'This is about public safety': Bystander left paralyzed from gun battle that killed deputy files lawsuit

Photo: Hannah Tran, The Gazette
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - One year after an auto theft suspect opened fire on law enforcement, killing one officer and wounding three others, the civilian caught in the crossfire that day has officially filed a lawsuit.

11 News partner The Gazette first reported Thomas Villanueva's intent last April, but the lawsuit was not officially filed until late last week.

Villanueva, 28, was walking home from lunch on Feb. 5, 2018 just as suspect Manuel Zetina and BATTLE (Beat Auto Theft Through Law Enforcement) officers were trading fire and was hit. He was left paralyzed from the chest down.

"Thomas underwent several surgeries," said his attorney, Joseph Ramos. "He had shattered vertebrae ... he had an extensive amount of blood that was in his spinal cord. He had a collapsed lung. He lost a lot of blood and I believe he even had to be transfused as part of this. He has no use from his nipple area down and he has no feeling from that area down because it is a complete cord injury.”

The lawsuit names the county, the city of Colorado Springs, and all of the BATTLE officers involved in the operation: Sheriff Bill Elder, the estate of Micah Flick, deputies Scott Stone, Jacob Abendschan, John Watts, Tremaine White, Stephanie Criss and Michael Boggs; former Colorado Springs Police Chief Pete Carey and officers Kevin Miyakusu and Marcus Yanez; and Chad Hunt and John Reindollar of the Colorado State Patrol. (BATTLE is an auto theft task force comprised of El Paso County deputies, Colorado Springs police officers and state troopers.)

"The complaint was filed that way because under Colorado law it had to be. Otherwise, Thomas may have lost his ability to get any assistance because he failed to name all parties involved," explained Ramos on why law enforcement officers were included in the suit. "Thomas has asked the government, though, to accept responsibility, so that individual officers involved may be immediately released."

The suit claims Villanueva was injured because of "critical and lethal mistakes" on the part of law enforcement "leading up to and during the takedown" of Zetina. It primarily focuses on the fact that Villanueva was able to walk past the group during a dangerous operation.

"Thomas Villanueva did not walk into the middle of a crime scene or gunfight," Ramos said. "The truth is Thomas Villanueva was walking home on his lunch break like many people here in Colorado probably do on any given day. It was the middle of the day. He was on his lunch break. He was outside his home. Thomas walked along the road leading into his apartment complex for some distance, and some amount of time, right there with these officers. No one said a thing. Thomas has no idea they were about to do the takedown of a suspect. They looked at Thomas several times. They never said a word."

Ramos said since the suit was filed, Villanueva has been getting hate mail because of the inclusion of Flick's estate.

"It’s really hard to stay positive when you have people saying to you, ‘You’re a real low-life scum bag. You deserve nothing dude,’ as this person says. ... 'You are a [expletive] loser.' It’s really hard to keep your head up when you’re getting emails like this from people who think you’re out for the money. When they have no idea how these operations were managed. They have no idea it could have been them outside on their lunch break in front of their home.”

It's unclear how much Villanueva is asking for, but Ramos told reporters Tuesday that the suit is about more than money.

"This is about public safety ... so that this doesn't happen to another person."