Polk County faces lawsuit alleging excessive force, negligence caused September fatal police shooting

The estate of a man killed by Polk County deputies is suing the county, alleging police wrongfully shot an unarmed driver and passenger after their friend shot at deputies and tried to flee in the vehicle.

Isaac Ocegueda, 18, the driver, died and another unarmed passenger, Yuleni Zavala, was shot. 

Ocegueda’s estate and Zavala filed suit against the county, Sheriff Mark Garton and deputy Michael Smith on Jan. 18 in Portland U.S. District Court. They are seeking up to $28.5 million in damages.

The lawsuit comes four months after Ocegueda’s death on Sept. 30, 2023. Jose M. Corral-Zavala, 21, of Salem, was fleeing police in another car when he pulled over, started a shootout with the deputy and then fled in a minivan which had stopped nearby, according to the lawsuit and a police account following the shooting. 

Oregon State Police, who investigated the shooting, said at the time in an affidavit that Corral-Zavala continued firing at deputies while he ran to the minivan, while the lawsuit alleges he had stopped shooting and was simply fleeing the scene.

After Corral-Zavala entered the van, a deputy fatally shot the van driver, Ocegueda, who was unarmed, according to the lawsuit.  The other passenger, Zavala, was shot in the leg.

The complaint alleges that Ocegueda’s death was a result of negligence by Polk County, including failing to properly train Smith in use of deadly force or instruct him “that he is only justified in shooting the person who is actually a threat.”

The county also kept Smith employed after its own internal investigation found he “responds emotionally to confrontation, rather than implementing cognitive thinking and errs in judgment by not slowing things down once situations have escalated,” according to the lawsuit. The complaint does not specify when the investigation was done.

A Polk County grand jury in October indicted Corral-Zavala on 22 charges including eight counts of attempted aggravated murder and second-degree manslaughter, the indictment showed.

A grand jury at the time also unanimously found that Smith, the deputy, was justified in shooting at the suspects. Smith suffered “a grazing wound” in his ankle during the gunfight, the lawsuit said.

Garton, the Polk County sheriff, declined to comment and cited ongoing litigation. He said he had only been notified of an intent to sue. “We haven’t been served the lawsuit yet,” he said in an email.

Polk County Counsel Morgan Smith also declined to comment, saying, in an email that “the county has no comment on potential litigation.”

Attorneys representing Ocegueda’s estate and Zavala also declined to comment due to the pending case.

An officer of the Independence Police Department tried to pull over the driver of a black BMW for a traffic stop around 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 29 when the suspect fled. Police have not said what prompted the stop.

The officer chased the suspect, who police later identified as Corral-Zavala, up State Highway 51. Police damaged the BMW’s tires with spike strips near Highway 22 but later lost sight of the car. Corral-Zavala continued east on Highway 22 toward Salem, according to the complaint.

After Smith joined other officers in searching for the BMW, he found the car abandoned on a side road near milepost 23. He then saw a silver Honda Odyssey van driving around the scene and heard it honk its horn.

Smith started shining his flashlight on a brushy hillside area, where he saw Corrall-Zavala among the brush and ordered him to surrender. Corral-Zavala then walked onto the highway, where the van had stopped on the south side shoulder. Smith reported that Corral-Zavala then started shooting at him, and the deputy returned gunfire, the lawsuit said.

Corral-Zavala stopped shooting as he ran across the highway and got in the passenger side of the van. Several seconds after the gunfire had stopped, Smith started advancing toward the Honda on foot and opened fire on the van “without warning,” the complaint said.

“Smith used an aggressive covering fire tactic commonly taught in the military and designed to cause your ‘enemy’ to take cover, while the shooter maneuvers towards the ‘enemy’ aggressively,” according to the complaint. The suit alleges that Polk County failed to properly re-train the deputy after he was deployed into a combat zone in 2005 while serving in the Oregon Army National Guard.

Smith was unable to see Corral-Zavala when he shot at the van and knew there was another person in the car, the lawsuit alleges. Yuleni Zavala, who was 17 at the time, was also sitting behind Ocegueda. The two were friends with the suspect and “posed no risk of imminent serious physical injury or death to anyone,” the suit said. One bullet fatally struck Ocegueda in his back near the upper left side and another bullet struck Zavala in her left leg.

Ocegueda sped away to escape the deputy’s gunfire and crashed into a building off Highway 22.

The lawsuit alleges that Smith used excessive force when he shot Ocegueda and Zavala.

The complaint said Polk County has “encouraged or acquiesced” to similar conduct in the past by failing to train, discipline or supervise its officers, and that its “policies, customs or practices” caused the shooting which left Ocegueda dead and Zavala injured.


Salem man charged with attempted aggravated murder following shootout with police

UPDATE: 1 of 3 suspects killed in shootout with police in Polk County

Police identify citizen killed, deputy injured in Polk County shootout Saturday

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.