May 20, 2011 -- A Tucson, Ariz., SWAT team defends shooting an Iraq War veteran 60 times during a drug raid, although it declines to say whether it found any drugs in the house and has had to retract its claim that the veteran shot first.
And the Pima County sheriff, whose team conducted the raid, scolded the media for "questioning the legality" of the shooting.
Jose Guerena, 26, died the morning of May 5. He was asleep in his Tucson home after working a night shift at the Asarco copper mine when his wife, Vanessa, saw the armed SWAT team outside her youngest son's bedroom window.
"She saw a man pointing at her with a gun," said Reyna Ortiz, 29, a relative who is caring for Vanessa and her children. Ortiz said Vanessa Guerena yelled, "Don't shoot! I have a baby!"
Vanessa Guerena thought the gunman might be part of a home invasion -- especially because two members of her sister-in-law's family, Cynthia and Manny Orozco, were killed last year in their Tucson home, her lawyer, Chris Scileppi, said. She shouted for her husband in the next room, and he woke up and told his wife to hide in the closet with the child, Joel, 4.
Guerena grabbed his assault rifle and was pointing it at the SWAT team, which was trying to serve a narcotics search warrant as part of a multi-house drug crackdown, when the team broke down the door. At first the Pima County Sheriff's Office said that Guerena fired first, but on Wednesday officials backtracked and said he had not. "The safety was on and he could not fire," according to the sheriff's statement.
Tucson SWAT Team Shot Iraq War Vet 60 Times
SWAT team members fired 71 times and hit Guerena 60 times, police said.
In a frantic 911 call, Vanessa Guerena begged for medical help for her husband. "He's on the floor!" she said, crying, to the 911 operator. "Can you please hurry up?"
Asked if law enforcement was inside or outside the house, she told the operator, according to a transcript of the call, that they were inside. "They were ... going to shoot me. And I put my kid in front of me."
A report by ABC News affiliate KGUN found that more than an hour had passed before the SWAT team let the paramedics work on Guerena. By then he was dead.
A spokesman for Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said he could not discuss whether any drugs had been found at the home or make any other comment. "We're waiting for the investigation to be complete," he said.
In a statement, the sheriff's office criticized the media, saying that while questions will inevitably be raised, "It is unacceptable and irresponsible to couch those questions with implications of secrecy and a coverup, not to mention questioning the legality of actions that could not have been taken without the approval of an impartial judge."
Mike Storie, a lawyer for the SWAT team, said at a press conference Thursday that weapons and body armor were found in the home as well as a photo of Jesus Malverde, who Storie called a "patron saint drug runner," according to KGUN.
Storie defended the long delay in allowing paramedics to enter the home, saying of the SWAT team, "They still don't know how many shooters are inside, how many guns are inside and they still have to assume that they will be ambushed if they walk in this house."
But Scileppi, Vanessa Guerena's lawyer, said officers were "circling their wagons."
Tucson SWAT Team Defends Shooting Iraq Vet 60 Times
"They found nothing in the house that was illegal," he said. Framing the delay in providing medical attention as a tactical decision is "nonsense," Scileppi said. "There was an ambulance there in two minutes and they were never allowed in."
He pointed out that when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson, law enforcement let paramedics have access to victims in a far more volatile situation.
"The pieces don't fit. I think it was poor planning, overreaction and now they're trying to CYA," Scileppi said.
Guerena served two tours of duty in Iraq until he left the Marines in 2006.
"Every time he was under my command, he definitely pulled his weight," said Leo Verdugo, his master sergeant in Iraq, who helped arrange for Guerena to be buried in his Marine dress blue uniform. "I have a hard time grasping how something so tragic could happen."
He speculated that perhaps it was a case of mistaken identity. "At the wrong place at the wrong time in his own home," he said.
Vanessa Guerena is "devastated and distraught" and seeking justice for her husband and two sons, said her lawyer. "The main thing she wants is her husband's name cleared and his honor restored."
The oldest boy, Jose, turns 6 on Tuesday. "He went to school, came back and never saw his daddy again," said Ortiz. As for Joel, "He's asking, 'Why did the police kill my daddy?'
"We were so worried when he was over there fighting terrorism, but he gets shot in his own home," Ortiz said. "The government killed one of their own."