Officers were primed for danger when they encountered a 13-year-old boy driving a stolen car, which struck a police cruiser in a low-speed, minor collision — not the “ramming” that police have described in public statements since last summer, according to videos and documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The multiple videos, which were released on Friday after authorities declined for five months to make them public, show the shooting of 13-year-old Andre “AJ” Hernandez by a San Antonio police officer and reveal a different story than the official one. On Thursday, a grand jury declined to indict the officer on criminal charges, prompting a new wave of disappointment and grief for the boy’s family, who have accused authorities of holding police officers above the law. The videos, along with a newly released report from the Bexar County district attorney’s office, piece together what unfolded that night between officers and a group of teens already in mourning, adding another tragedy to a neighborhood already beset by them.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus told reporters in the hours after AJ’s early morning death on June 3, 2022, that the boy had rammed a stolen red Toyota sedan that officers were chasing into a police cruiser. Officer Stephen Ramos pulled up as he saw another officer, identified in the DA report only as Officer Espinoza, “standing at the driver’s side door of his patrol car when the driver accelerated towards him,” Ramos wrote in an official statement. “At this time, I believed the driver of the vehicle was using his vehicle as a deadly weapon to attempt to kill Officer Espinoza.” Ramos fired his gun, hitting the driver, AJ, in the torso. The boy died of his injuries at a hospital.
But videos captured by three different police cameras show that Espinoza never exited his police car and that the “ramming” described by officials was a low-speed, minor collision. Body camera footage and a dash cam from Espinoza’s cruiser register a slight tap — nearly imperceptible in two of the videos. One of the boys who was joyriding with AJ that night told police in an interview that Espinoza “didn’t come out of his vehicle.”
Requests for comment to the San Antonio Police Department late Friday were not immediately returned.
Documents, photos, and videos released by District Attorney Joe D. Gonzales’s office lay out a timeline of events leading up to AJ’s fatal shooting that began three weeks earlier, when the boy’s 16-year-old sister, Naveah Martinez, was shot and killed as she sat in a car just a half mile away from where her little brother would later be shot.
Residents of the Indian Creek community in southwest San Antonio had been complaining of hearing gunshots, loud music, and other disturbances since Naveah’s shooting death.
Ramos wrote in his statement that he had been “briefed about multiple vehicles driving through the Indian Creek area, firing shots over the past several days.”
Around 5 p.m. on June 2, 2022 — eight hours before the officers would encounter AJ — they were briefed on a tip provided to them by neighborhood residents: a picture of a red Toyota Corolla that residents said was behind the gunshots heard around the area. “13yr old brother drives,” a message accompanying the photo of the car reads. “PLEASE be careful pulling over any of these cars they have no regards for any life other than theirs.”
Armed with this briefing, Ramos was parked with Espinoza at 1:17 a.m. when “he heard shots going off from where I was parked,” he wrote in his statement. Ramos, Espinoza, and another officer then caught sight of the red Toyota they’d been warned about at the start of their shifts. Using their in-vehicle communication systems, according to the DA report, the officers coordinated to track down the Toyota.
On War Cloud Street, a two-lane road with chain-link fences lining the front yards of a string of homes, as Ramos drove eastbound, AJ — with his friends in the passenger and backseats — was driving westbound from a memorial that had grown at the site where his sister was killed. Espinoza was behind him flashing his lights. Ramos and Espinoza boxed in AJ’s car. The boy kicked the car’s gear into reverse, backing into a driveway. The video shows AJ then driving forward and colliding with Espinoza’s cruiser. An instant later, at 1:22 a.m., Ramos fired his weapon, according to the DA report.
AJ opened the door, held his hands to his forehead, then stumbled out of the car toward Ramos.
“No, no, no,” a young male voice can be heard saying in the background of the video.
Paramedics arrived 14 minutes later. AJ died at 3:52 a.m.
Detective Randall Hines, according to the DA’s report, arrived on scene as the lead investigator. Hines reported he saw that “the suspect vehicle was wedged into the patrol vehicle in a manner that indicated a “hard collision” and “a large amount of front-end damage that was evenly distributed across the front of the [Toyota].”
Pictures from the scene included in the DA’s report show damage more consistent with a minor collision.
Also included in the DA’s report is prosecutors’ analysis of the case, which they presented to the grand jury that declined to indict Ramos.
“It is important to remember,” the DA’s report said, that Ramos “was able to see Espinoza’s door open, and the red Toyota accelerate towards that open door of the patrol unit. Thus, it was reasonable for Officer Ramos to believe that Officer Espinoza was standing outside of his vehicle and was therefore being threatened with deadly force by the red Toyota as it accelerated towards him.
“These facts led Officer Ramos to believe that Officer Espinoza was being threatened with deadly force,” the report said.
“Finally, it is also a fact,” the report continued, “the driver of the red Toyota was a minor aged 13 on June 3rd, 2022. While this fact is a tragedy; it was not known by Officer Ramos at the time, nor does it mitigate the threat to Officer Espinoza.”
Yet the message shared with officers at the beginning of their shift included information that the driver was 13 years old. The Toyota — and its passengers — were visible in the video with the officers’ headlights shining on the car. Ananda Tomas, founder and CEO of the San Antonio–based police accountability group ACT4SA, told BuzzFeed News that “it was clear that they were minors.”
A spokesperson from the Bexar County district attorney’s office told BuzzFeed News in an email that the office could not comment on grand jury proceedings, which are conducted in secret. The report was provided in the interest of transparency, the spokesperson said.
Ramos killed another person in the line of duty in March 2021, 15 months before he shot AJ. He also faced no charges in that case.
AJ’s family described him to BuzzFeed News as a “comedian” and “loving brother” who helped his mother ready his nine other siblings for school.