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

The family of Valentina Orellana-Peralta described the terrifying moments before the 14-year-old girl, who had recently moved to Los Angeles from Chile, was killed by a stray bullet fired by a police officer.

The family of Valentina Orellana-Peralta described the terrifying moments before the 14-year-old girl, who had recently moved to Los Angeles from Chile, was killed by a stray bullet fired by a police officer.

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 Floydin Minneapolis.

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Valentina, left, with her parents.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. The girl died in her mother’s arms.

When police officers entered the room, Ms. Peralta said, they forced her to leave her daughter’s side.

Los Angeles Police Shooting

A stray bullet killed a teenage girl as officers fired on a suspect in a Los Angeles store on Dec 23, 2021.

What Happened: The suspect was killed and a shot pierced a wall, fatally striking a 14-year-old in a dressing room. Video Footage: Surveillance footage shows a man attacking holiday shoppers before police officers opened fire. Victim Identified: The teenager, Valentina Orellana-Peralta, was in a dressing room with her mother directly behind the chaotic scene.

“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?”

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A memorial for Valentina outside of the Burlington store where she was killed last week, in the North Hollywood area of Los Angeles. Credit…Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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

Ms. Rogers, who shared the information on her own Instagram account, said she did so to make sure that the officer was “not being protected, or sheltered, by the L.A.P.D.”

In the footage, released on Monday as part of a 35-minute compilation that also included 911 calls and security video of the incident, an officer with a rifle asks his colleagues to slow down so that he can lead in their search for the man who had been attacking patrons.

“Let me take point with the rifle,” he says.

The situation seems to escalate when the officers encounter a woman with a bloodied face who was the most seriously injured, and they begin shouting. “Slow it down!” one officer calls out, and then: “Hold up! Hold up!”

But almost instantaneously after Mr. Elena Lopez becomes visible around a corner of an aisle, the officer with the rifle opens fire above the head of the injured woman, firing what appear to be three shots in rapid succession with no apparent warning.

The officers had been told that the attacker may have had a gun. One caller to 911 said as much, and said that there had been “shots” at the store, though a store employee told the police dispatcher, correctly, that the man was attacking people with a bike lock and did not have a knife or gun.

Tom Saggau, a spokesman for the Los Angeles police union, said that there were a number of 911 callers who reported that Mr. Lopez had a gun.

“When they went into the store, they believed they were confronting an active shooter,” he said. “Which changes the mind-set.” He said officers are trained to respond based on the highest level of potential threat.

But Philip M. Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who studies police violence, said that officers must also take into account their surroundings and the likelihood of bystanders, even when entering a potentially violent situation.

“The question is going to come down to whether in many people’s views, deadly force was necessary to stop the threat,” Professor Stinson said after reviewing the video of Thursday’s shooting.

He noted that Mr. Elena Lopezdid 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.

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.

But Domingo Garcia, the national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic civil rights organization, said in a statement that the shooting was the latest in a long and troubling line of such incidents by members of the Los Angeles Police Department involving Latinos.

“It is apparent that the days of shoot first, ask questions second, are rearing their ugly head again in one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies,” Mr. Garcia said.

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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