There was good reason to fear the guy in the gray pickup on Interstate 10 in Texas. After being pulled over for not having a front license plate, the driver fired one round at Trooper Lee Meadow and took off.
As Meadow approached the open window on the truck’s passenger side door a handgun suddenly appeared and a single shot blasted over his right shoulder. Meadow dropped to the ground and the truck sped off. The trooper ran back to his cruiser, radioing he’d been shot at and was in pursuit of a gray Chevy Colorado pickup.
The call went out and police mobilized. Few things get them moving faster than someone trying to kill a cop. Kimble County Sheriff Hilario Cantu and Deputy Jack Noah heard the alert and prepared themselves to do their job.
Noticing the shotgun he’d grabbed on the way out wasn’t loaded, Cantu exchanged it for Noah’s assault rifle.
The sheriff and his deputy stationed themselves at a highway exit just west of Junction. Noah set up close to the guardrail in case he had to quickly bail out. Soon the sheriff saw a pickup heading their way “at a high rate of speed” and suddenly switching lanes.
High rate of speed? Suddenly changing lanes? These actions, according to Cantu based on his experience, were the telltale signs of someone fleeing from police.
Cantu raised his rifle as the truck approached. He fired as it sped past, pocking the vehicle with a line of ten bullet holes that ran from the front panel across the passenger door and into the rear of the cab. The truck drifted off the road about a quarter-mile ahead.
Ten rounds from his “assault rifle” into the pickup. Did he get the perp?
“Sheriff Cantu then looked back and saw that the actual suspect vehicle being pursued was now approaching,” a report from that day states. The vehicle he’d shot into was not a gray Colorado, but a white Silverado.
Upon seeing that the “actual suspect” was then approaching his position, something clicked in the Sheriff’s head: he just took out the wrong pickup. The only identifying information he possessed was that it was gray. The one he shot at was white.
Cantu said when he heard the shooter’s vehicle described as “gray” he thought “silver.”
“My wife had a gray silver truck. When the call came out I was looking for the color of my wife’s truck,” he said.
Mind you, silver still isn’t white, although it’s arguably closer. And if a sheriff can’t shoot at a moving pickup truck because his wife has a silver one, which seemed gray enough to him, what’s a cop with his “assault rifle” trying to stop a guy who shot at a fellow cop to do?
But beyond the dots connected between the shooter’s pickup and his wife’s, there was still his keen sixth cop sense.
The sheriff said he heard gunshots before he saw Reyes’ truck come into view. “I had only 10, 15 seconds before he got to me,” Cantu said. He said the way Reyes drove — fast and suddenly changing lanes — made it appear as though he was being chased. “I’ve been in 40, 50, 60 pursuits,” the sheriff said. “And the way people who are fleeing drive, there’s something about it you can tell.”
Assuming this description to be true, this wasn’t like the first or only person to be driving on Interstate 10 fast, and “suddenly” change lanes. But when you’re looking for someone fleeing, you interpret conduct as flight. Maybe you can “tell,” but maybe it’s just a guy driving on the interstate.
Hugo Reyes was returning from his job in the West Texas oilfields to his home in Edinburg. As he drove east, he chatted on the phone with his wife, Amparo Villareal, and his father-in-law.
“He told me he saw the police on the side of the road,” Villarreal recalled. “He thought it was weird that they had big guns.”
“Suddenly we heard this ruckus. I thought he’d gotten distracted and he’d hit somebody. Then the phone cut off.”
Reyes was shot, but fortunately not killed. He was just a guy coming home from work who had the grave misfortune of coming into range of Sheriff Cantu, who “can just tell.”
There was no answer when she tried calling. When Villarreal finally got a call from her husband’s phone it was from Cantu, she recalled. “He said he was the sheriff, and that [Hugo] had been shot. I said, ‘How is that even possible? I was just with him on the phone.'”
Notably, Reyes’ wife was told her husband “had been shot,” as opposed to Cantu informing her “I shot him.”
“He said it was a similar vehicle.” But, Villarreal said, “they are in no way, shape or form the same.”
Reyes suffered significant injuries and plans to sue. Cantu was neither fired nor disciplined, and didn’t file a report on his shooting until six months later, when a newspaper inquired about it. Was he at least sorry that he fired at a white pickup rather than a gray one, that he shot Reyes rather than the suspect, that his “split second decision” to pump ten rounds into a moving truck because his wife’s truck was silver and he “can just tell”?
Cantu said if he had to do it over again, his behavior wouldn’t change.
“If the same exact circumstances came up on the day after, I would do the same thing,” he said.
And if he did, Sheriff Cantu would still be shooting at the wrong guy, the wrong truck, because of his mistaken grasp of the situation, the color of the truck and his extremely poor ability to “just tell.” But then, inexcusable mistakes like this can take comfort from the Supreme Court, so no reason not to shoot first, think later.