PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Riverside County has agreed to pay nearly $7 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit after a sheriff’s deputy was accused of killing a Coachella man during a jealous rage in a love triangle.
Deputy Oscar Rodriguez allegedly pinned Luis Morin Jr. to the ground and shot him at point blank range,according a lawsuit by Morin's family filed in federal court. The killing occurred on Jan. 27, 2014, in front of Morin’s mother, as she and her son came home from a family birthday party.
Rodriguez has said that he was attempting to arrest Morin for two outstanding warrants, but attorneys in the lawsuit claim his true reasons were much more personal. Attorneys contend that Rodriguez was having an affair with Morin’s girlfriend, Diana Perez, and that Rodriguez killed Morin out of jealously after Perez ended the relationship.
“Isn’t it true that you wanted Luis Morin dead and out of the way so that you could continue a relationship with Diana Perez?” attorney Brett Greenfield asked Rodriguez during a deposition.
“I’m exercising my Fifth Amendment right not to testify,” Rodriguez responded.
Morin, 39, a self-employed mechanic, was a father of four who enjoyed taking his kids to the beach, according to family members. The settlement will now help support those children, with additional money going to Morin’s mother, father and the family's attorneys. County coffers will pay for $1 million of the settlement and insurance will cover the rest, county spokesman Ray Smith said.
The lawsuit is one of the most dramatic and expensive cases of its kind in the recent history of Coachella Valley police. The $6.95 million settlement, which was final in January, is more than twice as large as those in other local police shooting lawsuits, and the allegations are so startling that they prompted authorities to re-open a criminal investigation into the shooting.
The District Attorney's Office had initially closed the case, saying Rodriguez had committed no crime, then re-opened it after the love triangle accusations surfaced. Today, more than two years after the shooting, the criminal investigation is ongoing.
The sheriff's department has kept Rodriguez on paid leave since September, when details of the love triangle were revealed in a deposition transcript filed in federal court.
Greenfield aggressively questioned Rodriguez about his relationship with Perez and his motivations for attacking Morin, the transcript shows.
The attorney claimed that Rodriguez met Perez while responding to police complaints about Morin, then used his law enforcement position to “lure” her into an affair. Later, when Rodriguez became afraid the affair would be discovered, he began to plot against the couple, Greenfield alleged.
“Isn’t it true that you knew Diana Perez and Luis Morin were very much in love with each other?” the attorney asked.
“Isn’t it true that it bothered you that they were going to have a future together that didn’t involve you?”
“And isn’t it, in fact, true that you were worried about that information getting out, and in fact, Luis Morin was the one who was going to tell everybody about that information, specifically that you were having a sexual relationship with the mother of his children?”
Rodriguez’s response to every question was the same: “I’m exercising my Fifth Amendment right not to testify.”
This exchange occurred in September, as attorneys prepared for what had publicly appeared as a routine lawsuit over allegations of excessive force. Three weeks later, county attorneys asked for more time to prepare a defense, saying that Greenfield had “dropped a bombshell” by presenting a “new theory of premeditated murder.”
Morin’s relatives have alleged murder all along.
According to their complaint, the shooting occurred when Rodriguez ambushed Morin outside his mother’s house on Camino Real in Coachella. Rodriguez was hiding in the bushes near the house, then snuck up on Morin from behind, kicked him in the back of the knees.
The lawsuit says Morin managed to “get away from Rodriguez,” but then fell down as they tried to go into the house. Rodriguez then climbed on top of Morin and put him in a “body restraint,” which is a strap used by police to hogtie suspects.
Then Rodriguez pulled his gun.
“Don’t hurt him!” shouted Maria Gomez, Morin’s mother, according to the lawsuit.
Rodriguez then shot Morin at least once, the suit says. The scene began to draw a crowd of family members and neighbors, then Rodriguez supposedly pointed his gun at them, announcing that he “would not call for an ambulance until he had backup.” The lawsuit says that Morin died in the spot, on his mother’s lawn.
Luis Morin's cousin, Pedro Morin Jr, said Tuesday that Rodriguez "robbed" the family of a loving, peaceful man.
He described the family as stuck in an impossible situation, with nowhere to turn for help.
“When you are in trouble, who is the first person you call? 911.” Pedro Morin said. “But when it’s 911 coming after you, what do you do?”
Riverside County presented a very different version of the Morin shooting.
According to a joint report, filed in court to summarize both sides of the case, the county claimed that Morin resisted arrest, and that Rodriguez was knocked to the ground during a struggle. The county also claimed that Morin tried to grab Rodriguez’s gun, and that the deputy fired a single shot "in self-defense."
An ambulance was then “promptly summoned."
Rodriguez's attorney, Doug Smith, did not respond to request for comment on Tuesday. Three attorneys for the county did not respond to requests for comment either.
Follow Brett Kelman on Twitter: @TDSbrettkelman