Jose Guerena Vindicated: Widow Receives $3.4M Settlement from Arizona Police

On May 5, 2011, at approximately 9:30 a.m., a SWAT team of officers from four local agencies served a search warrant at the home of Jose Guerena near Tucson, Arizona. The subject of the search warrant was drugs. Within seconds of breaking in the front door, the officers shot and killed Jose Guerena, who was apparently holding an AR-15 rifle.

Hearing only these facts, one might believe the officers were justified in killing Guerena, and might expect that Guerena’s widow would be unable to recover a dime. Anyone following the case’s media coverage -- particularly if one believes the comments from Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik -- might believe the SWAT team was one of the finest in the nation, that the officers made not a single mistake, and that Jose Guerena was a murderous thug, the “enforcer” of a multi-million dollar local drug cartel, and the prime suspect in a double murder.

Instead, Vanessa Guerena’s $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against the four police agencies was recently settled for $3.4 million. Even with that extraordinary settlement, the police of Pima County, Marana, Oro Valley, and Sahuarita have been loath to admit fault. Deputy Tracy Suitt of the Pima Couty Sheriff’s Department, which will pay $2.35 million of the settlement, wrote:

The Pima County Sheriff’s Department strongly believes the events of May 5, 2011, were unfortunate and tragic, but the officers performed that day in accordance with their training and nationally recognized standards.

However, legal advisors and insurers recognize the unpredictable resolution of disputes at trial regarding police conduct and even well-accepted police tactics. As a result, well established business and insurance principles call for compromise and the resolution of disputed cases to mitigate risk and avoid the expense of a trial.

Pima County administrator Chuck Huckleberry maintained the settlement was a “calculated risk management settlement,” which was not an admission of wrong-doing. Marana will pay $72,000, Oro Valley will pay $260,000 and Sahuarita will pay $100,000.

With a smaller settlement, perhaps Deputy Suitt’s and Administrator Huckleberry’s spin might be believable. But a $3.4 million settlement? The police did not want this case anywhere near a jury. And the attorneys for the police were wise indeed: the police made horrendous mistakes before, during, and after the raid, mistakes that caused the death of an innocent man.

I wrote at PJ Media of Jose Guerena two years ago: he was a Marine veteran of two combat tours, and was working 12-hour shifts in a local copper mine to provide for his young family at the time of his killing. On the morning of his death, he had returned from work only a few hours before the police arrived. He ate breakfast, showered, and went to bed. He had no idea that the police had been occasionally -- and incompetently -- watching him and his relatives for some time.

The search warrant affidavit for Guerena’s home, vehicles, and the homes and vehicles of three others mentioned no evidence of crime and was devoid of probable cause. The closest the affidavit could come to implicating Jose in a crime was an observation that he was the passenger in a pickup truck in which a roll of plastic wrap in a cardboard box was found. The affidavit also noted that years earlier, Guerena was arrested on drug charges and was once a “person of interest” in a drug-related case investigated by ICE. Deceptively, the affidavit did not tell the judge those charges were dismissed, and that nothing came of the ICE investigation. Amazingly, Detective Tisch, the author of the affidavit, wrote that during his year-long investigation of Guerena the police had not seen any of these supposed big-time drug criminals in possession of drugs. But Tisch asked for a warrant, and Judge Harrington granted it. (Harrington has refused my request to discuss his actions.)

None of the elementary elements of a competent drug investigation were present. There was no information from confidential informants, no photographs, video, or recordings of drug transactions, no controlled buys, no information about drug shipments, methods of sale, packaging, delivery, or, indeed, any specific information about what kinds of drugs, their quantities, and where they might be found.

Drug agents do not routinely serve warrants unless they are certain they’ll find substantial quantities of drugs and other evidence of crime, and are ready to make many arrests as high up the chain of a criminal organization as possible. To do otherwise is to ensure that most of the drugs, and most of the criminals at all levels, will simply vanish.

As Jose Guerena slept -- he slept during the day for his night shifts -- the SWAT team pulled up in front of his home. The interior walls of his home were a dark gray, all of the blinds were closed, and all of the lights were off.

Watch here: the 54-second video of the raid recorded by the police is a primer on how not to conduct a SWAT operation.