Federal jury awards $21 million to family after pregnant teen killed by Fremont police
FREMONT, Calif. - A jury late Friday returned a historically high verdict – $21 million – after Fremont police shot and killed a pregnant teenager nearly five years ago.
The city has to pay $10.2 million and the driver of the car in which she was riding in has to pay the other half.
Civil rights attorney Adante Pointer, who represented the family of Elena "Ebbie" Mondragon in federal court in San Jose, said he has never won, nor heard of, such a high amount in a jury verdict against police.
According to an analysis by KTVU, the most cities have had to pay to families in wrongful death suits over the last five years has been roughly $5 million per case.
"I hope that verdicts like these force the change that's needed," Pointer told KTVU. "Her death should not have happened."
Pointer tried the case with his partner, Patrick Buelna, and other high-profile civil rights attorneys, Melissa Nold and John Burris.
The 16-year-old from Antioch was fatally shot by two undercover Fremont police officers — Sgt. Jeremy Miskella, Detective Joel Hernandez and Officer Ghailan Chahouati — on March 14, 2017.
She had been riding in a stolen BMW driven by 19-year-old Rico Tiger, which special task force police officers had tracked to a Hayward apartment complex.
Tiger, who was wanted on suspicion of multiple violent armed robberies, was in the parking lot and after being boxed in, reversed his car into the officers.
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In response, the police opened fire on the moving car, violating department policy.
Elena was struck by four bullets and later died in the hospital. Her family learned that she had been pregnant at the time.
Tiger was not hit by bullets, crashed the BMW and ran away. He was later arrested in San Francisco. The Alameda County District Attorney has since charged Tiger with murder.
None of the five officers present had their body-worn cameras activated at the time of the shooting, a fact that Pointer said he kept emphasizing during the trial.
The Bay Area News Group reported that the jury ultimately decided that Tiger was 51% responsible for the teen's death, while Miskella was 25% responsible. Chahouati and Hernandez were both 12% responsible.
Pointer said it's highly likely the family won't ever see Tiger's share of the verdict.
The city's attorney, Patrick Moriarty, could not be immediately reached after the five-day trial that ended Wednesday. The verdict came back after normal court hours on Friday.
But during the trial, the Bay Area News Group reported that Moriarty told the jury that despite the emotional nature of the case, they must focus on only the evidence when deciding whether the officers used excessive force – which he insisted they did not.
"Ms. Mondragon lost her daughter; she died. She is no longer with us. That is going to make you feel sad," Moriarty told the jury. "Unfortunately, that sadness, that emotion, that sympathy, that cannot be a part of your decision."
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Pointer said the money shows, in part, how the jury felt about what the police did. But no dollar amount can bring relief to Elena's mother and family.
What was especially painful for the family was that Fremont police were "so dismissive" to them and never once gave them a call to offer support or counseling.
He said he hopes the city will not appeal the verdict.
"They never respected the idea of justice for this family," Pointer said. "You have to fight against all odds and keep fighting. Twenty-one million dollars worth of justice."