Testimony was delivered Monday at the start of the preliminary hearing in the case against a former San Diego County sheriff’s deputy charged with murder in last year’s shooting of a fleeing detainee outside the downtown San Diego jail.
The testimony from three law enforcement officers came during the proceeding in which a judge will rule whether 24-year-old Aaron Russell will stand trial in connection with the May 1, 2020 shooting death of Nicholas Bils, 36.
The hearing is expected conclude Tuesday or Wednesday.
Russell is accused of firing on an unarmed Bils while the victim was running away from officers, leading to the rare decision to prosecute a law enforcement officer in an officer-involved shooting.
Bils was being taken to the downtown detention facility when he managed to partially slip out of handcuffs and escape from a California State Parks officer’s car, according to San Diego police.
Bills was shot multiple times in the back, arm, and thigh.
Russell, who had been with the department for 18 months, resigned shortly after the shooting. He is out of custody.
Much of Monday’s hearing concerned an approximately 60-second video recorded from a Smart Streetlight camera that showed the events of Bils’ flight and the shooting.
While what prompted Russell to open fire remains unclear, his attorney, Richard Pinckard, asked one witness, San Diego Police Department Sgt. Andrew Tafoya, whether the video footage shows Bils running toward an occupied car as he fled.
Tafoya testified that he thought Bils was running next to the vehicle, rather than toward it.
Though Bils wasn’t carrying any weapons, Pinckard noted he had only managed to slip the cuffs off of one of his wrists. He asked Tafoya whether Bils may have been holding onto the dangling cuff in his hand as he ran from the scene, but Tafoya answered that he couldn’t come to a conclusion one way or another.
State parks Ranger Jessica Murany testified that after arresting Bils earlier that day, she took him to the jail.
Once there, she said she heard the sounds of “fumbling” from the back seat and turned to see Bils with his back to her. She testified he never made any verbal or physical threats to her prior to fleeing, and did not have any weapons on him at the time.
Murany testified that she did not see the shooting, but heard the shots as she was radioing that she was engaged in a foot pursuit.
Bils was initially arrested at Old Town State Park, where he was hitting golf balls for his dog to fetch, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed last month by his mother, Kathleen Bils, against Russell, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, the two park rangers who arrested Bils and San Diego County.
The rangers told Bils he couldn’t be in the park due to COVID-19 restrictions and Bils, “terrified, ran from the park rangers,” who gave chase, arrested him and claimed he had brandished a golf club at them, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that as Bils fled, Russell was the sole law enforcement officer on scene who drew his weapon during the incident.
Another deputy and two parks rangers did not pull out their firearms while Bils fled, nor did they express Bils “as posing an imminent threat of causing death or serious bodily injury to themselves or others,” the lawsuit claims.