A Waco police officer inadvertently shot the grandfather of a 19-year-old man while responding to a reported disturbance last month, officials confirmed Sunday.
It’s what family members of Tommy Smith have been saying for weeks but the department had not disclosed until conclusive reports returned.
Authorities say Smith, 60, was struggling with his grandson, Alexander Howard Mendoza, who was holding an AR-15 rifle when Waco officers Francisco Reyes and Timothy Bonovitch arrived at a home in the 2000 block of Lyle Avenue on March 18.
Officials allege Mendoza moved the weapon in a threatening manner toward officers, leading Reyes to open fire in defense of himself and others.
Family members say Smith was standing behind Mendoza, restraining his grandson’s arms in a “bear hug” maneuver and with his hands gripped around the gun, which they say was pointed at the ceiling.
The bullet pierced the top of Smith’s hand, going through the tip of his ring finger and continuing into his grandson’s abdomen, according to family members.
Mendoza, who did not suffer life-threatening injuries, was charged with attempted capital murder.
While authorities acknowledged the night of the shooting that Smith was injured in the incident, they said the origin of the wound was under investigation.
Late last week, medical records released to detectives revealed the wound was a gunshot, thought to have been fired from an officer’s weapon, Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said.
Sunday afternoon, Vicky Smith, Tommy Smith’s wife, expressed relief that Waco police publicly confirmed the findings, but said she was frustrated that officials had not directly contacted family members about the development. She added that the cause of the wound was “obvious.”
Swanton described Tommy Smith’s injury as an unfortunate byproduct of a dangerous situation caused by Mendoza’s actions.
“The officer was facing a threat from a very deadly weapon,” he said, adding that investigators think the officer was justified in shooting.
Call to police
Family members said Mendoza was distraught the night of the shooting, arguing with his girlfriend, locking himself in a bathroom and breaking things in the home, when his grandfather called police.
The call further upset Mendoza, who stated he would kill himself before going to jail, Tommy Smith said. Mendoza then broke into a locked closet, retrieving what family members said was an unloaded AR-15. Tommy Smith, trying to stop Mendoza, kicked his grandson in the head, he said.
Mendoza was holding the gun against his chest, the barrel of the rifle pointed toward the ceiling, as the grandfather stood behind him, restraining him, when officers approached, Tommy Smith said.
A solid wood door to the home was open, family members said, giving officers a view of the scene through a glass door.
Tommy Smith said officers entered the home without announcing themselves, one opening fire without warning.
His injury led to the amputation of the tip of his ring finger and tendon damage, according to family members, who added that more surgery is expected for Tommy Smith, who they say is diagnosed with heart disease and other pre-existing health problems.
They added they did not understand why police opened fire if Mendoza intended to harm only himself, and contend that Mendoza never aimed the rifle at an officer.
Sunday afternoon, Mendoza remained in the McLennan County Jail under a $30,000 bond on a charge of attempted capital murder.
The Smiths and their daughter, Jennifer Hartline, are hopeful that officials will consider a reduced charge for Mendoza, which they think would be more appropriate than attempted capital murder.
Hartline described Mendoza as a hardworking teen who is well-liked at his job.
“He’s not a criminal,” she wrote in an email to the Tribune-Herald. “He’s a good kid who didn’t know how to handle despair.”
Evidence does not support an attempted capital murder charge, said Seth Sutton, Mendoza’s attorney.
“It took them 15 minutes to determine Alex’s state of mind, and it took — how long has it been, now? — a month, (to determine) that Tommy was shot with their gun,” Sutton said.
Swanton said investigators wanted medical records before speculating on the cause of Smith’s injury because some of the events leading up to the shooting, including Mendoza reportedly chopping through a locked closet door with a machete to reach the AR-15, presented possible alternative causes of the hand injury.
Swanton noted that police would not need “an invitation” to enter the house under the circumstances, which he said included a report that Mendoza’s girlfriend was being held hostage in a bathroom.
Tommy Smith said he did not report that to police and said no one was held hostage in his home.
Swanton added that a report also shows Tommy Smith stated to an officer that night that Mendoza intended to force police to shoot him. Tommy Smith has denied making the statement.
Officer Bonovitch, who was at the scene but did not shoot, has returned to duty. Reyes, who was identified as the officer who opened fire, remains on paid administrative leave, which is standard while detectives investigate a police-involved shooting, Swanton said.
Asked for comment Sunday, Tommy Smith said he was still “stuck with one hand.”
“What can I say, you know? They shot me,” he said. “They haven’t apologized.”