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Can One Wrong Death Bring Down Corrupt Las Vegas?

A concealed carry killing raises dangerous questions.

by
Mike McDaniel

Bio

March 28, 2011 - 12:00 am

You don’t want to commit a crime in Las Vegas — at least not on TV. On the tube, you’ll be relentlessly pursued by a group of young, beautiful, highly educated and competent crime scene investigators who work in gleaming glass and steel labs surrounded by state of the art equipment that would make MIT green with envy. So ethical and competent are they — and the police force they serve — that if a molecule of evidence exists in the known universe, they’ll find it and brilliantly use it against a suspect to talk them into a tearful confession.

In the real world of Las Vegas, life is less attractive. The Erik Scott shooting of July 10, 2010, is like an episode of The Twilight Zone, with multiple, inexplicable plot twists. In the real world of Las Vegas, citizens share one striking fear with contemporary Egyptians: They fear for their lives at the hands of their police force. They may have good reason to do so.

For those who have not been following the Scott case, a visit to the Confederate Yankee archive where all of my articles on the case are stored (here) will be worth your time. The behavior of the police and all related agencies and governmental entities reads like a textbook outlining how not to conduct criminal justice business. Journalists often employ hyperbole, calling the petty and mundane “shocking” or “unbelievable” to sell their product. The facts and probabilities you’ll find in the archives on this case truly are shocking and unbelievable. They sell themselves.

On July 10, 2010, Erik Scott and his girlfriend, Samantha Sterner, were shopping at the Summerlin Costco in Las Vegas. Store employees noticed Scott’s concealed handgun when his shirt rode upward as he stooped to inspect merchandise. Alarmed by this, and by what they thought was some unusual behavior, they told him that concealed weapons weren’t allowed in the store, despite the fact that no signs were posted to notify the public. Scott told them that he was licensed and several employees spoke with him. None actually asked him to leave.

Shai Lierley, store security officer, called 911, and the chain of events leading to Scott’s death began. Lierley and the dispatcher to whom he spoke made serial mistakes, escalating the situation in the minds of responding officers far beyond any reasonable response. What should have been handled by a single officer merely approaching and speaking with Scott turned into a massive police response that included a helicopter. Despite having more than sufficient time to employ reasonable, smart tactics — tactics that would be employed by any professional, competent law enforcement agency — the Metropolitan Police behaved as rank neophytes incapable of using common sense or proper tactics.

As the officers rushed to the Costco and milled aimlessly about upon arriving, Lierley was following Scott and Sterner, relaying his observations to the dispatcher who was apparently not relaying timely information to the officers. Rather than identifying and isolating Scott, the police ordered the store evacuated, and Scott and Sterner, like everyone else, calmly walked toward the front doors with the crowd.

Scott walked past several officers posted at the front door and was so unremarkable that they ignored him — ignored him that is, until Lierley hastily pointed him out to Officer William Mosher, 38, who had then been on the force for approximately five years and one month. Despite the fact that Scott and Sterner were essentially in the middle of a crowd of people, Mosher drew his weapon and confronted Scott. Immediately, Officers Thomas Mendiola (23, then with about 1 year and four months on the force) and Joshua Stark (28, then with about one year and 11 months on the force) also drew their weapons and yelled contradictory commands at Scott. According to witnesses, he was very surprised.

Scott had only a few seconds to live. From the moment the officers began screaming their contradictory commands until Mosher fired two rounds (one striking Scott in the chest and one in the thigh), only approximately two seconds elapsed. Despite Metro claims that Scott drew his gun and pointed it at them (still in its holster!), it is highly likely that Scott had no time to do anything, and that the only item in his hand was his BlackBerry, which was found by his body. Caught by surprise — by their own admission, having no idea who had fired — Mendiola fired four rounds into Scott’s back and Stark fired one as bystanders within arm’s reach screamed and dove for cover.
From that point, the story of the case reads like the most egregious bad cop fiction imaginable. Mishandling of evidence. Illegal searches involving other agencies. Illegal seizure of property unrelated to the case. Disappearing video. Incompetent forensic examinations and testimony. Officers and detectives admitting mistakes that would cause them to be fired anywhere else in the nation. Idiotic statements from high-ranking officers that no citizens were ever endangered — despite a panicky barrage of gunfire in the middle of a crowd surrounded by huge pillars that would serve as perfect random ricochet generators. Thuggish harassment of innocent citizens. Add to that a multitude of other actions and omissions that defy professional police practice, reason, and probability: this is the stuff of the Scott case.

So one-sided and clearly corrupt was the police and coroner testimony at the inquest, so outrageous was the police behavior, that the public outcry was too much for even a system as corrupt as that in Las Vegas, and the Clark County Commission was forced to revamp their rules for coroner’s inquests. My article on that process reveals their efforts, however well intentioned, to be window dressing. Despite the changes, the coroner’s inquest is still little more than a police controlled rubber stamp for Metro. Amazingly, Metro officers, through their union, have announced that they will not cooperate with investigations, will not honor subpoenas, and will not testify, implying that they will simply take the 5th at best if they decide to bother to show up. And they mean this to apply not only to officers who are actually involved in a shooting, but officers who are merely witnesses. It is hard to imagine a more obvious indicator of corruption than police officers refusing to testify about their official, on-duty actions in court — unless it is that Metro management has apparently done nothing about these threats, despite the fact that Nevada law makes refusing to cooperate in investigations an insubordination offense, which can result in firing.

In any other competent, professional American law enforcement agency, no officer would imagine that they could get away with refusing to cooperate with investigations, refusing to honor subpoenas, refusing to testify, or threatening to take the 5th, particularly if they were merely witnesses to a police shooting. They would understand that such actions are so far out of the acceptable mainstream of police thought and practice that they would not only receive no support from fellow officers, but would be absolutely slammed by their superiors. They would expect to have even less understanding and support from the public. That Metro officers would believe the unthinkable proper is a danger sign of immense proportions.

So deeply ingrained is Metro’s corruption and incompetence that they reportedly remain amazed at the uproar the Scott case caused and continues to cause. Scott’s was only the most recent of some 200 police shootings of citizens in about a decade, and in only one case had an officer been found culpable. For Metro, the coroner’s inquest, set up to favor the police and to eliminate any adversarial questioning, was a memory hole, a hole into which all evidence of police misconduct would inevitably disappear. Needless to say, the prosecutor’s office has always been complicit, accepting without question inquest findings and, with a single exception, never pursuing charges. And another thing: in all police shootings, Metro investigates itself, never involving outside agencies, as is common in many other police agencies, without an organizational interest in the outcome.

In shooting Erik Scott, Metro made a mistake beyond imagining. Mosher, Mendiola, and Stark killed the wrong man. Scott was not a petty criminal engaging in a crime, but a West Point graduate who served honorably as an officer of armor. A sales representative for a prominent maker of medical devices, Scott was also licensed by Nevada to carry concealed weapons. His family is a proud military family — people who run toward, not away from the sound of gunfire. His his father is a retired Air Force test pilot and journalist. This case was not allowed to fall down the coroner’s memory hole, and the family has offered a substantial reward for video of the shooting, has actively pursued the case, and has filed a civil suit.

Arriving at the present, new information on one of the officers involved has emerged. Thomas Mendiola, the officer who fired four rounds into Scott’s back, has been arrested, suspended, and charged with giving a handgun to a convicted felon, Robert Justice. The warrant indicates that Mendiola gave the gun to Justice (Mendiola knew him to be a convicted felon legally unable to possess firearms) as payment for work Justice did for Mendiola. It was also recently revealed that Mendiola initially failed to graduate from the Metro basic police academy and had to take the course twice. The reasons for his failure remain unknown.
But wait, as they say on the late-night commercials. There’s more. Justice is also involved in a case involving an alleged attempt by his co-defendant Ronald Webb to kill his live-in girlfriend, Las Vegas attorney Nancy Quon. Quon is also reportedly the target of an FBI investigation into allegations of massive fraud involving Las Vegas Valley homeowner’s associations.

As with everything involving the Scott case, far more questions than answers continue to appear, and every question and answer points to corruption and incompetence in Metro from the lowest to highest ranks.

Recruits failing a basic academy throughout the nation are routinely fired. The inability to successfully complete a basic academy is commonly considered to indicate a lack of the most rudimentary abilities necessary to successfully function as a police officer. Yet Mendiola was apparently allowed to try again. Why? A recruit who shows no common sense or judgment in shoot/don’t shoot training is a far greater problem than one who fails a test on the specifics of burglary statutes. Officers can always look up statutes. They cannot Google the common sense necessary to keep them from wrongfully shooting people.

The mere fact that Mendiola has been charged with a crime is surprising. If, as all the known evidence suggests, the Scott shooting was unjustifiable and was followed by a massive and remarkably clumsy cover-up, it would normally be in the best interests of Metro to essentially immunize Mendiola from wrongdoing — to keep him “on the reservation,” within the fold, particularly as the Scott family’s civil suit proceeds. If my theory of the case is correct, the civil suit poses a great danger to Metro — not only to the three officers involved, but to other agencies complicit in the cover-up, and to high ranking Metro officers, up to and possibly including Sheriff Doug Gillespie. All it will take is one crack in the wall, one person to experience a crisis of conscience, to tell the truth, and the tower may come crashing down.

Did Metro come to believe that Mendiola was having such a crisis of conscience? Did they think he might crack, and if so, was his arrest a way of re-exerting control over him? And, of course, what was a police officer doing associating with a convicted felon off duty? Mendiola’s alleged crime came to Metro’s attention during an unrelated undercover operation. If Metro chose, it would never have come to light. There is more than ample evidence to indicate that this kind of wrongdoing, and worse, is routinely ignored. Why charge this particular officer at this particularly sensitive time unless it furthered Metro’s greater interests?

Every week, more of the kinds of malfeasance and incompetence that would horrify the officers of any professional, competent agency are exposed in Las Vegas. Metro seems to care not at all about public relations — in itself a very dangerous sign for the safety of the public. A police agency that considers itself outside the law and above it is a menace, not just to the rights of citizens, but, as the Scott and other cases reveal, to their very lives.

President Obama once suggested that citizens should not waste their money in Las Vegas. The Clark County commissioners may wish to consider the reasonable safety concerns of visitors, and the residents of Egypt and Las Vegas may have more in common than they imagine.

Mike McDaniel is a former police officer, detective, and SWAT operator, and is now a high school English teacher. He blogs here.
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