Seeking Justice for the Killing of Alex Gonzales
Gonzales’ mother says, “I will not stop”
Time is running out for Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon to discipline Gabriel Gutierrez and Luis Serrato, the officers involved in one of the more troubling police killings of recent years – the 2021 shooting death of Alex Gonzales. A Travis County grand jury declined to prosecute the officers in late December; by the terms of APD's employment contract with the police union, the chief has until Jan. 26 to take action. "Part of the process includes a presentation of the investigative findings to the Community Police Review Commission," Chacon told us via a spokesperson. "It will take place this month before the deadline. Once the commission has reviewed the investigation and provided feedback, the investigation will conclude."
Gonzales' mother, Elizabeth, remains heartbroken and furious two years after her son's killing. She wants the officers fired. "They murdered my son," Gonzales repeated over and over at a Jan. 9 Public Safety Commission meeting, staring directly at Chacon's chief of staff, Robin Henderson. "And I will not quit saying that. Gutierrez and Serrato, they need to lose their jobs and never hold a gun again in their lives."
State law keeps the testimony heard by a grand jury secret when it no-bills a suspect, so it's unlikely the public will learn what led up to Gonzales' killing on Jan. 5, 2021. There are two versions of the events. Gutierrez, who was off duty and driving his personal car that evening, told investigators that Gonzales pulled in front of him as he drove in Southeast Austin, then slowed down and pointed a gun at him. The officer said he raised his own gun and shot several times at Gonzales.
The narrative advanced in the lawsuits filed by Gonzales' parents and the mother of his child reverses the action, saying that Gutierrez cut Gonzales off and then slowed to allow the cars to come side by side. There is no dispute about what happened next: Gutierrez shot Gonzales and his partner, Jessica Arellano, while their 3-month-old son sat in the backseat. According to Arellano's lawsuit, Gonzales was hit in the face. She was shot in the arm, back, and lungs.
After the shooting, both drivers parked and Gutierrez placed a 911 call: "The female passenger, she's lying on the ground. She's saying, 'My baby, my baby, my baby.' … The driver, he's standing. He's got blood all over his face." Seconds after Gutierrez finished the call, officers Serrato and Brian Nenno arrived. Dash camera video shows them pointing their guns and ordering Gonzales to raise his hands. Gonzales does so – there is no gun in his hand.
Then he stumbles around the car toward Arellano, as Serrato screams, "Don't reach!" Gonzales opens the rear door of the car, where his baby is sitting, and pushes his head inside. Serrato fires 10 times at Gonzales' side and back, killing him and shattering the car's windshield. The baby is unharmed. According to Elizabeth Gonzales, who has seen the unedited police video, officers then handcuff Gonzales' dead body.
Austin Justice Coalition Policy Director Chris Harris says that Gutierrez and Serrato violated APD policy by using unreasonable force and making no effort to de-escalate the situation. "It's clear to me that these are people who should not have the power to make life-or-death decisions, should not have the power to carry weapons and use force at their discretion in the community," Harris said. "So I stand in solidarity with the family's demand that these officers be fired." Harris was surprised that District Attorney José Garza didn't secure indictments in the Gonzales case, as he has in other police violence cases, such as the deaths of Javier Ambler, Mike Ramos, and Mauris DeSilva, and the many life-altering injuries sustained by 2020 Black Lives Matter protesters. He and Elizabeth Gonzales met with Garza on Jan. 6 but, given the grand jury secrecy rules, there was little the D.A. could say about the decision. They told us that Gonzales described her grief and the D.A. expressed his condolences.
Chacon has not yet responded to the demands that he fire Gutierrez and Serrato. If he declines to discipline the officers and they eventually return to active duty, the last avenue for accountability will be the lawsuits, which are expected to seek tens of millions of dollars from the named defendants – the officers and the city. However, if the suits are successful it will be the city's taxpayers, not the officers, who pay.
This is the remedy that police leaders and City Manager Spencer Cronk have indicated they prefer to officer indictments. Harris prefers instead that Chacon take action, explaining that lawsuits offer a modicum of accountability but no transparency. "Overwhelmingly," he said, "they end in settlements with a municipality claiming no wrongdoing and plaintiffs swearing to secrecy about what they've learned through the course of a suit."
Elizabeth Gonzales, in conversations with the Chronicle and in public comments, said that the killing of her son has destroyed her faith in the police. She promises to help lead future protests against police violence. "You better take me serious," she told the commissioners on Jan. 9. "I'm not playing and I'm not going to stop. I'm the voice of my son and I will not stop."