Attorneys John Burris, Ben Nisenbaum, and James Chanin with members of Salgado's family at a press conference on Cherry Street in 2020. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

The three California Highway Patrol officers who killed 23-year-old Oakland resident Erik Salgado and wounded his girlfriend Brianna Colombo almost two years ago were found to be justified in using deadly force, in a report released today by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.

The DA’s findings mean that none of the officers will face criminal charges for the shooting, which happened against the backdrop of nationwide protests against police brutality.

An administrative investigation by CHP might still result in discipline for the officers. And a civil lawsuit brought by Salgado’s 5-year-old daughter, Colombo, and Salgado’s mother Felina Ramirez is pending against the three officers and CHP.

The DA’s 34-page report was released nearly two years after the fatal shooting, in response to a federal judge’s request about its status.

O’Malley’s spokesperson said she nor anyone else from the DA’s office will comment on the report’s findings.

“I’m disappointed,” said John Burris, one of the attorneys representing Salgado’s family. “Because of the number of shots and because this was kind of an ambush, Henderson, the cop who led the shooting, should be prosecuted.”

Burris and James Chanin, another attorney for Salgado’s family, also criticized the DA’s office for taking over 21 months to issue their report, while CHP has still not said a word publicly about the shooting.

Shots fired, but no video

On the night of June 6, 2020, Salgado was driving a Dodge Charger, one of 72 cars stolen from a San Leandro car dealership three days earlier. According to the Oakland police, the car may also have been involved in a freeway shooting a few days before.

That night, a team of eight CHP officers including Richard Henderson, Donald Saputa, and Eric Hulbert were patrolling East Oakland in two unmarked pickup trucks and a marked CHP car on the lookout for stolen vehicles. According to Henderson and Saputa, they spotted Salgado’s Dodge when it ran a red light and drove on the wrong side of the road. They followed the car without activating their lights and ran its license plate. 

After learning the car had stolen license plates, they attempted to stop it on the 9600 block of Cherry Street in East Oakland. According to the DA’s report, “the officers had no information and there is no evidence that [Salgado] was involved in the freeway shooting days prior. Nor did the involved officers have any information that the decedent was himself considered armed and dangerous.” 

The CHP team blocked Salgado’s car on the narrow street. Facing Salgado’s Dodge was the marked CHP car driven by Officer Nate Kirkby, with Investigator Tyler Case in the passenger seat. Behind Kirby’s car was one of the unmarked trucks, driven by Hulbert and carrying officers Greg Ramos and Michael Diehl. The unmarked pickup carrying Henderson and Saputa, and driven by Officer Jared Montour, pulled up behind Salgado’s Dodge.

According to the DA’s report, the marked CHP car’s lights were activated when five of the officers in the vehicles facing Salgado’s car got out to confront him. Four of them were in plainclothes, wearing tactical vests with police identifiers. Only Kirby was in a CHP uniform.

Salgado allegedly reversed his car and pumped the brakes before striking the unmarked CHP truck behind him. He then allegedly drove forward and struck the CHP patrol car. Officers Henderson and Saputa exited the truck behind Salgado’s car with their rifles ready. 

“At this point officers said they believed the suspect vehicle had struck one of the officers on scene, pinning him underneath the suspect vehicle,” the DA’s report states. In fact, none of the officers were struck by Salgado’s car.

Saputa and Henderson opened fire with rifles and Hulbert shot into the car with his pistol. Salgado was hit with 16 rifle rounds and died at the scene. Colombo, referred to as “Witness #1” in the DA’s report, was struck in the stomach, leg, and arm, and survived after undergoing surgery.

None of the officers were wearing body cameras and there is no video of the shooting.

The DA’s report states that Colombo was the only non-police witness to the shooting, and that OPD investigators interviewed her as she was recovering in the hospital. While she “nodded off” several times during the interview, and may have vomited, the DA’s report says that Colombo told the police she and Salgado had slept in the car the night before, and that Colombo said she was “scared and traumatized” by Salgado after he allegedly wouldn’t let her leave.

The DA’s report quotes Colombo as saying Salgado was “driving crazy,” and that when the shooting happened, she told OPD, her boyfriend was trying to fit his car between the police cars and vehicles parked on the street, possibly to escape.

Later, Colombo declined to be interviewed again by OPD investigators.

The California Highway Patrol has declined to answer any questions about the shooting since it happened and did not respond to a request from our newsroom last week or today for an update. Although the report states that “questions remain as to the use of force in this case,” the DA’s team concluded that without video, or other witnesses, there is no way to proceed with criminal charges.

The DA’s report cites the lack of video evidence as one reason why the officers won’t be charged. CHP officers are not required to wear body-worn cameras and none of the CHP vehicles on scene were equipped with recording devices. Although the report states that “questions remain as to the use of force in this case,” the DA’s team concluded that without video, or other witnesses, there is no way to proceed with criminal charges.

A history of delayed reports

Neighbors of East Oakland resident Erik Salgado protesting days after the 23-year-old was shot and killed by three CHP officers near his home. (Credit: Darwin BondGraham) Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Three days after the shooting, about 1,000 people gathered on 96th Avenue to protest. At the time, massive protests were sweeping the nation, calling for charges against the officers who murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and bringing many other controversial police incidents to light. Salgado’s family criticized CHP for refusing to say anything about the shooting and called for more transparency.

“They should be upfront and honest about what they did. If they’re bold enough to kill somebody, they should be bold enough to tell us,” said Salgado’s stepsister Amanda Majail-Blanco during the rally.

Not only did CHP remain silent about the case, after Salgado’s family filed their lawsuit in July 2020, the state Attorney General’s Office fought for over a year to keep secret the names of three CHP officers who shot and killed Salgado. After Henderson was identified as one of the shooters in a media report, he claimed that anti-police graffiti showed up on his mailbox and that his neighbors were displaying anti-police messages, causing him to move out of his Vacaville neighborhood.

Ultimately, federal Judge Chabbria said the Attorney General’s Office did a “poor job” of proving that the names should be kept secret and ordered the unsealing of court records identifying the officers.

The Salgado family’s lawsuit alleges that the officers overreacted. When Salgado attempted to flee and “bumped” their cars, their lawsuit stated, the officers “unleashed a hail of bullets,” causing Salgado to crash into a neighbor’s Lincoln.

Attorneys Burris and Chanin said in interviews with The Oaklanside that they feel the DA’s office unnecessarily delayed the family’s civil lawsuit by taking nearly two years to finish its investigation. Officers Henderson, Saputa, and Hulbert declined to give statements as part of the civil lawsuit due to the DA’s ongoing criminal case. Instead, they invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

In response, attorneys for Salgado’s family asked federal Judge Vince Chhabria, who is overseeing their case, to order the Alameda County District Attorney to appear in court and explain why the criminal investigation wasn’t finished. 

Last week, Assistant District Attorney Catherine Kobal told the judge that the case was finally complete and the DA’s report would be released today.

Chanin said he believes the DA’s investigation would not have been made public today without pressure from Salgado’s family through their civil lawsuit.

“This district attorney has a long history of treating these shootings politically,” said Chanin. “Other cases I’ve been involved in have been withheld by the DA for years without a decision. It’s unfair to the officers and unfair to the victims. I think it’s all political.”

In 2008, Mack “Jody” Woodfox was killed by an Oakland police officer after he ran from a traffic stop while unarmed. It took the Alameda County DA six years to release its report about the shooting. In another fatal shooting involving the same Oakland cop, which happened six months before the Woodfox incident, it took the DA a decade to release its report

In the meantime, OPD fired Hector Jimenez, the officer who killed Woodfox, although Jimenez later won his job back in arbitration. Woodfox’s family also sued OPD and the city settled in 2009, paying out $650,000.

An officer with a violent past

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

At the time of the Salgado shooting, Henderson was the supervisor of the Solano County Auto Theft Task Force and assigned to the Golden Gate Division of the CHP. Prior to moving to the Bay Area, the 11-year CHP veteran worked in a similar task force in Southern California. His time there was marked with controversy. 

In 2017, Henderson’s girlfriend was shot and killed by Long Beach police officers after he armed himself with a pistol and went out looking for her in his pickup truck following a fight the couple had. The girlfriend, Michele Rice, allegedly fired her gun two times at Henderson, who called the police. Long Beach officers spoke with Henderson in his truck before responding to his home and finding Rice on the porch. 

According to the Los Angeles District Attorney and police records, Rice walked toward officers and pulled a black handgun from her sweatshirt. Officers fired 44 shots at Rice, striking her seven times and killing her. The Los Angeles District Attorney cleared the officers involved in the shooting. The CHP did not investigate Henderson’s actions leading up to the shooting because he was off-duty at the time. 

A year earlier, Henderson was involved in a fatal shooting that was remarkably similar to the shooting of Salgado in Oakland. In July 2016, he and his partner, John Cleveland, were patrolling Fullerton in an unmarked CHP sedan and wearing plainclothes when they attempted to pull over a Chevy Silverado pickup truck leaving a parking lot where illegal stunt driving was going on. 

What happened next is disputed. The passenger in the Chevy, Francisco Orozco, said in a pending lawsuit that the CHP vehicle had an amber flashing light, not a traditional blue and red police lights, so it wasn’t clear the police were attempting to pull the car over. 

Henderson and Cleveland followed the truck to a dead-end street. The driver, Pedro Villanueva, made a three-point turn and allegedly struck parked vehicles as he drove toward the officers, who were by then out of their car with guns drawn. Henderson and Cleveland shot through the windshield and killed Villanueva, while wounding Orozco. 

Neither of the men was armed. The Orange County District Attorney concluded the officers were justified and shouldn’t face criminal charges. However, unless a federal lawsuit filed by Villanueva’s family is settled, Henderson and Cleveland will face trial for civil rights violations. 

A federal judge denied the CHP officers’ request to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that they were protected under a legal doctrine that prevents government employees from being sued unless their actions constitute a civil rights violation. An appeals court later upheld the judge’s ruling. 

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.

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.