Fatal shooting at checkpoint during Northern California Lava Fire spawns $20 million suit

Yahoo News

Four months after a Northern California district attorney cleared officers who shot and killed a man at a checkpoint during evacuations for the Lava Fire, the man’s family has a wrongful death lawsuit seeking more than $20 million in damages.

The suit was filed Tuesday in Sacramento federal court on behalf of the wife and children of Soobleej Kaub Hawj, 35, who was shot and killed in June at a checkpoint by officers from the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, Etna city police and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The suit names the county, the city, Deputy Levi Machacdo, Etna Officers Tony Stacher and Brandon Buell and Fish and Wildlife Lt. Jacob Nicholas.

The 36-page lawsuit describes a scene markedly different from the conclusions by Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus, who announced in June that the officers would not face charges.

Andrus said then that Hawj had pointed a loaded .45-caliber handgun at the officers, tried to ram them with his truck, was under the influence of methamphetamine and had three other firearms in his truck, along with ammunition, a silencer and 132 pounds of marijuana.

Family was evacuating from 2021 wildfire

The lawsuit says Hawj, driving in his truck with the family dog, Silk, was trying to evacuate from the fire with his wife and children following in a vehicle behind him as they approached the checkpoint at Shasta Vista Drive and County Road A-12.

“At the intersection, the peace officers were directing the evacuees to turn left (West) on to County Road A-12,” the suit says. “When Decedent Soobleej Kaub Hawj approached the intersection, the peace officers singled out his truck and ordered him to turn right (East) on to County Road A-12.

“Decedent Soobleej Kaub Hawj complied with the orders and began to turn west on to County Road A-12.”

At that point, several officers “aggressively approached” the truck with their guns pointed at Hawj, the suit says.

“Confused and terrified, Decedent Soobleej Kaub Hawj, again attempted to move his vehicle to the right, as he was instructed,” the suit says, and officers opened fire, killing him as his wife and children watched from their car.

The suit contends Hawj “was not a threat to anyone at the time” and accuses the officers of excessive force. It does not mention the gun Hawj allegedly pointed at officers or the D.A.’s findings.

Tensions between Asian pot farmers, authorities

The shooting drew national attention and a series of protests in Siskiyou County, where large marijuana grow sites by Hmong and other Asian farmers have sparked tensions and lawsuits accusing county officials of widespread discrimination and harassment.

In August, Siskiyou Sheriff Jeremiah LaRue was sued in federal court in Sacramento by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California in a filing seeking class-action status for Asian Americans who claim deputies harass them in traffic stops and wrongly accuse them of criminal activity.

Last year, a federal judge ordered the county to stop enforcing a ban on the delivery of water to Hmong cannabis farmers, writing that the ban raised “serious questions” about discrimination against them and their access to water.

Tensions had been running high for years at the time Hawj was killed, with then-Sheriff Jon Lopey calling for a state of emergency to be declared in the county because of the “sheer magnitude” of the marijuana farms in the area.

Three weeks ago, a pair of siblings were sentenced in federal court in Sacramento in a plot to bribe Lopey when he was sheriff to protect family marijuana grow sites.

The lawsuit does not address such issues or the D.A.’s finding that the officers were justified in opening fire.

Instead, it says the family members, who live in Sacramento, “witnessed the unlawful shooting and killing of” Hawj and have experienced “great mental, emotional and distress, pain and suffering.”

The suit seeks more than $15 million in compensatory damages and more than $5 million in punitive damages.


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