A former San Diego County sheriff’s deputy has pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the killing of an unarmed detainee who was shot while escaping custody near the downtown San Diego Jail in May 2020, the district attorney's office said Friday.
Former deputy Aaron Russell, 25, faces up to 11 years in state prison when he is sentenced on Feb. 7 for the deadly shooting of Nicolas Bils, 36, who had escaped from the back of a state parks patrol car on May 1, 2020, and was running near the intersection of Front and B streets when Russell shot him five times in the back and side.
Russell, who had been with the department for 18 months, resigned shortly after the shooting.
Russell was previously charged with second-degree murder -- which he pleaded not guilty to in July 2020. It was the first time a peace officer in San Diego had been charged with murder in connection to a shooting that occurred while they were on duty, according to law enforcement officials.
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Efforts by his defense attorney to dismiss the charge or reduce it were denied by San Diego Superior Court Judge Theodore Weathers. If not for Friday’s plea agreement, the murder case would have gone to trial.
District Attorney Summer Stephan said the voluntary manslaughter charge “accurately reflects that this is a homicide in which the victim was unlawfully killed, and that the former deputy sheriff erroneously and unreasonably believed it was necessary to defend against a perceived imminent threat.”
State law now holds that officers can utilize deadly force only when they believe it’s necessary to defend against the imminent threat of death or serious harm to themselves or others.
According to witness testimony and surveillance footage, another ranger in a separate vehicle tried to get out of his truck to subdue Bils, but he shoved the truck’s door into the officer's legs and took off running before he was shot multiple times in the back, arm and thigh.
Three other law enforcement officers were at the scene, but Russell was the only one to draw his firearm, according to prosecutors.
Bils was initially arrested about 4 p.m. May 1, 2020, at Old Town State Park, where he was hitting golf balls for his dog to fetch, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bils’ mother, Kathleen Bils, against Russell, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, the park rangers who arrested Bils and San Diego County.
A parks ranger testified that when she approached Bils, he ran from her and at some point brandished the golf club as though he might swing at her. Bils was eventually arrested for assault.
State park rangers said Bils was put into a truck with the windows partially rolled down – which is how he eventually managed to escape as the truck pulled into the county jail.
Kathleen Bils told NBC 7 her son was a paranoid schizophrenic who was afraid of law enforcement, which may have played a role in his flight.
“I have to bury my son and I want to know why he’s dead,” said Bils in an interview with NBC 7 Investigates days after the shooting. “Why? Why is my son dead? He was mentally ill. It’s not his fault he doesn’t understand.”
Stephan said Bils mother was involved in the settlement. It is not immediately clear whether the lawsuit filed by Kathleen Bils will be dropped with the plea agreement.
“Nothing will bring back this family’s loved one, but we hope this conviction will bring them a measure of justice and accountability,” Stephan said.
According to the DA’s office, Russell’s plea agreement includes an admittance that he “unreasonably believed” there was an imminent threat because of Bils’ escape and that deadly force was necessary.
No body camera footage was captured by deputies. Investigators said sheriff’s department deputies who work at the jail aren't issued body cameras. But the incident was captured on the city of San Diego’s Smart Streetlights before they were turned off for surveillance later that year.