When Pelaez-Chavez stopped to catch his breath near the creekbed, the deputies surrounded him. He clutched a rock in one hand and a garden tool in the other. Dietrick then fatally shot him three times, in the head and the chest.
The Santa Rosa Police department conducted the initial six month investigation and then passed it onto the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office on Jan. 4. There is still a decision to be made to prosecute Dietrick or not. The DA’s recommended guideline for reviewing a case is 90 days. As of Saturday, it had been 206 days.
“It should have been a much quicker turnaround process,” said Joy Ayodele, a member of the North Bay Organizing Project (NBOP) police accountability task force. “[District Attorney Carla Rodriguez] verbally confirmed it would be a three, fourth month process, and now we’re going on six, seven months.”
The delay has caused a ripple effect by holding up other cases, which include a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Pelaez-Chavez family, the Independent Law Enforcement and Review and Outreach investigation looking into misconduct, and the sheriff’s internal affairs investigation.
The family is in limbo, simultaneously experiencing the worst year they’ve ever had.
Pelaez-Chavez’s brothers and sister-in-law are worried about their mom who stayed behind in Oaxaca, Mexico while her seven children immigrated to the United States.
“She’s fallen into depression. She’s out there, by herself; unfortunately, everyone’s over here. It’s hard for us to hear how she’s doing and not be able to do anything,” said Gloria Miranda, Pelaez-Chavez’s sister-in-law.
Jose Pelaez has taken on a lot of responsibility in dealing with his brother’s death. Oftentimes he speaks on behalf of the rest of the family, just as he did Saturday evening. Pelaez is the oldest of the siblings and stepped in to take care of Pelaez-Chavez, the baby of the family, when they immigrated to the United States.
“It is a hurt that lingers with us, and it does not want to go,” Pelaez said. “My brother was a good person; he wasn’t an animal to be hunted down.”
Alfredo Pelaez, another of Pelaez-Chavez’s seven siblings, was the last person to speak with him the day before he died. They talked about visiting Oaxaca that December, Pelaez-Chavez’s two children who live there, and having a beer together.
Going back for him has not been the same.
“It’s hurtful. I go every year to Mexico, and every time David’s son sees me, he says we look alike,” Pelaez said.
The amount of time that has passed while Rodriguez has been reviewing the case has led many to come up with their own reasons as to why it has taken so long.
“I don’t think it’s fair. They’re taking their time to make a decision on how to cover it up,” said Miranda.
According to the family and NBOP, which has been working closely with them, Rodriguez has not been communicative enough, which has led to tension and distrust.
This distrust has been a consistent worry from the beginning, as NBOP has also stated that the body camera footage of the incident has been overproduced by a contracted public relations consultant.
Richard Cieli, the DA’s lead investigator on the case, is a former officer who has also been investigated for fatally shooting two civilians. Ayodele worries that whatever decision they make will be met with bias.
“I think from the jump that’s been a pretty large issue, and that’s something that she hasn’t been super transparent in communicating,” Ayodele said.
Rodgriuez said that they have called in a “use-of-force specialist” to help them make their decision, which they predict to have in two weeks. Based on her track record with the case, members of the community aren’t quick to believe that.
Pastor Lee Turner, who came to show his support and lead the community in prayer, said that the county has not shown up enough for people of color, letting cases such as the death of Georgia Moses go unsolved for decades. “It doesn’t make you feel valued,” said Turner.
The sun began to set on Courthouse Square, and Rev. Lindsey Bell Kerr closed with remarks to remind everyone of Pelaez-Chavez’s value.
“In the presence of David’s family, I invite all of us to commit ourselves again to work for justice,” Kerr said. “This justice will only come from the power of our spirit and the work of our hands. Let’s pray together.”
The microphone was taken away, and the crowd began to disperse. Some dropped flowers, hues of pink and purple, by a picture of Pelaez-Chavez while the family placed two coolers on a table that was draped in a green serape blanket. They plated up those who stayed with home-made tamales of all kinds, including Oaxacan-style tamales, wrapped in banana leaves, to show their gratitude.
The family is grateful for the community support, but Jose Pelaez knows this could’ve been handled differently.
“They had the right to help him; that’s why they’re there, right?” he said through an interpreter. “They had the right to detain him until he was under control.”
Pelaez said that depending on the outcome, the family is prepared to march and continue advocating for Pelaez-Chavez and more accountability from the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department.
It’s been one year since Sheriff Michael Dietrick fatally shot Pelaez-Chavez and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office has yet to make a decision to prosecute.