3 trials later, a cop is vindicated for off-duty shooting
Supervisory Special Agent Art Gonzales had to use deadly force against his estranged wife to save his own life — the legal battle to follow would be almost as difficult as the incident itself
On April 19, 2013, Supervisory Special Agent Art Gonzales was an 18-year veteran of the FBI and was an instructor at the prestigious FBI National Academy at Quantico. Upon his return home from teaching at the NA that day, Gonzales found his estranged wife in the house he owned and resided in with his two sons. He and Mrs. Gonzales had been separated for seven months at that time — awaiting their final divorce decree. Mrs. Gonzales is believed to have entered the home unlawfully via an unsecured slider, and apparently found evidence of a female guest Gonzales recently entertained at his home.
When the dialogue turned heated, Mrs. Gonzales grabbed an 11-1/2” serrated-edge carving knife off a kitchen counter and attacked Art, slashing him three times on his left forearm. Art managed to push her back with his injured left arm and drew his duty sidearm, a .40 S&W cal. Glock pistol. When she continued her aggressive charge toward Gonzales, he tried to disengage but was unable to create sufficient distance to ward off his rapidly advancing aggressor who was going in for cut number four.
He instinctively fired four rounds in self-defense striking her in the chest. Despite his attempts at CPR while waiting for EMS, Ms. Gonzales expired from her injuries.
Three Trials Later...
An overzealous prosecutor in Stafford County, Virginia sought and received a two-count indictment against Gonzales for Second Degree Murder and Criminal Use of a Firearm in the Commission of a Felony.
When I reviewed the case, I found a ton of exculpatory forensic evidence that showed the shooting was justified. Specifically, Art’s left shirt cuff was cut, the DNA analysis of the blood on the shirt showed it was his, and the location of his three forearm wounds matched up with the cuts on the shirt cuff. Additionally, GSR was found on both the knife blade and handle, and primer residue was detected on his estranged wife’s hands and sweater — which lent credibility to his recollection of the intimate distances between Gonzales and his assailant.
The layout of the kitchen could only be described as confined. The four spent .40 S&W caliber casings were found in a location consistent with the agent’s recollection of where he was standing when he fired. The autopsy report revealed four front-to-back shots all within a 4”x 6” oval. Finally, the initial responding deputy found the knife still in Ms. Gonzales’ right hand.
I was initially retained as a consulting expert; and I was somewhat reticent about testifying for fear that my background as an FBI National Academy graduate might actually hurt Art’s chances. But after flying up to DC and driving over to Stafford, Virginia, I had a chance to meet Art and speak at length with his attorney, Mark Gardner.
My initial testimony at his first trial in March 2014 centered on how semiautomatics work — what comes out of the muzzle in addition to the bullet — as well as the dangers of edged weapons, the tactics officers should use when faced with an intimate edged weapon threat, and the relevance of the FBI’s Pistol Qualification Course which emphasizes close combat drills, particularly the stage where agents are required to fire four shots in four seconds, one-handed at close range.
The first trial resulted in a mistrial being declared after the jury remained deadlocked for three days with a vote of 10-2 in favor of an acquittal. I was shocked when the Stafford County DA announced with great fanfare that he planned to retry Art a second time on the Murder/Criminal Use of a Firearm charge.
That second trial commenced on January 20, 2015. The second jury reportedly came back with a unanimous “not guilty” verdict on the Murder and Criminal Use of a Firearm in the Commission of a Felony charges, but hung on the lesser included offense of Manslaughter. When the DA announced that he was again going to retry Art a third time on that Manslaughter charge, I was stunned.
In July 2015, I made my third trip up to Stafford for Art’s third trial, this one a bench trial before the same Judge who presided over the first two trials. For the third time, my testimony again focused on edged weapon dangers, proper tactical response when surprise by the presence of an edged weapon, how semiautomatic pistols work, muzzle blast, GSR, and the other important factors that would (and should have) convinced reasonable citizens that this was an intimate-range, life or death assault and that Art reacted properly based on his training.
The prosecutor spun his bizarre web of half-baked theories of a “GSR-salted scene” and “planted evidence” by a law enforcement officer who had a “new girlfriend” and “was upset” because things weren’t “working out” with her.
But this time, unlike the past two juries, the judge saw through the subterfuge and focused solely on the credible evidence from the stand rather than the opening and closing statements that sometimes jurors confuse with evidence. At the conclusion of the week-long trial, she rendered her verdict of not guilty, freeing Art from the horrors he’d faced at the hands of a criminal justice system he had been part of for almost 20 years.
Finally, Art Prevailed
Gonzales was forced to face a multi-barreled assault. He had to use deadly force against a spouse — albeit an estranged one — to save his life. He was charged with murder and faced 40+ years in prison if convicted. He lost a career he spent nearly 20 years of his life working toward. He had to go through not one, but three trials in 18 months. Not many cops could’ve coped with that and remained sane. But Art prevailed.
As you might guess, the national media was all over this case. Correspondents were at all three trials and cameras were permitted in the courtroom for the third trial. But if you watched “Dateline NBC” this past month, you’d never guess they were covering the same story.
There was no mention of the GSR on Julie’s hands or clothing, and nothing about the cuts on his shirt which corresponded to the injuries on his left arm. In fact, more than one person who watched that two-hour special commented to me that they were left with the feeling “the FBI agent got away with murder.”
Hopefully, this article piece will correct that.
There are two bottom lines here. First, you can’t control what your local prosecutor is going to do with your use-of-force matter. Most will look at the facts honestly and impartially, but some — especially the elected ones — may simply raise their fingers in the air to which way the wind is blowing and follow the whims of the vocal and unfortunately growing anti-cop public. It is what it is.
You also can’t control how the media is going to report on your force application. Over the course of the year and a half I was in their presence up in Virginia, the media spent all their time talking with the prosecutors and their witnesses. When the final verdict came down, they were left with a ton of video and numerous interviews that would have been great accompaniment for a guilty verdict coupled with the image of a former FBI special agent being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.
You just have to know that whatever life-threatening situation you find yourself in, it’s your tactics and training that will guide you through the moment. And it’s your positive mental attitude will guide you through the aftermath (both legal and emotional), however long that takes.
Art’s case was unusual indeed — three trials over 18 months and a relentless prosecutor who undoubtedly had an agenda — but Art prevailed.
I’ve come to know Art fairly well over the last two years. In my opinion, he’s a great law enforcement officer and a super human being. And I have no doubt he’ll bounce back from this legal horror show and come out stronger than ever. But I also have to wonder why certain segments within our criminal justice and law enforcement community continue to insist on “eating their own.”
What do you think? Sound off in the comments area below.