A Santa Maria police officer was justified when he shot and killed his fellow officer and friend, Albert Covarrubias, during a planned arrest of Covarrubias gone wrong, District Attorney Joyce Dudley concluded in a report released Tuesday afternoon. Officer Matthew Kline shot Covarrubias with three contact hits — that is, the gun was touching his body when the rounds were fired. Two of the wounds — both to the neck — were fatal, and the other was stopped by a bulletproof vest.
But while the DA’s decision — which cleared Kline’s name — was limited to whether Kline acted justifiably, perhaps more important is that the report details how the miscommunication among higher-ups in the Santa Maria Police Department likely led to Covarrubias being tipped off that he was being investigated for an illicit sexual relationship with a minor, making him paranoid, suspicious, and suicidal, and leading to a dangerous situation for several officers in a public setting. “He knew that we knew,” Chief Danny Macagni said at a press conference in January. But how Covarrubias knew is now becoming more clear.
The 18-page report from the DA’s Office — which was published nearly five months after the January 28 incident — outlines the events leading up to the shooting and is based on an investigation by the Sheriff’s Department. The department conducted interviews and collected evidence, including video from a nearby security camera that captured some of the altercation.
Investigators were originally tipped off to text messages “of a romantic nature” between Covarrubias and the 17-year-old girl, who was a member of the department’s Explorers program. The witness’s story was corroborated by another witness, according to the report, and the next day, the first witness made a call — with authorities listening in — to the 17-year-old. The girl admitted she was “involved in an inappropriate relationship” with Covarrubias.
That night, a DUI checkpoint was planned, with both Covarrubias and the girl expected to be helping out. Lt. Dan Ast, who was investigating the alleged sexual crimes of Covarrubias, asked Lt. Rico Flores, who was in charge of the DUI checkpoint that night, for a list of the Explorers who would be at the checkpoint. Flores asked Ast why he wanted the information, but Ast told him he could not tell him, according to the report. Ast told Flores that nothing else should be said to anyone about the request.
But less than a half hour later in a briefing for the DUI checkpoint, Flores told officers — including Covarrubias — that Ast was making an inquiry about the Explorers but he didn’t know what it was about and that they should be “on their toes.” After the briefing, Covarrubias text-messaged the girl, telling her the Explorers were being scrutinized and not to tell anyone about their relationship. The two exchanged messages, saying they were both worried.
Flores later provided a list of names to Ast, who wrote down the teenager’s name along with three others to prevent Flores from knowing which Explorer was the focus of the investigation. Flores again asked what was going on, and Ast again told him to not talk to anyone, according to the report. But “Lt. Flores did not tell Lt. Ast at that time that he had already told his officers about the investigation,” the report said. And again at the checkpoint, according to the report, Flores went to each officer individually and told them that he didn’t know what was going on but to not worry about it.
Meanwhile, investigators were meeting. They decided they needed to interview the girl and possibly have her make a ruse phone call to Covarrubias. They had the girl’s parents pretend there was a family emergency, and they picked her up from the checkpoint. Shortly after, in an interview, the girl told police she and Covarrubias were having recent, ongoing sexual contact.
“I won’t go to jail,” the report quoted him as saying. “I’ll fucking … I’ll go out, but I won’t go to jail. I’ll tell you that.”
Investigators then set up a phone call where the teen — with investigators secretly listening — told Covarrubias she was pregnant and that she thought the baby was his. On the phone, Covarrubias admitted to having the sexual contact and told the girl to deny their relationship. “I won’t go to jail,” the report quoted him as saying. “I’ll fucking … I’ll go out, but I won’t go to jail. I’ll tell you that.” He was suspicious the call was a setup and also told the girl he would kill himself, according to the report.
Department officials decided they needed to make their move quickly. Rather than risk him leaving the checkpoint and not heading to the station, officials decided to arrest Covarrubias at the DUI checkpoint, which was beginning to wrap up.
Multiple officers shared concerns about arresting an on-duty police officer who had a weapon, with one asking Lt. Ast at one point, “Why are we rushing this?” Another “became concerned,” according to the report, “because he believed they were going to be trying to arrest an armed officer who knew he was under investigation and who was surrounded by other armed officers who had no idea what was going on.” As he did a few times, Ast responded by saying, “We need to do this now.”
Ast called ahead to Flores before the arresting officers headed to the checkpoint, finally including him in the information known to investigators. Ast asked Flores where Covarrubias was and to watch him carefully. Flores couldn’t locate Covarrubias and called out to an officer, “Where’s Covarrubias?” As it turned out, he was right behind Flores.
As arresting officers were on the way, Flores focused his attention specifically on Covarrubias yet again, calling him over to a team meeting. As the group was gathering, arresting officers arrived, with two of them walking directly to Covarrubias to make the arrest. “As they did so, Officer Covarrubias backed away from them,” according to the report. One officer reached for the suspect officer, who pulled his gun out. A shot was fired, and commotion broke out. Several officers were unclear what exactly was happening, but, according to the report, Kline at the very least recognized there was a “fight for life.” He saw a struggle over a weapon and “was concerned that someone was going to get shot if he did not act.”
Kline became upset after he fired the shots, though it sounds like Kline didn’t know whom he was shooting at when he fired. “I fucking shot him,” the report quotes him as saying. “I shot him. I had to shoot him. He pulled a gun out and shot at the sergeants. I had to … ” According to the report, “He believed it was the only way he could prevent someone else from getting shot.”
Not mentioned anywhere in the DA’s report was Macagni, raising questions of whether he knew of the investigation and planned arrest of one of his officers. Macagni, in response to a phone call and email Tuesday, directed questions to the city manager, who released a statement:
“[The city] intends to continue its investigation into this incident and include this information in the ongoing administrative review currently being conducted by outside independent investigators. With the completion of the criminal review by the Sheriff’s Department and District Attorney’s Office, the City continues to urge the public to be patient while the independent administrative process continues.”