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Community members mourn loss of 18-year-old

Community members who knew 18-year-old Elias Angel Ruiz say they are shocked and saddened to hear the young man died violently, shot by police Sunday afternoon as he brandished a knife at the family's west Medford home. "Elias had a really good heart," said Tom Cole, executive director of Kids Unlimited.

Cole said Ruiz was involved in the nonprofit youth enrichment center, both in elementary and middle school basketball programs, and most recently as a volunteer for the Kids Unlimited cafe.

Ruiz had "fallen through the cracks" at school and had gotten into trouble. But he was determined to finish his high school education and attend college, Cole said. "He had the ability to make a positive contribution," Cole said.

Recently Ruiz also had been struggling with "some personal family issues" that Cole declined to elaborate upon, but stressed they were not gang-related.

"I know he was not a kid who was an active gang member," Cole said. "I don't know what happened in the past 48 hours. But I know he was dealing with some personal things that would be hard for any kid to deal with. This was a kid who was reaching out. And there was no one to help him. It's the ultimate tragedy."

Also characterizing the shooting as a tragedy, Medford Police Chief Tim George called for patience during the investigation into what happened following a 9-1-1 call that brought officers to Ruiz' home at 812 Pennsylvania Ave.

"It's a tragic thing when a young person loses their life," George said at a Monday afternoon news conference. "It's an unfortunate set of circumstances. It certainly has an effect on the family and on the Medford Police Department. There has to be patience for the investigation to run its course."

George declined to name the officers who responded to a domestic disturbance call at the home at 2:21 p.m.

But he said they were seasoned senior officers with 24 years of combined experience between them. Per MPD policy, the officers are on paid administrative leave during the investigation, George said.

George said "every possible scenario is being examined," and estimated it could take weeks before the case is presented to a Jackson County grand jury, which will determine whether there was an appropriate use of force, he said.

"This investigation is still in full swing," George said. "It's going to be long and extremely detailed. You want the best total picture (of the incident)."

The investigation into the shooting of Ruiz will follow procedures laid out in the Jackson County Deadly Force Plan. The Oregon State Police is the lead agency, but other local jurisdictions have been called in as well. The Jackson County Major Assault and Death Investigation Unit, which includes Medford police officers and detectives, is investigating the shooting, George said.

Separate 9-1-1 calls came in from both the mother and son, George said, so police still are trying to determine the events surrounding the dispute. Ruiz was making suicidal threats to police dispatch. Ruiz was screaming for help, and the mother was heard crying, George said.

As many as four officers responded to the scene after dispatchers said Ruiz had armed himself with a knife, locked himself inside the house and struck himself with an unknown object, George said.

Ruiz' mother, Alejanda Ruiz, and her 13-year-old son had left the house before officers arrived, George said. Officers attempted to call Ruiz at the scene. They found the front door locked, George said.

Moments later Ruiz stepped out onto the porch, brandishing the knife, which was approximately 12 inches long, George said.

"It certainly was a knife that was visible," George said. "It certainly was capable of causing physical injury or death."

An attempt to subdue Ruiz with a stun gun failed, and officers shot him. Ambulance and paramedic crews from two agencies arrived within minutes and administered aid to Ruiz, but he was pronounced dead at the scene, George said.

George declined to elaborate on whether the stun gun failed to deploy properly, or if it simply did not faze Ruiz.

"All sorts of things can affect Taser deployment," George said.

An officer was treated and released after falling to the ground, injuring his hip. George declined to say whether the officer was retreating or advancing when he fell, or whether the fallen officer added to the decision to fire upon Ruiz.

Lee Teague, a 59-year-old neighbor, said Sunday he was concerned because he didn't see or hear anything until he saw police cars roaming through the neighborhood. On Monday, Teague said he now thinks he may have heard gunfire, and that is what drew him outside.

"There was a sea of police cars," Teague said. "I poked my head down the alley and saw a police officer with a rifle peering over the (Ruiz's) fence."

Teague said he did not know Elias Ruiz. But he doesn't understand why anyone would threaten an officer.

"I'm not a fan of the police," Teague said. "But I have to put myself in their position."

George said speculation that police could have shot to incapacitate Ruiz without killing him is the stuff of "a Hollywood myth." Police are trained and charged to protect themselves and others from threat of harm. They make life-and-death decisions under high-stress situations, in split seconds against moving targets, George said, adding officers shoot the "center mass" of a suspect.

"It's not shoot to kill," George said. "You're trying to stop the threat."

Ron D'Aloisio, representative of the Medford School District's Latino advisory committee, and a member of Una Voz (One Voice), a group that includes many Latino community leaders, said Ruiz had aspirations to become a nurse.

"Elias was a wonderful young man," D'Aloisio said, adding he worked with Ruiz' mother at South Medford High School.

"He's like the opposite of any characteristic of a troublemaker. We want to know what really happened here," he said.

D'Aloisio said Ruiz and all Latino youth "face tremendous challenges in this community."

"The Latino community is in mourning right now," he said. "The services that we hope would be available were not there for him."

Cole agreed, adding when Ruiz's story is finally told, the image will reflect the challenges local youth face both through poverty and ethnicity.

"This is a real reflection on the lack of support services for kids of poverty," he said.

Sanne Specht is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.