Autopsy Confirms L.A. Police Bullet Killed Toddler

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The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating a deadly confrontation between SWAT officers and a father, who reportedly used his infant daughter as a human shield. Autopsy reports confirm a police firearm killed the 19-month old child.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Police here in Los Angeles are investigating last weekend's deadly shootout between a gunman and a SWAT team where the gunman and his daughter were killed. The man was allegedly holding up the infant girl as a shield while he battled with officers. Autopsy reports confirm that the baby was killed by police. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

For nearly three hours last Sunday, LA's SWAT team traded gunfire with Jose Raoul Pena--reportedly 40 rounds from Pena and 90 from police. The shootout was recorded by local television news crews.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

DEL BARCO: Police say the standoff started after 34-year-old Pena barricaded himself in his small used car shop in Watts. They say he used a 9mm handgun to shoot at the officers and, during the gun battle, they say he used his 18-month-old daughter, Suzie Marie Pena, as a human shield.

Chief WILLIAM BRATTON (Los Angeles): We had a very unstable individual. It was also reported that he had been ingesting cocaine and alcohol. He is a cold-blooded killer, and it's that simple.

DEL BARCO: Chief William Bratton told reporters that police got a call about a domestic disturbance from the baby's mother, Lorena Lopez. A short while later, Bratton says, Lopez's 16-year-old daughter made another 911 call from Pena's auto shop.

Chief BRATTON: He was shooting at us. He was making threats to kill her, to kill the infant, to kill himself. And in our discussions with him, he indicated clearly he was not going to go to jail.

DEL BARCO: Bratton says nine security cameras at Pena's car lot captured the shooting in graphic detail. Police are still reviewing those images. What they do know is that at some point, as the SWAT team moved in, one officer was wounded in the shoulder and Pena was shot dead. When police entered the office they also found the toddler, Suzie Pena, dead of a single gunshot wound to the head. According to the official autopsy reports, the bullet came from a police rifle. Even so, Assistant Chief George Gascon, says Pena is responsible for his daughter's death.

Assistant Chief GEORGE GASCON (Los Angeles): Our officers did what they had to do. There may be some tactical issues that we may take issue with. We don't know yet. It's too early. But, clearly, they were acting within the law, and the consequences of this event must be placed squarely on that suspect. In the 40-year history of SWAT, and about 3,800 hostage incidents, only twice have--the hostage lost a life.

(Soundbite of woman crying)

DEL BARCO: Yesterday, Lorena Lopez returned to Raoul's car shop for the first time since the shootout to find the walls and windows pierced with bullet holes. Standing in the tiny office where her baby daughter was killed, Lopez cried as she held a photo of Pena cradling Suzie in his arms.

Ms. LORENA LOPEZ (Mother of Slain Daughter): (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: Lopez says Pena had been a good father, but he had been depressed lately about his business; a depression, in fact, that went back to his days during El Salvador's civil war.

Ms. LOPEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: Lopez says she was on her knees pleading with police on Sunday to hold their fire on her daughter, to instead call a psychologist to help calm down Pena.

Ms. LOPEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

DEL BARCO: `I want justice for my baby,' Lopez says, wearing a shirt still freshly stained with breast milk. Her child was so young she was still nursing.

On Saturday, Lopez plans to bury Suzie. And as she and the police grapple with the deaths, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, urged the community to withhold judgment.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: It was a terrible night that ended in a terrible tragedy. There will be an investigation. It will be exhaustive. We will get to the bottom of this. Be very clear about that.

DEL BARCO: Villaraigosa asked for patience while police complete an investigation that could take months. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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