Teen Who Sought New Life Found Death at Hands of the Police, Father Says

LOS ANGELES — She had been in the United States for less than a year, but already her principal at a tech-focused charter school in Los Angeles knew her as a strong student in math and physics.

In the days leading up to Christmas, 14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta talked about her life with her father, who had been planning to visit from Chile for the holiday. She wanted to take him to a Lakers game to see LeBron James play. She had ordered a skateboard and wanted to head back to school with moves to show off.

On their way to a Burlington store in the San Fernando Valley on Thursday to shop for a Christmas dress, Ms. Orellana-Peralta talked to her mother about her bigger dreams, too — of attending college. Above all, the teen longed to become an American citizen.

But it was in the United States that those dreams were cut short, Ms. Orellana-Peralta’s parents said through tears on Tuesday, their voices disintegrating into sobs at a news conference outside the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department.

In what the authorities have described as a horrific mistake, Ms. Orellana-Peralta was killed by a police bullet that ricocheted off the floor of the store in North Hollywood as an officer opened fire at Daniel Elena Lopez, 24. Mr. Elena Lopez, surveillance footage showed, had been attacking shoppers with a bike lock before they arrived.

“This is what my daughter found here: death,” said Juan Pablo Orellana Larenas, her father, flanked by the family’s attorneys, led by Ben Crump, the civil rights lawyer who has represented the families of high-profile victims of police killings around the country, including George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Credit…via Getty Images

Soledad Peralta, Ms. Orellana-Peralta’s mother, recounted how she had been trying on clothes with her daughter in a dressing room as a commotion started outside. They stayed there to hide. Her daughter, she recalled, locked the door to protect them both.

As the loud noises continued outside, they huddled together and prayed. Then suddenly, Ms. Peralta recalled, they were both knocked to the ground in what felt like an explosion. She saw her daughter’s limp body on the floor and began screaming for help — a chilling sound that was audible in officers’ body camera videos of the incident.

When police officers came to her aid, Ms. Peralta said, they forced her to leave her daughter’s side.

“She meant the world to me, her family, her friends, her classmates,” she said. “Now our sweet angel is gone forever.”

The case has struck a nerve in Los Angeles, where debates over criminal justice reform and police accountability have raged for years, even before tens of thousands of Angelenos poured into the city’s streets during last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, spurred by the killing of Mr. Floyd by a police officer who was later convicted of murder. The anguish has also been fueled by a continuing string of police shootings across California.

Family members at the news conference wore signs around their necks that read “Justice for Valentina,” and local activists stood by, wearing shirts that read “Black Lives Matter,” and “Defund the police.” As the news conference came to a close, some lifted their fists and chanted, “Valentina’s life mattered.”

Many critics of the police have expressed outrage over aspects of the shooting — the speed with which an officer opened fire on Mr. Elena Lopez although he did not have a gun, the fact that police officers did not ensure that the area was clear of bystanders.

“You guys don’t have the ability to just tackle him to the floor?” said Chloe Cheyenne Rogers, an activist who started the Justice for Valentina petition, which has nearly 5,000 signatures. “You can’t use any parts of your training to be able to take that person in a way that doesn’t include your assault rifle?”

Although the police department has not yet confirmed the officer’s identity, activists have been sharing what they believed was his name, and badge number, on social media based on the released body camera footage.

The immediate response from city officials has largely been grief, rather than calls for reform.

Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a short statement promising “transparency, sensitivity and accountability.” Other local officials have echoed that but have said they did not want to draw conclusions about whether policy changes might be warranted.

That, said Philip M. Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who studies police violence, speaks to the chaotic nature of the situation.

“I think the difference here in terms of sort of an immediate public outrage is that clearly there was a threat to people in the store,” Mr. Stinson said after reviewing a 35-minute compilation of 911 calls, security footage and body camera video of the incident released by the Los Angeles Police Department on Monday. “The question is going to come down to whether in many people’s views deadly force was necessary to stop the threat.”

Mr. Elena Lopez, he noted, did not appear to be “within about 10 feet of anybody when he was shot,” and police had been told that there were still people in the store.

Mr. Crump, whose colleagues said that details about possible legal action against the police department would be forthcoming, said that the family wanted the kind of justice that would help ensure that no one else becomes “collateral damage” in an encounter with the police.

“We should not have to sacrifice innocent life in the name of safety, when it was foreseeable that, two days before Christmas, there were going to be people in a shopping plaza, shopping,” he said.

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