A judge is expected to rule Wednesday whether to order a former San Diego County sheriff’s deputy to stand trial on a murder charge stemming from the shooting death of a fleeing detainee.
Aaron Russell, 24, is charged with second-degree murder in the May 1, 2020, death of Nicholas Bils, 36, outside the downtown San Diego jail.
Russell is accused of firing on an unarmed Bils while he 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.
Witness testimony indicated another ranger in a separate vehicle tried to get out of his truck to subdue Bils, but he shoved the truck’s door into the officer’s legs and took off running before he was shot multiple times in the back, arm and thigh. Three other law enforcement officers were at the scene, but Russell was the only one to draw his firearm, according to prosecutors.
Russell, who had been with the department for 18 months, resigned shortly after the shooting. He remains out of custody.
Testimony concluded Tuesday in Russell’s two-day preliminary hearing, which featured accounts from several people who witnessed Bils’ flight and the shooting.
While what prompted Russell to open fire remains unclear, one of his attorneys, Richard Pinckard, asked San Diego Police Department Sgt. Andrew Tafoya on Monday whether video footage from the scene captures 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 the other.
A defense witness, Michael Woods, testified Tuesday that he saw Bils holding an unspecified silver object in his hand. Woods said he heard a deputy yell, “Hey, hey, hey, hey!” prior to the shots being fired.
Other witnesses testified that they did not hear any verbal commands prior to the shooting, nor did they see anything in Bils’ hand, or could not remember if he was holding anything.
Darrell Ross, another sheriff’s deputy who was walking with Russell to work that day, said he saw Bils flee from the park ranger’s vehicle and take off at a “dead sprint.”
Ross said he “wanted to catch up with (Bils) and tackle him,” but “saw no need for any type of other force.”
He testified that he did not hear Russell or Bils say anything before the shots were fired.
Michael Begovich, Russell’s other attorney, asked Ross whether he was looking down at the ground when the shots were fired, to which Ross responded, “Correct.”
“So right before the gunshots, you didn’t see what Aaron Russell saw, correct?” Begovich asked, to which Ross answered, “Correct.”
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.
Jonathan Irwin, the ranger in the other vehicle, testified that after Bils shoved the car door into his legs, he wanted to chase after Bils and “physically tackle” him. Irwin said he also didn’t hear commands given before the shots were fired. When asked why he didn’t draw his gun, he said he “did not perceive Mr. Bils as any direct threat to me” other than shutting the car door on him.
— City News Service contributed to this article