Wrongful death suits filed in San Juan County deputy's shooting of Navajo man

Jan. 26—The mother of a man fatally shot by a San Juan County Sheriff's Office deputy near Shiprock in July has filed wrongful death lawsuits in state and federal courts, contending the officer used excessive force because her son was unarmed.

The sheriff's office released a statement the day after the shooting that said two civilians and a deputy saw Shawn Marvin Thomas with a weapon before the shooting. The agency was unable to find one after afterward and believed Thomas had been in possession of a "replica gun" which was destroyed when his car caught fire immediately after the incident.

A spokeswoman for the San Juan County Sheriff's Office declined comment Tuesday, but confirmed Jon Gonzales, the deputy who shot Thomas, is still on the job.

Thomas — a 36-year-old father of two — was a citizen of the Navajo Nation, and the police pursuit which ended in his death started on the reservation after a woman called 911 to report he had nearly crashed into her and another person at a gas station, then become irate and brandished a weapon before taking off.

Sheriff's deputies pursued Thomas after he left the reservation, according to the lawsuit, and used a "stop stick" of spikes in the road to disable his vehicle.

Dash camera footage released by the sheriff's office shows Thomas stopped and got out of the vehicle after the tires blew out. He then got back in and was attempting to flee again when Gonzales began shooting through the vehicle's back window.

The video shows one officer — a more experienced sergeant, according to the lawsuit — pulled a stun gun when he got out to confront Thomas. According to the lawsuit, Gonzales ran up and began firing.

Gonzales did not have a clear view of Thomas, the lawsuit says, but shot him "despite Mr. Thomas posing no threat and having no gun."

Thomas suffered four gunshot wounds to his head and neck, according to the lawsuits.

His vehicle abruptly went off the side of an embankment and crashed into a tree after the shooting, video footage shows.

Deputies removed Thomas' body from the vehicle, which then burst into flames.

No weapon was recovered.

San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferarri said in a video statement the day after the shooting Thomas had been found in possession of a replica handgun in the past.

"We now suspect he was in possession of a replica handgun again during this incident," Ferarri said.

"The car fire destroyed the interior of the vehicle and all of its contents," Ferarri continued, adding the evidence had been sent to the state crime laboratory for analysis.

Thomas' mother Matilda Clah's lawsuits seek an unspecified amount of actual and punitive damages from the state of New Mexico, San Juan County and the sheriff's office.

"I just want justice for my son," Clah said in a phone interview. "The person that shot my son should have known better, to use a taser or talk him out of it — he would have listened — instead of shooting him in the back."

The Farmington Police Department investigated the shooting and sent its report to the 11th Judicial District Attorney's Office for review in October, a spokeswoman wrote in an email Tuesday.

Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said the office is still reviewing evidence in the case.

Depending on what the evidence shows, he said, the office will make a determination as to whether the shooting was justified or ask the New Mexico District Attorney Association to put together a panel of prosecutors from outside the region to conduct another review.