Couldn't they Have Used Mace?

— 'I want this to come out in print," says Walter Velechovsky. "What happened to my son. Why they could blow him away. I haven't even had the guts enough to ask my daughter what happened. And she had to witness this."

Velechovsky stands in his kitchen, drinking sherry, listening to Miguel Aceves Mejia singing "La Malagena" on the CD player. Standing's easier for him. His lower legs - he thinks it may be a diabetic condition - are swollen. For the past 40 days Velechovsky, 62, has hardly left this room. Not since a policeman shot his son five times through the chest and once through the mouth.

It happened early on a Sunday evening, last June 1, on Loring Street at Cass in Pacific Beach. The elderly neighbors had just switched on the six o'clock news. They heard a ruckus next door. The house where three generations of Velechovskys have lived. "There was screaming and yelling," says one neighbor, who asked not to be named. "There was pushing and shoving. We heard someone being thrown against a wall."

"I'm going to kill you!" yells someone. They're pretty sure it's the voice of Walt's 32-year-old son William Velechovsky, who acted as landlord on the property, yelling at his tenant.

"We'd heard arguments before, every so often," says the neighbor. "But not so long and loud as this. I tried to call Willy on the phone, figuring if he picked it up, I could talk him down."

But Willy doesn't answer. The neighbor's wife tells him to call the police. He dials 911. The police have already been called by another neighbor. Within a minute they're there. One policeman asks the neighbor if there are guns on the Velechovsky property. The neighbor says he doesn't think so. The neighbor sees another police officer arrive with a dog, but before they get on the property, six shots crack out. Willy Velechovsky lies dead on the path outside his door.

When the police arrived, according to homicide lieutenant Jim Collins, the tenant told them, "He's going to kill me, don't let him kill me!" Immediately after, Collins said, William Velechovsky came out with two knives in either hand. "He charged directly toward the officers and the other man," Collins told reporters. "Our officers ordered him to stop, and when he advanced to within about 15 feet of one of the officers, an officer fired several rounds, striking him."

"[The tenant] had ripped a grille off my son's window," says Velechovsky Sr. "They were both drunk. They were probably both homosexual. I don't know, and it's not important. You don't have to blow his fucking teeth out."

Velechovsky, who says he spent years in Peru and Brazil, part of the time on a Fulbright scholarship, doesn't spare expletives so that he does not "go mad," he says. "How did I hear about it? They came at 3:30 in the morning of June 2, nine hours after the event, to inform me, the father. Five minutes away. Mr. John Armendariz. He had a nice little flashlight under his arm. He was wearing a gray suit. A nice gray suit, about my size, nice tie. He showed me his card to prove he was from the medical examiner's office. I said, 'What are you here for?' He said, 'Well, I just wanted to inform you that your son, unfortunately, no longer exists.' I can't guarantee those were his exact words."

Mr. Velechovsky's blue eyes widen and fill with water. "And it blew my fucking mind! I started speaking Spanish. And he explained that he didn't speak Spanish. I said, 'You've got a flashlight under your left arm; now do you carry a pistol?' He says, 'Of course.' I said, 'Could you please blow my fucking brains out, you cocksucker?' He said something [like], 'No, Mr. Velechovsky, because you understand that this is one of these things that happened. And for me to blow you away or to shoot you would be a crime.'

"It didn't have to happen. They could have called me and put me on the phone with the kid. I could have said, 'Hey, Willy, wait a minute. Come over here and let's have a beer. Let's have a glass of wine. Let's talk about your dogs.' And he would have said, 'Sure, Pa.' And he would have come. And it would have been over with. Or I could have gone over there. It would have been that simple. Willy and I were hand in glove. Because he was my only fucking cocksucking motherfucking son! You can use those words. Because that's how angry I am!"

He takes a gulp of sherry. "Couldn't they have used mace? Couldn't they have used a police dog? They said, 'Not all of our officers have mace. Not all of our officers carry stun guns, and not all of our officers have access to police dogs. Because we have a shortage of police dogs in the city.'

"'Why couldn't you just kneecap him?' I asked. 'Well, some of our officers are not experts in shooting.' Yet somehow that officer who couldn't shoot him in the kneecaps could shoot him right between the lips! I want to nail [the police] for stupidity. Who did it, money - it's not important. The stupidity of the system that will allow that to happen to any father or mother.... I just want this to stop."

* * *

Andrea Velechovsky, 29, dark haired with a serious face, stands beside a big black wooden coffin. It hangs on the fence, a piece of bizarre art, beside the bungalow where William was shot. She's brought me here to show me what happened.

"A joke," says Andrea. "It's been here for years."

But it wasn't a joke that Sunday, June 1. Near where the coffin hangs, a police officer shot Willy as he "charged" out of the bungalow he'd lived in for 12 years. He dropped his knives and crumpled on the grass in front of a stone fountain.

She points to the steps. "I was here. I saw what happened to my brother," she says. "They said Willy 'charged' at them? I couldn't lunge down those stairs at a high velocity. There's not enough platform to get a good speed."

Andrea had been napping that Sunday afternoon in the main house where she had lived for nine years. She, her brother, and others had been to the beach. They'd been drinking. She didn't hear the arguments, but she did hear the crackle of police radios. As soon as she came out to the concrete patio ten yards from Willy's house, a policeman told her to stay where she was.

"Then I saw William. He came out his door. I ran forward to try and call to him to stop, because I wasn't sure what the scenario was, if they had their weapons drawn, what the whole thing was, and that's where it ended, right there. When my brother came out I just saw him get shot."

Andrea is more reserved than her father. But she's the one contemplating suing the police for excessive force.

"I asked, 'Why couldn't you just shoot him in the leg?.... That damned rookie cop.' And the officer said, 'How do you know he's a rookie?' And I said, 'I [worked] at the photo lab that had the county and city contract [to process police photo work] for almost ten years. So I have a pretty good knowledge of what excessive force is.' After I said that, they went kind of silent."

* * *

Teresa Santana lunges at me. The assistant D.A., dressed in a navy linen jacket and floral dress, has four sharp pencils in her hands. The same number of weapons William Velechovsky allegedly carried. She lets up just short of me. She's trying to demonstrate how difficult it is not to take action when weapons are coming at you. "This is not a movie. This is real life. You have suspects out there. Officers arrive on the scene. They see someone that's armed with a knife or a gun. What would people think if the officer didn't react and some innocent person ended up getting stabbed or shot? You throw a knife at someone, and you hit him in the neck. And then the people would think, 'The officer was standing there with a gun and did nothing!' So it's easy to second-guess."

She has a three-inch blue folder filled with statements police collected on the night of June 1. Her job is to assess the police role and to decide if the shooting was justified or if police misconduct occurred.

I ask if it's possible the cop was a rookie, as Andrea claims, who just panicked. "It doesn't matter if he was a rookie or not," she says. "If he did the correct thing, he did the correct thing. If he did something wrong, I don't care if he's been there for 30 years, even if it was not criminal, that's something we would address."

Lieutenant Jim Collins of the San Diego Police's homicide unit is satisfied that the officer who shot Willy could do nothing else. "When the officers arrived, they had information that there was a violent disturbance going on.... They could hear yelling and screaming in the back part of the property and sounds of fighting or struggling. It sounded like somebody might be being choked. They found [the tenant] in a small studio apartment on the side of the rear residence. They brought him out. They had him down on the ground.

"While they were dealing with him, they heard someone moving through the back residence. The footsteps were very loud, heading towards the front door. The suspect Velechovsky hit the door with his fist, he came out of the door very quickly. He came down the stairs, took the three stairs in two steps, turned immediately towards the officers, and was moving rapidly towards them. He had two knives in each hand. One large knife, one shorter knife. They ordered him to stop, drop the knives."

But perhaps, I suggest, Willy didn't hear them, if Andrea was calling to him at the same time. "You've got police officers there with guns pointed at you, and you've got knives in your hand," continues Collins. "That's pretty universal language whether you hear them or not."

Why didn't the officer aim for Willy's knees? "We don't train to shoot knees. We don't train to shoot guns out of hands. We train to shoot for center mass, to stop and immediately incapacitate the suspect."

The officer who shot Willy, Tim Keating, has been on the force two and a half years. Collins says he's back in the field. I ask Collins why no one called Walt Velechovsky for nine hours. Collins says the police did not prevent Andrea from calling her father. "She could have used the phone to call anytime she wanted."

Right now Walt Velechovsky isn't concerned with such details. It's getting near Monday, the day he dreads. Tomorrow morning it'll be six weeks since the knock on the door. On his CD player, Cecilia Bartoli and June Anderson sing Scarlatti's haunting "Salve Regina."

"I'd always read these things, police shootings," says Velechovsky. "Now I understand why the people in Southeast San Diego get bent out of shape about police brutality. For anybody to have to go through what I am going through is...insensible."

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