HAZLETON — The shooting of 26-year-old Jonathan Garay by a Hazleton police officer earlier this month was justified, Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said Wednesday.
In a news conference at the state police Hazleton barracks, Salavantis released a statement detailing what an investigation has revealed about the incident, as well as citing difficulties police have encountered in dealings with Garay’s family.
“After having reviewed the physical evidence, limited video footage, statements of witnesses, autopsy information and reports of investigators, it is clear that the shooting in the instant case is justified,” Salavantis said.
Garay died from multiple gunshot wounds he suffered that were inflicted by a Hazleton police officer at his house at 521 Alter St., Hazleton, in the morning hours of Oct. 5.
Hazleton police responded to a fight at Second and Alter streets at about 2:30 a.m. and were told by a bystander that a man was running away. Two officers chased Garay through a gate and onto the rear porch at 521 Alter St., where Garay was said to have “dove for the weapon between the two officers,” according to an initial state police news release.
Garay grabbed the weapon from the floor and tried to raise it toward the officers, one of whom fired two rounds, striking Garay, state police said.
Garay’s family claimed Garay was shot by the city police officers inside the house and not on the rear porch.
Salavantis said Garay’s mother has refused to meet with investigators, and that “family members have related Garay’s mother’s version of the facts and events.”
“This version is inconsistent with not only the police officers’ version of events but also the forensic and medical evidence,” Salavantis said.
She said a first officer approached Garay, identified himself as a police officer and asked to speak with Garay, who did not comply. Garay began fighting with the officer, who discovered during the struggle that Garay had a handgun on his person, Salavantis said.
The first officer advised an approaching second officer that Garay had a gun. The second officer drew his weapon while approaching, Salavantis said. Meanwhile, Garay’s gun had fallen to the ground during the struggle. He broke free of the first officer, dove for the gun and pulled it out from under the second officer’s foot, she said.
“After gaining control of the gun, Mr. Garay then pointed the gun at the second officer and the officer responded by firing a single shot which struck Mr. Garay in the left side of his face,” the DA said.
Second shot fired
But the shot was non-lethal and a non-incapacitating injury to Garay’s cheek, having passed through the cheek as well as through the back porch floorboards. Garay then stood up with the gun still in his hand and again pointed it at the officer, who then fired a second shot into Garay’s right posterior flank, Salavantis said.
“This second shot caused Mr. Garay to fall into the kitchen area of the house, where he released the gun onto the kitchen floor,” she said.
Salavantis said Garay was not shot directly in the back.
“The way he was falling backwards and (with) the gun still out, it would make sense that it would go through the back side, the right side of his lower torso. When you hear ‘shot in the back,’ you assume that it’s directly in their back, and that was not the case,” she said.
Salavantis said Garay did not comply with numerous police commands to stop, show his hands, get on the ground, put his hands behind his back and stop fighting.
He was taken to Hazleton General Hospital and there died from his injuries. An autopsy confirmed the locations of the wounds as officers had described. A test of Garay’s blood revealed a preliminary alcohol content in the range of 0.35 percent, Salavantis said.
An adult driver with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent is considered intoxicated in Pennsylvania.
State police summoned
State police arrived on the scene within six minutes of calls from Garay’s sister and the officer who was in the fight with Garay and secured the scene. They found two shell casings on the porch, a bullet hole in the floorboard and a piece of bullet under the porch.
“The shell casings and bullet hole in the porch are consistent with Mr. Garay having been shot outside and stumbling backward into the doorway,” Salavantis said.
Additionally, state police found a handgun registered to Garay within feet of his body with the safety off and the chamber loaded. And while it was reported that Garay’s family said that the gun was in a holster, no holster was recovered from the scene or from Garay’s person, Salavantis said.
She said investigators received several reports about alleged surveillance footage of the shooting, but Garay’s family initially refused to provide it. State police obtained a search warrant, but the footage obtained shows Garay and a friend hurriedly returning to 521 Alter St., but does not show the shooting. Thumb drives containing video clips that an attorney representing the family turned over to police also did not show the shooting, she said.
State police Lt. Robert Bartal said the investigation is closed, but state police would be willing to review and consider any additional information from witnesses to the shooting if there were any or any video of the shooting itself if it exists.
Salavantis said her office will neither confirm nor deny the identities of those present or involved in the incident because of rumors of threats and/or retaliation against police. She has requested additional assistance from state police to patrol Hazleton, and state police have granted her request.
She said the officer involved in the shooting is still on administrative leave, but he is expected to return to active duty.
Salavantis said her office contacted the Garay family and asked that they come to the state police barracks so they could be apprised of the outcome of the investigation. They initially agreed, but the family’s attorney later said they would not be going to the barracks, so she could not discuss the investigation with the family.
At the Garay family home on Alter Street, a basket and two vases of flowers and a box of prayer candles sat on the front porch in front of a large poster that read “#JUSTICE FOR JONATHAN R.I.P” and had messages written on it by numerous family members and friends.
The sign had been carried at a protest rally and march Garay’s family and friends had on Oct. 11 from the scene of the shooting to Hazleton City Hall.
Taped to the front door was a smaller poster that read: “To District Attorney, How do you sleep at night knowing you turned your back on the people, the same people that voted for you and got you into the position you are today? Justice will prevail.”
A knock on the front door went unanswered. A family spokesman said they did not want to speak with the media Wednesday but “they reserve the right” to do so in the future.