UPDATED: COACHELLA: Search for suspect who shot deputy multiple times continues

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UPDATE: Saturday, May, 27, 4 p.m.

COACHELLA — Sheriff’s officials have identified, but are still searching for at least one man they say was involved in the May 25 shooting of a Riverside County sheriff’s deputy during a foot pursuit. The Thursday evening shooting left the deputy hospitalized with multiple gunshot wounds.

RSO press release

The deputy, whose name has been withheld, was airlifted to a hospital with “non-life threatening injuries” and is expected to fully recover, Riverside County Sheriff spokesman Deputy Armando Muñoz wrote in a press release after the shooting.

According to sheriff’s officials, Gildardo Davila, 27, who goes by the street monikers “Goofy” and “Gil Dog” was the man who shot and wounded the deputy.

The Coachella resident and documented member of the notorious and dangerous “Varrio Coachella Rifa” criminal street gang allegedly fled during a traffic stop.

He then fired on the deputy during a subsequent foot chase, according to Muñoz.

Varrio Coachella Rifa, a criminal street gang that is commonly referred to as VCR, is currently the subject of an ongoing gang injunction put in place by the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office about one year ago.

Different sources have listed Varrio Coachella Rifa as having between 340 and 400 members, of which law enforcement officials have identified about 300. Superior Court documents filed in support of the injunction listed about 120 known VCR members alphabetically. Davila is number 33 on the list.

The shooting that left a deputy with multiple gunshot wounds

Deputies flooded into the area after the injured deputy put out an emergency call for assistance. Loudlabs News Photo

Thursday evening’s incident began about 7:45 p.m., when a deputy from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Coachella Police Station attempted to conduct a traffic enforcement stop on a vehicle in the area of Harrison and First Streets in Coachella.

“The driver of the vehicle failed to stop and threw a handgun from the vehicle,” Muñoz explained.

Shortly afterward, the deputy located the same vehicle in the area of Calle Mendoza and Las Flores Avenue, just south of Sierra Vista Park.

Security camera footage obtained by sheriff’s officials and KESQ shows a small, yellow or light-colored car driving southbound on Calle Mendoza towards the “T” intersection of Las Flores Avenue. As the security footage continues, a patrol vehicle is seen speeding towards the car, at which time the footage shows a man leap from the driver’s seat of the still moving car.

The man, who officials later identified as Davila, can be seen fleeing on foot away from the car; first running south on Calle Mendoza, then east on Las Flores Street. As he is running, Davila can be seen carrying what appears to be a rectangular case or bag in his right hand.

The deputy, who at the time was still in his patrol vehicle, is seen on the video racing around the suspect’s car as it slowed to a stop.

Deputies immediately began setting up a perimeter around the area where the shooting suspect was last seen. Loudlabs News Photo

Both the fleeing man and the deputy in the pursuing patrol vehicle then leave the right (east) side of the screen towards a cul-de-sac and a triangular dirt field adjacent to the Whitewater River.

Highway 86 is further to the east, just past the river. Vista Del Sol Elementary School and a large agricultural field are located to the south.

Moments later, a second person is seen exiting and fleeing from the vehicle. He is last seen running the opposite direction, northwest on Calle Mendoza.

At some point after Davila and the deputy leave the screen, the deputy exited his patrol vehicle and began chasing the fleeing man on foot.

As the deputy chased Davila, “the suspect, who was armed with a handgun, shot and injured the officer,” said Muñoz.

Officials did not specify the exact location where Davila shot and injured the deputy or which direction the suspect was believed to have fled after the shooting. However, between the riverbed, Highway 86, a school and several large open fields, Davila could have easily disappeared in any direction after the shooting.

Sheriff’s officials have not yet released if the injured deputy managed to return fire before being struck. Officials have also not specified the exact nature or extent of the deputies gunshot wounds; however, several news outlets have reported he was shot in the hand and shoulder.

Sheriff’s officials converged on a Mobile Command Center to coordinate the search for Davila. Loudlabs News Photo

After he was shot, the deputy put out an emergency call for assistance, according to Munoz. The deputies call for help brought a flood of law enforcement officials from multiple agencies, jurisdictions and stations throughout the Coachella Valley and surrounding areas.

Officials from multiple agencies worked together to establish a perimeter around the enormous open area surrounding where the shooting happened and the numerous areas Davila could have fled to.

Firefighter/paramedics responded to the scene and immediately began treating the deputy’s gunshot wounds. Medical personnel called for the injured deputy to be airlifted to a nearby hospital for further treatment.

During the subsequent hours-long search and investigation, patrol vehicles with flashing red and blue lights and heavily armed law enforcement officers could be seen on almost every street and at every corner and intersection in the area.

Riverside County Sheriff’s Emergency Response (SERT/SWAT) Team members responded to the scene and conducted a thorough, yard-to-yard search throughout the residential neighborhood. They also searched the nearby riverbed and other surrounding areas.

While SERT members and other law enforcement officials combed the area and a sheriff’s helicopter circled overhead, residents who lived in the area were reportedly advised via the helicopter’s PA system and by officials on the ground to remain inside their homes, lock their doors and call 911 immediately if they saw anything or anyone suspicious.

An officer searches a vehicle’s trunk for the suspect. Loudlabs News Photo

During their search, officials called for the temporary closure of Tyler Street from Avenue 50 to Avenue 52 trying to contain and apprehend Davila.

While the “massive search effort” was still underway, after Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff visited the injured deputy and his family at the hospital, he reportedly spent part of Friday morning at a Mobile Command Center that had been set up not far from where the shooting occurred.

Although officials were able to quickly identify Davila, in spite of their extensive and exhaustive search efforts, they were not able to locate him.

“Davila…is believed to be armed and dangerous,” according to Muñoz.

Investigators from the Sheriff’s Central Homicide Unit and Coachella Police Station responded to the location and assumed control of the investigation.

How social media is playing an ever-increasing role

in law enforcement-related notifications during major incidents

Throughout the hours-long incident, the Sheriff’s Media Information Bureau provided a continuous stream of relevant and timely updates to the public, keeping citizens constantly updated on the progress of the ongoing search and investigation.

In one Twitter update, MIB members tweeted “Search continues, residents lock all doors and windows and shelter in place. Please call 911 to report all suspicious activity.”

In other tweets, MIB members provided Davila’s physical and clothing descriptions when he was last seen. They later provided his full name.

A final tweet from the MIB regarding the incident read in-part, “Search 4 Davila continues and will NOT STOP until caught.”

Sheriff Sniff also used social media as a means of quickly and efficiently disseminating pertinent information about the incident.

On his Facebook page, the sheriff and his staff thanked the community on Friday “for all (their) texts, calls and prayers as a result of this incident.”

Authorities also posted updates on the sheriff’s Facebook page that Sniff had visited the wounded deputy and his family the night of the shooting. Officials wrote that in spite of suffering “multiple gunshot wounds,” the deputy was “alert, conscious and in good spirits.”

After the shooting, City of Coachella Mayor Steven Hernandez also took to social media, railing against Davila and how his actions affected the entire city.

Hernandez posted on his Facebook page and told Desert Sun, “I’m not going to let one asshole hinder or speak to the progress we’ve made.”

Hernandez went on to write, “(Davila) is not representative of who we are,” and he described the suspect as, “no different than a cop-killer in my opinion.”

In another message Hernandez said, “We are relieved that the deputy is OK and we are very pleased that the Sheriff’s Department has identified a suspect involved in the shooting,” and said that the City and Sheriff’s Department are committing “every available resource to capture the suspect as soon as possible.”

Is an injunction filed against Varrio Coachella Rifa

helping quell Coachella’s “rampant gang violence?”

Previously sealed Superior Court documents filed in 2016 by Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin in support of an injunction against Varrio Coachella Rifa and its members provide a stark account of how the gang and its members have used violence, threats of violence, intimidation and all manner of criminal activity to control citizens within and around Coachella.

In Superior Court paperwork Hestrin described the gang as a “violent, turf-based, predominantly Hispanic criminal street gang.”

The documents show Hestrin alleged that VCR gang members “invoke the gang’s name as a sword to create fear and intimidation when committing crimes, and invoke the gang’s name as a shield to intimidate victims and witnesses in order to escape responsibility for their criminal and nuisance behavior.”

The documents go on to explain that VCR gang members have engaged in “a substantial number of crimes,” which have resulted in a community plagued by murders, attempted murders, carjackings, robberies, vehicle thefts, assaults, commercial thefts and countless other violent and property-related crimes.

In the court documents Hestrin alleged how the actions of VCR members “endanger the lives of citizens and shatter the sense of peace and security of the people who live and work within Coachella” and “demonstrate a blatant disregard for the lives and safety of the innocent victims” while they “terrorize and intimidate” community members “who live in constant fear that shootings or other random acts of violence may break out at any moment.”

In support of the injunction, Deputy District Attorney Kirsten Seebart, lead prosecutor in the case against VCR, wrote, “Like human bullet magnets, the mere presence of a VCR gang member draws violence to his location.” She went on to say, “Residents in (Coachella) are in danger of being hit by stray bullets just sitting in their own homes or on their front steps.”

Riverside County sheriff’s deputy and gang expert George Acevedo echoed that sentiment in a declaration he wrote in support of the injunction explaining, “Coachella gang members do not care about the devastation and destruction they cause in their community. In fact, most Coachella gang members live to create chaos, fear and violence.”

The documents also allege VCR gang members “regularly engage in drug use, drug sales, trespass, reckless evasion of police officers, obstruction of peace officers in the course of their duties, vandalism of public and private property with gang graffiti, and the intimidation of people who live, work, visit and pass through (Coachella).”

“Unapologetic violence” and “aggressive recruitment of children”

hallmarks of Varrio Coachella Rifa, according to officials

In a March, 2016 article titled “The Warlords of Coachella” Desert Sun reporter Brett Kelman wrote, “Unapologetic violence is the hallmark of Varrio Coachella Rifa, a growing gang whose members outnumber Coachella police 10 to one.”

“Authorities have described the gang…as an “umbrella gang” that oversees six to eight other gangs, including Coachella Tiny Locos, 50 Boys and chapters identified by Avenue 52 and Avenue 53,” Kelman wrote. “Together, they have terrorized Coachella for decades.”

VCR has also been tied to numerous homicides and its members are suspected in many more. Over a four-year span from 2012 until 2016, 86 percent of the murders in Coachella were suspected to have been gang-related, according to officials. Many of those were either proven to be or believed to have been committed by VCR gang members.

According to declarations from 371 law enforcement officers from throughout the Coachella area – each of whom has had personal interactions with known VCR gang members – in addition to their many other criminal activities, members associated with the gang are known to aggressively recruit teens and young children into their gang, sometimes right from school campuses throughout the area.

Once recruited into the gang – often times with threats of violence or promises of protection, money and/or drugs – the youngest members are often turned into “foot soldiers” for the gang.

These minors are then sometimes entrusted or even forced into transporting, delivering and selling narcotics, weapons, stolen property and other illegal items in furtherance of bringing financial gain, power and influence to the gang.

According to experts across the nation, gangs such as VCR often prefer to use children to carry out many of their criminal activities because members know that minors will most likely be tried in juvenile court. Even if convicted, most minors will not be held to serve sentences anywhere near the length of time an adult would be sentenced to for committing the same crime.

How the injunction works

The gang injunction against VCR is basically a lawsuit against a criminal organization that acts like a restraining order, listing the protected party as a city instead of a person. The injunction is set to last for a five-year period.

Hestrin has previously said the injunction would greatly increase police powers in Coachella by prohibiting known and identified VCR gang members from engaging in many normally legal activities and require them to abide by a 10 p.m. curfew.

Among other barred activities, the injunction prohibits VCR members from gathering in public or being together in groups, wearing “gang apparel” or colors associated with the gang and from displaying gang signs. They are also forbidden from conducting any gang activity within any area designated by the injunction as part of a designated “Safety Zone.” In the injunction, the Safety Zone is broken down street-by-street and covers most of Coachella.

The search for Davila continues 

as officials continue to piece together exactly what led to the shooting

Authorities have not released any information related to the passenger seen exiting the vehicle or stated how early in their investigation they became aware of the other occupant from the vehicle. It was also not known if officials had identified and/or interviewed the second person.

According to officials, the search for Davila is active and ongoing.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department is encouraging anyone with information regarding this investigation to contact Investigator Dickey of the Central Homicide Unit at (951) 955-2777 or Investigator Nieburger at (760)863-8990.

Callers can refer to incident file number C171450069 and can remain anonymous. Citizens may also submit a tip using the Sheriff’s CrimeTips online form. Tipsters can also provide information anonymously by contacting Valley Crime Stoppers at (760) 341-STOP.

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

Click any image to open full-size gallery.

Video posted by Desert Sun of press conference with Deputy Armando Muñoz


Contact the writer: trevor.rcns@gmail.com

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Trevor Montgomery runs Riverside County News Source and Shasta County News Source. Additionally, he writes for Riverside County based newspapers, Valley News and Anza Valley Outlook and also writes for Bonsall/Fallbrook Village News in San Diego County.

Trevor spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg and breaking his back in an off-duty accident.

During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including Robert Presley Detention Center, Southwest Station in Temecula, Hemet/Valle Vista Station, Ben Clark Public Safety Training Center and Lake Elsinore Station, along with other locations.

Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team and Personnel/Background Investigations. He finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator and was a court-designated expert in child abuse and child sex-related crimes.

Trevor has been married for more than 26 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 12 – soon to be 13 – grandchildren.