Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Files: Three to the Hands, Two to the Chest

Michael Ledesma Almost Got the Suicide By Cop He Wanted

A bloodied hat worn by Michael Ledesma. "RIP Knuckles" it reads, in reference to his friend and alleged fellow gang member Jose Ortega, who'd recently been fatally shot by police. | Credit: Courtesy

In June, following the death of George Floyd and amid renewed scrutiny over how and when law enforcement officers use physical force against civilians, the Independent filed a California Public Records Act request with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office for information on serious use-of-force incidents dating back to 2010. The Sheriff’s Office is releasing the records on a rolling basis, and these reports will be published as the information is made available.

The video shows Michael Ledesma slowly walking with his arms outstretched toward CHP Sgt. Dan Barba. In his left hand, Ledesma holds a five-inch pocket knife. “Shoot me!” he yells in a separate audio recording. “Shoot me!” Barba orders him to stop. “Drop it!” he shouts. “Get back! Get back!”

It is 4:06 p.m. on July 15, 2012, and the two are face-to-face next to Barba’s cruiser on a quiet stretch of Highway 135 just north of Los Alamos. Minutes earlier, Ledesma’s ex-girlfriend, Elisa Morales, had frantically called 9-1-1 to report Ledesma was in her car with their one-year-old daughter and threatening to kill himself. The two had been fighting over their recently ended relationship, and Ledesma, who was drinking heavily, pulled out the knife and cut his hand.

“He said when the cops come he’s gonna have them shoot him,” Morales told the dispatcher, relaying she was also scared for herself and her baby. “He’s suicidal.” The video footage was captured by the dashcam of Barba’s backup, Sgt. Richard Soto with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. (Warning: graphic content ahead.)

Ledesma pushes closed the car door separating him and Barba and then stops, his arms still up at his sides. “Fucking shoot me!” Barba sees blood on Ledesma’s shirt. He worries it might be the child’s. He opens fire, aiming for Ledesma’s left hand. The first bullet rips through the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. The second punches through his wrist. Ledesma hardly flinches.

In later interviews with detectives, Barba claimed Ledesma didn’t drop the knife, but Morales, outside her car a short distance up the road, said he let go after the first shot. The left side of Ledesma’s body is blocked from view in the video, and the knife is not visible.


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Barba pauses and then, for reasons unclear, aims for Ledesma’s empty right hand, firing again and striking his right wrist. The next two bullets hit Ledesma square in the chest. It takes Barba just over five seconds to squeeze off all five rounds while Ledesma appears to stand nearly in place. He was airlifted to the hospital and survived. “I don’t know how many shots I…” Barba starts to say to a responding CHP officer at the scene. “You did what you had to do,” the officer interrupts. “You fired as many as you had to.”

Barba, a 23-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, who’d been placed on “stress leave” for three years in the early 2000s, explains to the officer he’d tried to unholster his Taser but fumbled and dropped it so reached for his gun.

“He was advancing. He was almost to my hood. I started to retreat,” he says. “I shot him two or three times in the hands and he just stood there. Looked like he kept coming. … That’s when I went to the body.”

Other law enforcement personnel at the scene reported to investigators that the shooting left Barba “shaken up, concerned, emotional, and maybe a little in shock.” One of the responding paramedics knew him personally and gave him a hug before taking off in the air ambulance.

A few months later, District Attorney Joyce Dudley determined that Barba used an “appropriate amount of force,” given the circumstances. The official incident report describes Ledesma holding his knife in the “high ready” position and moving quickly and aggressively toward Barba when he opened fire.

Ledesma, 19 years old at the time and a Santa Maria resident, was initially charged with attempted murder of a peace officer. Barba, however, admitted during a pre-trial hearing that he never heard Ledesma threaten to stab or kill him. Ledesma ultimately took a plea deal that put two strikes on his record and sent him to prison for six years on felony counts of assault on a peace officer, domestic violence, and being a member of Santa Maria’s “North West” street gang.

Just weeks before the incident, Ledesma’s good friend and purported fellow gang member Jose Ortega had been shot and killed by Santa Maria police in the alley behind a 7-Eleven on North Broadway Street. Police said Ortega was armed with a handgun and rushed toward officers. Ledesma was distraught by his friend’s death and had recently sought counseling through the county’s CARES program, Morales told investigators.

“I ain’t doing good,” Ledesma says in a YouTube video posted after Ortega’s funeral.

Investigators also spoke to Ledesma’s parents at the hospital the afternoon of the shooting. “Shot him five times,” his mother said through tears. “In each arm, in the chest. They could have Tased him. Why did they have to fucking shoot him?”

When the couple learned their son was technically in custody and they would have to follow jail visitation protocols to see him, they became enraged. Hospital security was called and the intensive care unit was locked down. Shifts of Sheriff’s deputies were then stationed outside Ledesma’s room until he was well enough to be transported to jail.

Of the eight police shootings in northern Santa Barbara County in 2012, Ledesma was the only person to survive.


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