MODESTO — Police and prosecutors are investigating how an 11-year-old boy was accidentally shot in the back and killed by a veteran SWAT team member during a federal drug raid at his family’s home.
Alberto Sepulveda, a seventh-grader, died Wednesday morning on the floor of his bedroom, killed by a blast from officer David Hawn’s shotgun.
“From the preliminary investigation, all indications so far is that the shooting was accidental,” Police Chief Roy Wasden said Thursday.
The chief, addressing the crisis a month after being sworn in, declined to elaborate until his department and the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office complete parallel investigations.
“We’ll go through a very exhaustive and thorough investigation to find out what happened and why,” he said. “Then we will try to implement changes to ensure we will never have a similar accident.”
Hawn, a 21-year department veteran and a SWAT team member for more than 18 years, was placed on paid leave pending the outcome of the probes.
Mike Van Winkle, a spokesman for the state Department of Justice, which has 500 drug agents and investigators, said no veterans he spoke with could recall any other accidental shooting of children during previous drug raids.
Last year, Hawn was cleared of wrongdoing for misfiring his gun into a suspect who had already killed himself during a SWAT raid. An internal investigation concluded an attacking pitbull brushed the muzzle of Hawn’s gun as he and other officers were checking the suspect for signs of life.
“He has a star record,” his chief said.
Hawn and five fellow team members entered the Sepulveda home about 6:15 a.m. Wednesday in one of 14 raids that were part of a 9-month investigation into methamphetamine trafficking by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
The boy’s father, Moises Sepulveda, who owns an auto repair shop, was on of 14 people arrested in the sweep. He was booked on charges of methamphetamine trafficking and remained jailed Thursday.
The boy’s mother, 8-year-old sister and 14-year-old brother were also home during the raid.
Moises Sepulveda Jr., was on the top bunk bed above his brother when the SWAT team began banging on the door. He said he does not know if his brother was awake when he left the room. But his father was and the two met in the hallway.
“My father said to stay calm. Then the front door blew open and they threw out one of those smoke bombs,” the teen-ager said, pointing to the brown scorch mark left on the living room floor by the canister
“My dad was cuffed and I was cuffed and one of them was stepping on my neck, pointing a gun down at me and told me not to move,” he said. “I heard another blast and thought it was another smoke bomb.
“But it turns out they shot my brother.”
On Thursday, friends and relatives gathered on the front lawn outside the family’s home in the city’s north side to help them grieve. Inside, the section of carpet where Alberto died was ripped up, not far from his bed.
“It smelled like blood so bad, so we threw it away,” Sepulveda Jr. said.
The boy’s mother wanted her privacy and did not wish to speak. She began wailing when someone arrived with a copy of the local newspaper and it got passed her way, the front page photo showing sheriff’s coroners removing her son’s sheet-covered body on a gurney.
“This is hard for her,” said sister-in-law Josefina Felix. “She cried and said ’I don’t understand. He’s only 11-years-old. He did nothing. Why did he kill my son?’ She cried and cried. And I cried, too.”
A Spanish-speaking police chaplain has been assigned to help the family through the ordeal.
“We’re doing everything we can to help the mother and the other two children,” he said. “We’ll move through this. It’s a tough thing.”
Sepulveda Jr., echoing the feelings of neighbors, relatives and other community members, said he didn’t understand why investigators did not try to enter peacefully before breaking down the door.
“They could have come in nicely. We would have opened the door. My dad isn’t the kind of man who would put his family in jeopardy.”
In methamphetamine raids, authorities have to know the potential that children could be present. More than 1,000 children were found living in clandestine methamphetamine labs seized by law enforcement officers in California last year, according to figures released in May.