Releasing long-awaited report, Berkshire DA Harrington will not press charges in March Pittsfield police shooting of Miguel Estrella
WAMC has learned that Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington will not press charges against the Pittsfield, Massachusetts police officers involved in the spring killing of a 22-year-old city resident. A warning: this story contains upsetting descriptions of police intervention, self-harm, violence, and mental illness.
The DA summarized her findings in a WAMC interview, in an exclusive preview of her presentation on the investigation Thursday. It included a dozen interviews and amounted to hundreds of pages of documents, as well as photos, audio recordings, videos, and forensic reports.
“After a thorough and independent investigation, I am confident that we've exhausted all avenues to ensure full transparency as to the events of that evening," said Harrington. "The facts we've gathered show that there is not evidence to prove that police violated any criminal law. The facts demonstrate that the Commonwealth would not meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers did not act in self-defense.”
Pittsfield Police Department Officer Nicholas Sondrini shot Miguel Estrella to death on the night of March 25th. Officer Christopher Coffey was also on scene for the shooting after multiple 911 calls.
Harrington told WAMC that the law dictates that an officer is within lawful authority to use lethal force if every attempt at de-escalation is exhausted, if lethal force would prevent death or serious bodily harm, and if the force is proportional to the threatened harm.
“The third party eyewitness reports demonstrate that the officers provided numerous verbal warnings, created distance, and called additional resources to help resolve the incident in attempt to de-escalate," said the DA. "The Taser evidence shows they attempted less lethal force. The video shows Mr. Estrella’s movement toward the officers and the knife found on the scene is a proportional threat to officer safety. These elements are well established in law, and the Berkshire district attorney's office will not proceed with any criminal charges against the officer. These are sad and tragic circumstances, but they are not criminal in nature.”
Harrington’s report paints a picture of a young man in crisis and offers a glimpse into the mindset of the city police officer who fatally shot him. Drunk and despondent, Estrella – who had a history of mental health struggles – was self-harming on the night of his death. His manic behavior led his loved ones to call 911, setting off the deadly chain of events.
Girlfriend Daneya Falwell, who had dated Estrella for about four years before his death, told investigators that she wished she had never contacted emergency services.
“He was hurting himself and he was cutting his face, he was just talking about, he was going through depression," she said. "And he just was depressed, he was trying to hurt himself. He just kept telling me he loved me, and I just wanted to get him help.”
After multiple visits to Estrella and Falwell’s apartment at 279 Onota Street, the final police intervention culminated in the fatal shooting.
From Falwell’s perspective, the officers’ decision to use deadly force against Estrella was bewildering. In her interview, she referenced a situation in nearby Cheshire where police peacefully ended a standoff with a man, Timothy Tatro, who had aimed a crossbow at law enforcement. In June, Tatro was sentenced to five years in jail.
“They didn't even give him time to relax, to calm down," she said. "They're going to give the guy six hours for the bow and arrow, but they only give [Estrella] two minutes. Not even. Not even. It happened so quick. It's crazy how quick someone can just- It's so quick. So quick. In a second, boom, boom, done. He's gone.”
Within the massive report, the multiple narratives from witnesses and participants in the killing reveal multiple crucial inflection points that led to the night’s tragic end.
Falwell’s sister told investigators that during the first police visit to 279 Onota, Estrella – despite being covered in blood and drinking alcohol with a self-inflicted laceration on his face – was given remarkable leeway from authorities.
“They basically was giving him a choice that he can get help from the paramedics, or he can refuse it, which is, OK, I’ll tell you something, because I work at the hospital, I’ve worked at the hospital for over a year, and even if a patient was trying to harm themselves or make a statement, they automatically got to section," said Falwell's sister. "I know that because I work as a [certified nursing assistant]. And I've had panic attacks at work before and they automatically place me in the psych unit. Yet, they gave someone a chance who was under the influence. And he was drinking in front of them too.”
She says that when the police returned, the visibly injured and intoxicated Estrella was again left to his own devices.
“He was cooperating and everything," said Falwell's sister. " But yet, they still didn't section him and take him while he had cuts over his face that they knew he did to himself. He was still drinking in front of them, even though they knew he was fully drunk.”
Soon after, Estrella again found a knife and headed back outside the apartment building with his girlfriend and her sister in tow. The police returned, but efforts to de-escalate the situation devolved rapidly.
“We were just trying to get him to calm down," said Falwell's sister. " They Tased him twice. My sister begged them to not shoot him. I just kept saying, Miggy, just put the knife down. I actually was about to run in front of him but I didn’t because I just seen, like, how close he was getting. Like, he was unsteady, so that's why he was moving. Like, he wasn't attacking them or anything, he just couldn't really stand still.”
As the situation intensified, Falwell – who says she never felt threatened by Estrella that night – jumped in front of the officers in an attempt to dissuade them from using force.
“They kept pushing her back and saying, walk away," Falwell's sister continued. "And the next thing you know, like, he gets shot. Not even in the leg, the arm, anything, but two in the chest. And I already knew he wasn't going to make it but I tried to hold on to hope for my sister. And I couldn't breathe. I felt like my heart was going to fall out of my chest. And that same cop that shot him was pushing me and told me to get away from him, that I need to step away, I can't be around right now. And I was like, no, I was screaming at him, telling him, like, he didn’t have to shoot him in his chest, he didn't have to shoot him at all. And right before they shot him, he stabbed himself multiple times. Yet they still shot him anyways.”
While the Pittsfield Police Department employs a crisis co-responder trained for mental health emergencies, they were off duty and unavailable to assist at the time of the 911 calls.
Coffey offered his recollection of the night to investigators.
“When I first arrived, he was aggressive and volatile towards us, but not so much towards his girlfriend," said the officer. "At some point he decided that she was no longer an object to him in my perspective, and that she was in the way of whatever he was trying to accomplish. So focusing on that, I think he escalated even further. And his demeanor did not change. It only increased.”
He described the buildup to the shooting, moments after attempts to tase Estrella failed to subdue him and the officers backed into the street.
“As he entered Onota Street, or right on the edge of Onota Street, is when he, that's the first time he spoke to us, as I guess, police officers," said Coffey. "He just addressed us and he yelled something about being a minority, and that this is what we want. And Officer Sondrini and I just, you know, really begged him to not- He addressed me specifically as that I was a minority, and also a man of ethnic background, and how, he said something about that. And then I pled with him as a man who understands he feels, where he's coming from, knowing that our backgrounds are somewhat similar in some way, shape, or form, and being able to relate to him, I took that opportunity to try to get him to understand that, yes, we're the same, we’re both people, we're both of ethnicity, and I that want to help and I begged him to put the knife down and just let me help him and told him that it's all going to be okay that EMS is on the way, they'll be here any minute to get him the help he needs. But it didn't work.”
In his interview with investigators, Sondrini said after the Taser failure, he was desperate for other less lethal options — like a shotgun in the PPD’s arsenal that fires beanbags.
“If we had a beanbag online between us, that would have been something we would have tried," he said. "And the other officer ideally would still, at least the way we're trained, is still to have a lethal force in case it doesn't work, because, I mean, they- It seems like [less lethal options] never work when this stuff happens. Sometimes they work great and other times they don't work at all.”
Sondrini says his efforts to communicate with the Pittsfield Police Department were unsuccessful in the thick of the encounter.
“I remember keying the mic to try to tell it anyone else coming, like, hurry up because I wanted desperately to have a less lethal shotgun in there," he said. "I mean, I don't think it would have worked, but something else, like, let's try. Nothing's working so far. And I tried to relay that on radio and I don’t know if it even got out to them because I only heard of static in my ear which means someone was probably talking on the radio.”
The nine-year department veteran said moments before the shooting, he made another effort to use his Taser.
“I go to grab it and it's not in my holder," said Sondrini. "So, I draw my handgun back out again. I couldn't find it, I didn’t know where it was. It must have fell out, like, I must not have clicked it in again, because I transitioned back to the handgun so fast I think when I thought he was going to- But that's what I'm assuming. I might have thrown it, I don't even know. I want to say I was trying to put it back and got interrupted.”
Taser lost, Sondrini perceived Estrella as a lethal threat.
“He's crouched, still had the knife and stabbed, like, he does, ‘aaaaah,’ he goes like this into his stomach, but doesn't, like, again, like the thigh, he doesn't break skin, and he then stands up with the blade in the boxing stance and turns to me and starts walking towards me," Sondrini told investigators. "The best way I can describe is like a boxer, you know, when you hear that ring-ding-ding and then the boxers come out to meet each other. And then he starts stepping into me, towards me. I want to say we're 10 feet apart at this point. And to me, I'm like this is, this is it. He's coming after me now. And I fire two rounds. I thought he was, he's coming after me with the knife, here it comes. So, I fire twice. I don't even hear the shots. And I fired two. And then I was going to reassess and see if I have to do more. I'm trying to back up at the same time but I'm in the road.”
In April, the police department issued its own report, exonerating Sondrini and Coffey of all responsibility in the shooting, and they were returned to limited-duty status after being placed on administrative leave. Despite volumes of evidence to the contrary, the report also retroactively declared that Estrella did not qualify as a “person in crisis” that night.
Estrella’s death left his friends, family, and the West Side neighborhood devastated. The former Habitat For Humanity volunteer and later employee was remembered as a source of humor and positivity, with dreams of becoming an electrician and working to improve the quality of life for his community. In addition to mourning, his death has inspired calls for police reform and for Pittsfield to bolster its mental health resources.
Harrington says the incident “[reflects] a dire and urgent need for culturally competent resources to address mental health and wellness.”
“I'm calling on the legislature to provide this community with resources for mental health treatment that recognize cultural differences and attitudes toward mental health. Communications, communicates effectively and understands the complexity of how someone interacts with others based on their experiences. This tragedy shows a long standing fracture in public trust between law enforcement and the community, especially in historically oppressed communities. It is tragedies like these that tear apart the trust that we are working to build. Our community failed Miguel Estrada on March 25th. He needed mental health services and there were none available. Our police officers do the best they can to de-escalate. And I commend these officers for their efforts. But ultimately, we put them into a situation without the tools they needed for the best outcome.”