Family and friends of Erik Salgado set up a memorial for him on Cherry Street near where three CHP officers killed him on June 6, 2020. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

For the past year, the California Highway Patrol and state attorney general have sought to keep secret the names of three CHP officers who shot and killed an unarmed man in East Oakland last summer. But last Friday, a federal judge ordered the names unsealed as part of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the deceased man’s family.

The decision ends an unusual effort by two of California’s most powerful law enforcement agencies to shield the CHP officers’ identities. 

Many law enforcement agencies release the names of officers who use deadly force within days or weeks of an incident. This is due in part to the California Supreme Court’s 2014 decision that requires the names of police officers who use deadly force to be made public, except in rare cases where an officer can show that they have received credible threats and their safety would be compromised. And since state law was changed in 2019, most information related to police shootings, including the names of officers, has been subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act.

The Oakland shooting, which happened during 2020’s historic protests against police violence, tested the limits of these transparency laws.

The newly unsealed court records shed more light on what happened last summer in Oakland. CHP Sgt. Richard Henderson, and officers Eric Hulbert, Donald Saputa, and Michael Diehl were working as part of a special CHP unit on the evening of June 6, 2020 when they spotted a red Dodge Charger with reportedly stolen license plates. The car was allegedly involved in a shooting the prior evening, according to police records. 

Driving unmarked trucks, the officers attempted to stop the Charger on Cherry Street, a narrow residential road in East Oakland, but the driver, 23-year-old Erik Salgado, tried to escape by squeezing his car between a police vehicle and a parked car. According to court records, Henderson, Hulbert, Saputa, and Diehl got out of their vehicles and surrounded Salgado’s car with guns drawn. Several of the officers were armed with assault rifles. Salgado continued to try to drive out of the area, hitting several cars on the street, when Henderson, Hulbert, and Saputa opened fire, striking Salgado 18 times and killing him and wounding his girlfriend Brianna Colombo, who was riding in the passenger seat.

The CHP officers claimed in court briefs that they feared Salgado was “attempting to run them over,” and that he “rammed CHP vehicles blocking him, and drove at officers.”

John Burris, Ben Nisenbaum, and James Chanin, the attorneys representing Salgado’s family, counter that none of the officers on scene were in danger, and that the shooting was unnecessary.

“They were so quick to use deadly force with little to no information,” said Burris in an interview.

In the newly unsealed complaint that names the CHP officers and includes other new information, the attorneys for Salgado’s family allege that one of the CHP officers, Diehl, was briefly standing in one of the possible paths Salgado could have taken to try to squeeze between cars parked on the street and police vehicles, but that Diehl leaped over a parked car onto the sidewalk, out of harm’s way. Salgado attempted to squeeze by on the other side of the police vehicle, not the location where Diehl had been standing. 

According to the attorneys, Henderson and Hulbert have both claimed they thought Diehl had been run over, so they fired into Salgado’s vehicle.

“Defendant Henderson ran toward the back of the red Dodge, and opened fire with his rifle when he got to within 5-10 feet of the back of the red Dodge, specifically aiming where the driver’s center mass would have been located,” the attorneys wrote in a court filing. “Defendant Henderson emptied his rifle, firing all 30 shots from the full 30 cartridge magazine, striking Decedent several times center mass.”

The Salgado family’s attorneys claim that the CHP officers should have known that Diehl wasn’t run over and that their actions were “deliberately indifferent to human life, premeditated, and criminal.”

Richard Henderson was first identified as one of the shooters in a Mercury News report last August, which also disclosed that Henderson is facing a civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of a southern California man who he shot and killed four years prior in an incident very similar to the one that left Salgado dead. In that case, Henderson shot into a moving truck, killing the driver, Pedro Villanueva. Henderson claimed that he thought his partner, officer John Cleveland, was going to be run over by the truck. The Villanueva family’s lawsuit is still pending before a federal judge in Southern California.

Last month, The Oaklandside also reported that in 2017, Henderson’s girlfriend was shot and killed by several Long Beach police officers after he got in a fight with her and she allegedly fired a gun at him.

Attorneys John Burris, Ben Nisenbaum, and James Chanin with members of Salgado’s family at a press conference on Cherry Street last year. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The two other CHP officers identified in the court records unsealed this week as Salgado’s killers, Eric Hulbert and Donald Saputa, do not appear as defendants in any other lawsuits alleging police misconduct, according to a search of federal and state court records. The CHP did not immediately respond to a request from The Oaklandside for more information about Hulbert and Saputa, including whether they have been involved in other on-duty shootings, or whether they are currently on leave. The CHP has not commented publicly about the case for over a year.

A spokesperson for the Alameda County District Attorney’s office said its investigators are still examining the shooting and have yet to determine if Henderson, Hulbert, or Saputa violated any laws. The DA’s office is expected to eventually release a public report on the incident.

Hulbert appears to have joined the CHP in 2014, according to a database of state employee pay. Saputa became a CHP officer in 2010 and was assigned to the department’s Hayward office. 

The Oaklandside was unable to find contact information for Hulbert. A message sent to Saputa’s Facebook account, the only current contact information we could find for him, went unreturned. Saputa’s Facebook page includes posts of pro-gun memes and links to stories about law enforcement and the highway patrol.

Diehl, the CHP officer who leaped over the hood of a car and was safe before his fellow officers opened fire, according to the Salgado family’s attorneys, was accused of misconduct in 2015. According to court records, Diehl and several other officers failed to request medical attention for a man they should have known swallowed a bag of drugs during a traffic stop. In that case, Diehl arrested Johnny Cornejo in Oakland and saw him put something in his mouth, which he thought was drugs. When Diehl and the other CHP officers booked Cornejo into jail, they didn’t make sure he received medical attention. Cornejo was found later on with foam in his mouth and unconscious. He died at a hospital. 

Cornejo’s mother sued Diehl and two other CHP officers and won an $827,544 verdict due to the officers’ negligence.

Diehl is not being sued by Salgado’s family because he didn’t shoot into the car.

In response to the Salgado family’s lawsuit, the CHP and Attorney General’s Office argued that disclosing the names of Hulbert, Saputa, and Diehl would endanger them because Salgado was allegedly a gang member. In sworn statements filed with the court, Henderson claimed that he has been threatened with physical violence by the “Border Brothers” gang and that Alameda County Sheriff’s staff from Santa Rita Jail have warned him of these threats. The sheriff’s office told The Oaklandside recently that they have no record of any threats made against Henderson, however.

According to court records, Salgado had been convicted several times for burglary, auto theft, drug possession, and arrested in 2016 for possessing a firearm. However, when the CHP officers shot him last year, they were unaware who they were attempting to stop.

Nisenbaum, attorney for the Salgado family, said the claims about safety made by Henderson serve to blame the shooting victim. “CHP has tried to dehumanize Mr. Salgado in death just like they dehumanized him in life when the defendants murdered him,” he said in an interview.

The Oaklandside was unable to reach Henderson for comment.

Henderson claimed in statements to the court that anti-police graffiti showed up on his mailbox near his personal residence and that his neighbors were displaying anti-police messages, causing him to have to move out of his neighborhood. The CHP officer also alleged that an “investigator” showed up at his home in Contra Costa County and “harassed” him and his gardener. The Attorney General’s Office, which is defending Henderson and the other officers, wrote in a court filing that Henderson “has already experienced harassment at his personal residence and had his home under surveillance by unknown individuals.”

But the person who visited Henderson’s home appears to have been East Bay Times reporter David DeBolt, who wrote on Twitter that Henderson’s version of events isn’t true and that he only visited once, with his press credentials in full view, and left after a short and polite conversation with the man working Henderson’s yard.

Federal Judge Vince Chhabria wasn’t convinced by Henderson and the Attorney General Office’s claims, writing that they did a “poor job” of proving that the officers’ names should be kept secret. But before he ordered the records unsealed, Chhabria gave the attorney general and CHP one more chance to show why naming the officers would endanger them. The attorney general didn’t file a new motion with this information by the deadline. The attorney general’s press office referred questions about why they gave up on the effort to keep the case sealed to CHP, and CHP didn’t respond by publication time.

Burris said unsealing the case is a step in the right direction. “To be honest with you it’s pretty shocking, the lack of transparency on part of the attorney general. We’ve never had a case where we’ve had to fight so hard to get the names of the officers.”

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.