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'He was just a scared kid' | Family of teen killed by deputy files claim against Stanislaus County Sheriff's Office

Mark Merin, a Sacramento Civil Rights Attorney says the 16-year-old exercised poor judgement at the moment but that didn't mean he deserved to die.

STANISLAUS COUNTY, Calif. — The family of a teen shot and killed by a Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy last month has filed a lawsuit against the department.

A claim was filed Friday against the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Office, Sheriff Jeff Dirkse and Deputy Gerardo Zazueta. The claim is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in state court.

The shooting happened near the intersection of Finch and McClure Roads in Modesto on May 18. Stanislaus County Sheriff’s officials initially said Xander Mann, the driver, was 17-year-old but clarified that he was 16.

Bodycam footage shows a Stanislaus County Sheriff’s deputy approaching the car, asking him to roll down the windows. Mann sped off when he was asked to turn off his vehicle, which led law enforcement on a 15-mile chase.  The Sheriff's office had previously said it was a 7-mile pursuit.

There were five teenagers in the vehicle. Mann was the only reported person in the car who was shot.

“It was scary, and it was really, really traumatizing,” said 14-year-old Valerie Kennedy, who was also in the car when the chase turned to deadly shooting occurred.

Kennedy said Mann took off because he was afraid of going back to juvenile hall. 

“He was just a scared kid," said Kennedy. "He was scared. He didn’t want to go back. He didn’t deserve it.”

Mark Merin, a Sacramento Civil Rights Attorney who is representing Mann's family says the 16-year-old exercised poor judgement in the moment but that doesn't mean he deserved to die.

"It's crazy to run away from an officer," said Merin. "It's not a crime punishable by death."

Merin says the 15 miles chase that lasted more than 20 minutes went too far. 

"How could you possibly justify shooting into a car occupied by teenagers because it was a traffic violation," said Merin.

WARNING: This video contains graphic content. Viewer discretion advised.

The pursuit came to a sudden end after the department says the suspect "attempted to use their car as a weapon by driving towards law enforcement vehicles."

Stanislaus County Sheriff's spokesperson Sgt. Luke Schwartz identified Field Training Officer Gerardo Zazueta as the officer who shot the teenager.

Zazueta worked for the Stanislaus Sheriff's Office for four years, according to Schwartz.

However, bodycam footage from Zazueta's point of view was never posted because his camera was never turned on. 

"Due to the rapid nature of how this critical incident unfolded, Deputy Zazueta did not activate his body-worn camera," said Dirkse.

The sheriff's office says Mann was the only one shot in the car but 14-year-old Kennedy said she was also hit by one of the bullets.

"On my neck, the bullet went past me and barely grazed my neck," said Kennedy. "I thought I was going to die too." 

Merin filed a claim against the sheriff's Office Friday.

In a statement to ABC10, Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse said: 

"Any loss of life, regardless of the circumstances is always tragic. Our officers are placed in a difficult situation when in pursuit of suspects.  Officer decisions must be made quickly and can depend on a host of factors. We recognize the community’s concerns and are fully investigating the circumstances leading up to events of May 18, 2021. We are in receipt of the claim and will review it in full."

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