ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The only eyewitness to the fatal encounter between Christopher Torres and the officers who went to arrest him on April 12, 2011, said she saw Torres on “all fours” in his backyard with two men in jeans and T-shirts beating him.
Christie Apodaca, whose property is separated from the Torres home by a fence, testified at a bench trial Monday before Judge Shannon Bacon that she did not know the men she saw were police officers and that she never saw a gun in Torres’ hand.
One of the officers, Richard Hilger, has made statements that officer Chris Brown shot Torres three times at close range after Torres grabbed Hilger’s gun.
The officers were at Torres’ home to serve him with a felony arrest warrant in connection with a road rage incident two months earlier.
Apodaca heard her neighbor say, “I live here. What are you doing?” just after she let her mother’s dog outside, she testified. When she heard what she believed were sounds of a struggle, Apodaca said, she approached the wooden fence and peeked through a hole to see what was going on.
“It sounded like quite an ordeal,” she testified in the wrongful death case brought by Torres’ father, Stephen Torres, against the city and Albuquerque Police Department. The trial is expected to continue through the week.
Apodaca said that because the Torres home is at a slightly lower elevation, she was able to see pretty clearly that “my neighbor was being beaten up.” She felt exposed and afraid of the men she believed were burglarizing the home and moved to a different location in the fence, where she saw “Christopher” on all fours in his pajamas and one of the men with his knees on Torres’ back and the other punching Torres’ head repeatedly.
She said she was trying to figure out what to do when she heard the man throwing the punches say, “I’m going to shoot you,” prompting Apodaca to run inside the house and call 911. The emergency operator told her police were on the scene and to stay inside, but Apodaca went back out and looked through the fence again.
Torres wasn’t moving, and other officers and a fire rescue crew began arriving.
Defense attorney Ann Maggiore mined inconsistencies in the various statements Apodaca has given in the case, including statements to police and a deposition.
In one statement she gave by telephone to an officer investigating the shooting, Apodaca said she had not seen a firearm at the time she heard “I’m going to shoot you.” But she changed the statement when she called the officer back 35 minutes later.
Apodaca said she had been extremely nervous during her pretrial interviews and had neglected to stop and reflect on details as fully as she should have.
Questioned by Torres family attorney Kathy Love, she insisted she had no score to settle with police despite two previous DWI arrests, leading to one conviction.
In an opening statement and slide show, attorney Randi McGinn referred to Brown as “the shooter” and a problem officer who she said should not have been hired and would not have been hired except for then-Mayor Martin Chavez’s push to beef up police force numbers.
Now-retired Chief Ray Schultz’s response to the demand for more officers was to relax hiring standards so that officers who previously would not have passed muster at APD became eligible and Brown, a “lateral hire” from the Roswell Police Department, was one of them, McGinn said in her opening statements.
Among changes she cited were allowing in officers without college degrees and not requiring polygraphs or running lateral hires through psychological exams to see if they had anger management or other attitude problems.
Steve Tate, a lieutenant who was training director from 2003 to 2006, testified he retired in part because of major changes to the training – among them, less thorough background investigations. Asked about five citizen complaints against Brown shortly before he was hired by APD, Tate said any of them would be information that he would want to have for the chief’s selection committee, which made hiring recommendations.
Peter DiVasto, a psychologist who underwent academy training and became a sheriff’s deputy after he began doing police psychological screenings, testified that at one point, the psych exam was a “gate” that a candidate could not bypass.
After standards were altered, he said, “People were hired that we never saw.”
He recalled a conversation about one applicant with more than 1,200 uses of marijuana who was being recommended for a second chance.
“I said, ‘Over my dead body. Why are we having this conversation?’ ” DiVasto testified.