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Pittsfield Police cleared in preliminary report on March fatal shooting of city man; girlfriend disputes findings

Carissa Nichole

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts police department’s preliminary findings from an internal investigation into the fatal shooting of a 22-year-old city man last month conclude officers acted appropriately when using Tasers and a gun to subdue him. The man’s girlfriend disputes the findings.

According to the Pittsfield Police Department Force Investigation Team, Officer Nicholas Sondrini – a nine-year veteran of the force – was “in compliance with all relevant department policies, training guidelines, statutory requirements, and use of force guidelines” when he shot and killed Miguel Estrella during a 911 call on March 25th.

Many details in the report released Wednesday run counter to statements from both Estrella’s family and friends and past statements from law enforcement about his mental health that night.

A March 26th press release from the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office – now conducting its own investigation into the incident – specifically mentions that “callers alerted dispatch that Estrella had a history of mental illness” and was cutting himself.

The PPD’s own March 26th press release notes that it had received “an initial report that an adult male party had injured himself with a cutting injury and was outside of his residence,” and that “initial responding patrol units located a 22-year-old male with an apparently self-inflicted laceration to his face.”

But the new preliminary report says “based on a review of the evidence and information available to the department during the initial call for service to 279 Onota Street, Mr. Estrella did not meet the criteria of a ‘person in crisis.’”

It goes on: “According to information provided to the responding Officers and EMS by Mr. Estrella and witnesses on scene, he was not engaged in any self-harming behavior, and made no threats and/or statements of self-harm at that time. All parties reported that his visible existing injury had occurred earlier in the day. Mr. Estrella refused both treatment and transport to the hospital by EMS. On the basis of this information, Mr. Estrella did not meet the criteria for a civil commitment under MGL Chapter 123, Section 12A. Officers adhered to both relevant department policies and the applicable laws and regulations.”

The report says an intoxicated Estrella threatened both an unspecified female party as well as Sondrini and Officer Christopher Coffey, who also responded to the scene, with a knife. The report says Estrella began approaching them. The officers first tased the young man before Sondrini shot him twice. The report alleges Estrella at that time presented an “eminent deadly threat,” and that the PPD officers had attempted de-escalation techniques that he did not respond to.

As of the release of the report Wednesday, both Sondrini and Coffey were moved from administrative leave to limited-duty status.

Estrella’s girlfriend, Daneya Falwell, was with Estrella that night during the police response and saw his killing. Reached by WAMC Wednesday, she declined to speak on tape, but rebutted each of the major findings of the PPD’s preliminary report.

Saying she is likely the unspecified female party in the report, Falwell said that mental illness – including mania and suicidal ideation – had been a part of Estrella’s life for a long time, and that it was the impetus for the 911 call.

She was baffled by the report’s claims that Estrella did not qualify for “person in crisis” status. Estrella’s former social worker Debbie Vall previously told WAMC that he had a history of mental health issues and psychosis, and that he was likely in a manic state the night of his death.

While the report says he was not actively self-harming at the time, it also acknowledges that he had existent injuries from earlier in the day, which Falwell says were the result of self-harming. She went on to say that Estrella did not approach officers in a threatening manner, that they did not work to de-escalate the situation, and that at no time did she feel in danger from her boyfriend. “Miguel would never hurt me,” she told WAMC.

The Berkshire District Attorney’s office tells WAMC that its investigation into Estrella’s killing remains open and that those with information about the incident or who witnessed it should contact the Berkshire Detective Unit at 413-499-1112.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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