Last March, Jose Mendoza took a 9mm bullet to the face.
The off-duty Chicago cop who shot him claimed Mendoza was trying to break into his home. But Mendoza, who remains jailed nearly a year later, says he had simply gone to the wrong building by accident—and that surveillance video from the scene proves it.
Mendoza, who was partially blinded by the shooting, was charged with residential burglary, criminal trespass to a residence, and home invasion, a Class X felony that carries up to 30 years in prison. The case made headlines in the Windy City, and largely painted Mendoza as little more than a violent criminal who got what he deserved.
But in a federal lawsuit filed in Illinois federal court, Mendoza, 33, says he had been out drinking after work with a group of colleagues and mistakenly thought he was in fact at the front door of a buddy’s place, where he planned to spend the night.
“The video speaks loudly and clearly for itself,” attorney Jerry Bischoff, who represents Mendoza, told The Daily Beast on Thursday, saying that Mendoza was clearly not committing a crime.
“He was supposed to stay at a friend’s apartment not far from the building he entered,” Bischoff said, adding that Smith additionally failed to render aid to Mendoza as he lay on the floor bleeding out. “He is clearly a young man who had a bit too much to drink and entered the wrong building. However, he posed no threat. He had no weapons. He has no criminal history. He's a father. He worked full time. Now he is permanently disabled.”
The doomed interaction began shortly after 1 a.m. on March 31, 2021, when Mendoza entered the lobby of 3151 W. Belle Plaine Ave., in Chicago’s Albany Park section.
Footage from one of the building’s security cameras, which was released in November by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA), an official oversight board which investigates officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force incidents by Chicago police, shows a woozy Mendoza looking unsteady on his feet.
Mendoza was wearing a jacket from the cable company where he worked, and sat down on the floor for a stretch. He then stood up and leaned against the wall to steady himself, then sat on the steps for a few more minutes before lying down on the floor.
“[B]elieving he had arrived at the apartment building where his friend resided… [Mendoza]... waited in the vestibule for approximately ten minutes,” Mendoza’s lawsuit states.
At this point, Mendoza can be seen wobbling up five steps to Officer Iwan Smith’s first-floor apartment, where Smith was watching television with his wife and 21-month-old daughter.
Mendoza, who was unarmed, “briefly began to turn the door handle of apartment #1W back and forth,” the lawsuit states. “At no time did he attempt to forcibly enter the apartment. After less than thirty seconds, [Mendoza] stepped away from the door and sank down to the floor with his back resting against the wall. He had nothing in his hands.”
That’s when Smith “walked over to the safe in his closet, retrieved his service weapon, opened the front door to his apartment and confronted” Mendoza, according to the lawsuit, arguing that Smith should have called 911 and requested assistance before taking matters into his own hands. Mendoza was still squatting on the floor, with his back to the wall.
“As Officer Smith opened the door, [Mendoza] slowly stood up,” the suit explains. “He turned to face Officer Smith who immediately shot [Mendoza] in the face.”
Mendoza never made physical contact with Smith, and did not make any threatening gestures, according to the video footage. Smith, for his part, never identified himself as a police officer, and did not make “any attempts to de-escalate the situation,” the lawsuit contends, noting that it was only after Smith fired his weapon that he told his wife to call 911.
“Upon being shot in the face, [Mendoza] fell to the floor and began to bleed out,” the filing goes on. “Officer Smith never patted [Mendoza] down to determine if he possessed a weapon. At no time did Officer Smith attempt to render [Mendoza] first aid. Instead, as [Mendoza] writhed about in a growing pool of his own blood, Officer Smith kicked him away from his door.”
“It was very painful to see those videos,” Mendoza’s mother, Rachel Mendoza, told NBC Chicago, which first reported on the lawsuit. “It tears my heart, and I try to be strong. It’s very hard.”When police arrived, Smith “merely stepped over” a semi-conscious Mendoza to open the door for them, according to the lawsuit. Cops called for an ambulance, and Mendoza was taken to Illinois Masonic Hospital. There, doctors admitted him to the ICU, where Mendoza was intubated in critical condition.
“He pushed in my door—” Smith tells responding officers in bodycam video from the scene.“Hang tight, hang tight before you talk to anybody,” one of the cops tells him. “Hang tight.”
Smith proceeds to say that Mendoza “forced his way in,” as firefighters enter the lobby with a stretcher.
According to Mendoza’s lawsuit, only one weapon was found at the scene: Smith’s Glock.
Smith was taken to Resurrection Hospital “for stress,” a tactical incident report from the Chicago PD said.“Despite the fact that [Mendoza] never entered Officer Smith’s apartment, nor attempted to enter with the intent to commit a felony therein, he was charged by the Chicago Police Department with felony home invasion,” the lawsuit states.
Mendoza, who had a pending DUI case at the time of his arrest, continues to be held on $1 million bond. He is due next in court on April 12, according to jail records.
In his lawsuit, which names Smith and the City of Chicago as defendants, Mendoza is asking for a jury trial and wants punitive damages, compensatory damages, and reimbursement for lawyers’ fees.
Smith was dismissed from the force last June, and was unable to be reached for comment on Thursday. In an email to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Law said, “The City does not comment on pending litigation.”
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