DENVER (CBS4) – Police in Denver who are still searching for a dangerous fugitive say a police chase and deadly officer-involved shooting that took place earlier this week happened when officers thought they had their guy.
On Monday officers were conducting surveillance to find Mauricio Venzor-Gonzales, who escaped from Denver Health Medical Center.
Barb Archer, Denver Police Department’s Major Crimes Commander, said in a news conference Thursday afternoon that some officers noticed an SUV that kept circling a block in Aurora and believed Venzor-Gonzales was in the passenger seat. They attempted to pull the vehicle over but the driver sped off.
Officers got approval to pursue the GMC Yukon and chased it to 41st and Albion.
Archer said the two people in the SUV refused to comply with repeated orders to put their hands up and were moving around and appeared to be looking for something inside the vehicle.
“Officers knew that Venzor-Gonzales had been arrested in November for attempting to kill a police officer. They believed the actions being made inside the car were an effort to locate a weapon. So, fearing for their safety, the officers fired,” said Archer.
The driver then drove down an embankment heading toward an open field.
Officers fired at the vehicle again. The driver and passenger were both rushed to the hospital but the driver died of his injuries. The passenger was treated and taken to jail on outstanding warrants out of Adams County.
“In a search of the car, we found a loaded weapon — a handgun — and the car was also stolen,” Archer said.
The driver was identified as Steven Nguyen, 23, and the passenger was identified as Rafael Landeros, also 23. They had known Venzor-Gonzales for several years but the fugitive was not in the car.
“It ultimately turned out to not be Venzor-Gonzales,” Archer stated.
Archer acknowledged a case of mistaken identity lead to the deadly shooting but said officers were justified.
“The officers were acting on information provided to them that Venzor-Gonzales was in the passenger seat. They believed that to be him. Their actions were based on that belief and based on his criminal history past of being an attempted murdered. That justifies their actions.”
Three officers fired at the vehicle. Officials did not say how many shots were fired. There is bodycam video of the incident but it is not being released at this time.
“[The search for Venzor-Gonzales is] ongoing. He’s a very dangerous individual. It’s our top priority. The community’s not safe with him out there,” Archer said.
“We’re pursuing every piece of information we get,” said Archer.
“We have no idea where he is,” Archer continued. “Call 911 if you think you see him.”