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Berkshire DA’s report on March 25 Pittsfield police killing expected any day

Miguel Estrella, left, with friend Carissa Nichole in 2018.
Carissa Nichole
Miguel Estrella, left, with friend Carissa Nichole in 2018.

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington’s report on the fatal police shooting of a 22-year-old Pittsfield, Massachusetts resident this spring is expected to be released in the coming days.

Harrington’s report on the death of Miguel Estrella will explore the criminal culpability of the Pittsfield police officers who responded to a mental health emergency call at 279 Onota Street the night of March 25th. Estrella, who had a history of mental illness, was in crisis, self-harming, and upsetting loved ones when they called for help. While many of the details of what happened that night remain in dispute, it ended with Estrella dead after being shot twice by Officer Nicholas Sondrini.

A report from the Pittsfield Police Department’s Force Investigation Team released in April found that Sondrini had acted appropriately when he killed Estrella, moving the 9-year veteran back to limited-duty status from administrative leave.

Estrella’s girlfriend Daneya Falwell, who witnessed the incident, told WAMC that she disputed many of the PPD’s key findings.

The PPD’s report also retroactively declared Estrella was not technically a “person in crisis” despite statements to the contrary from both official reports and witness accounts. Chief Michael Wynn gave his office’s definition of the term during a WAMC interview in May.

“We're looking at a person in crisis, who could be anybody who is experiencing a mental health episode, substance abuse episode, or some other type of episode that the particular policy that was impacted – in this case was our policy on civil commitments, or Section 12s – and that policy specifically references substantial risk of physical harm to the person as shown by his or her threats or attempts to commit suicide or cause other serious bodily harm to him or herself, a substantial risk of physical harm to other persons as shown by homicidal or other violent behavior, or evidence that others are in reasonable fear of violent behavior and serious physical harm, and when the person's judgment is so effected that there is substantial risk that the person cannot protect him or herself from physical impairment or injury, and there was no reasonable provision for protection available in the community,” said the chief.

Asked to explain how Estrella failed to meet those definitions, Wynn acknowledged the confusing nature of the decision but declined to comment on it. The chief also told WAMC that in the 15 years he’s led the department, he’s never had a DA’s investigation clash with the PPD’s internal findings.

The incident sent shockwaves through the Pittsfield community, where Estrella was a beloved fixture. Social worker Debbie Vall was his caseworker for years.

“He was a human being who had hopes and he had dreams and he was kind and compassionate," said Vall. "He was always concerned about other people. He was a really good man, and I want that message to get out to the public. He’s not a criminal, and his murder was not justified.”

Dubois Thomas of Central Berkshire Habitat For Humanity knew Estrella, who worked to build affordable housing with the agency, as a young man eager to give back to his community.

“The account that that we saw from the police perspective is not Miguel," Thomas said. "That is not the Miguel that anybody knows. And it's just heartbreaking that such a bright light in our community was snuffed out like that. In this time of change, we need people like Miguel. And now we don't have him with us. And that's heartbreaking.”

"Clearly, what [the police] saw was a person of color, large in size which, unfortunately, the color of his skin represented a threat to the officers," Berkshire County NAACP Chapter President Dennis Powell. told WAMC. "It is inconceivable that these officers did not realize that this young man was in crisis and needed help."

Miguel’s family spoke out at a “Justice For Miguel” rally in downtown Pittsfield two weeks after his death.

“We just want answers," said sister Elina Estrella. "Was protocol followed in Miguel's case? Today we're focused on honoring the life of a son, brother and friend who was committed to helping the community. We need change so that a tragedy like this doesn't happen again in our community.”

Estrella’s mother Marisol also spoke with the help of interpreter Anaelisa Jacobsen.

“What happened to Miguel on the 25th of March?" she asked. "I want an answer. He asked for help and he didn't get help. I want an answer. He was a youth like, so many of our youth, who just asked for help. He was in crisis. And instead he was met with violence.”

After saying it would be released by the end of July, Harrington’s office now says the report is imminent. The DA will meet first with the Estrella family to present the findings.

“All of the facts will be provided, first to the family and then to the rest of the community," the DA said. "So everybody will have access to every piece of information that we find- That’s all the interviews, all the forensic testing. We will review it all, we will have written findings based on what we learned from all of the pieces of evidence, and this will be very transparent.”

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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