At a protest in his name Wednesday over public records access, Thomas Villanueva gave the first glimpse of what his life is like since he was paralyzed from the chest down in a shootout six months ago.

He waited in the passenger seat of his family’s compact Chevy Cobalt as his father pieced together a wheelchair that barely fit in the trunk. It took both of them to get him into the chair.

Villanueva was shirtless, saying his skin at times is too sensitive to tolerate the feel of fabric. A thick red scar traced his injured spine between his shoulder blades. He discussed in graphic detail his new manual process of using the bathroom. And he had to leave the protest when the pain became too much.

But Villanueva sat outside the coroner’s office and later the El Paso County Courthouse as long as he could to demonstrate that he deserves to know how and why he was shot, challenging the county coroner’s request to seal otherwise public autopsy records.

Officers were trying to arrest suspected car thief Manuel Zetina on Feb. 5 when a gunfight erupted in the Murray Hill Apartments parking lot.

Sheriff’s Deputy Micah Flick and Zetina were killed, three other officers were injured and Villanueva — an “innocent bystander” in the wrong place at the wrong time — was critically wounded.

“I almost died that night,” he said. “I’m trying to walk again, but they say I don’t really have a chance to walk again.”

His small contingent of supporters held signs saying, “Civil servants should offer diplomacy/transparency,” “Do not seal public records” and “Justice for the innocent.”

“We need to know what happened to Thomas,” said Villanueva’s father, also named Thomas. “It just seems like they’re trying to hide something going on.”

The coroner says releasing the autopsy records on Flick and Zetina — with details on where they were shot, how many times, the trajectory of bullets and possibly the types of bullets — will harm the public interest and “cause additional stress and grief” to Flick’s family. His widow, Rachael Flick, also opposes release of the records, the request said.

But Villanueva’s family says the records might answer lingering questions about how he was shot and by whom, such as whether the bullet that injured him matches those that killed Flick or Zetina.

His father questioned whether the reports also could point to violations or deficiencies in law enforcement’s policies or protocols, such as conducting arrests in highly populated areas with children and oblivious citizens nearby. Could they lead to changes, he asked, to “make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

“They either didn’t have the right training or not enough,” he said.

“There should be protocols in place for the safety of the public as well,” said protest organizer and shooting witness Michael DeRossett.

The Gazette and the Colorado Springs Independent have hired legal counsel to fight for the autopsy reports.

The Feb. 5 shooting is being reviewed by the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether officers were justified in using deadly force against Zetina. Their reports typically include details on how deadly incidents unfolded and who shot whom.

Those findings could lead to a lawsuit. Villanueva has filed a notice of claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — indicating that if officers are found to have acted inappropriately, he will sue city and county agencies for his “serious physical injuries requiring hospitalization and surgeries.”

At the time of that filing, Villanueva’s attorney, Joseph Ramos, said he didn’t know what damages might be sought, but Thomas likely will rack up millions of dollars in medical bills related to his spinal surgery and recovery at Craig Hospital in Denver.

About $30,000 raised through GoFundMe has paid for a powered wheelchair and physical therapy beyond what his insurance covered, Villanueva said. But the account had to be closed because it was going to interfere with his Medicaid.

Meanwhile, costs continue to mount for incidentals, such as the constant supply of rubber gloves his family needs to care for him, DeRossett said.

“We want answers so Thomas can move on with his life.”

Contact the writer at 719-636-0362 or find her on Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin.

Contact the writer at 719-636-0362 or find her on Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin.

Reporter

Kaitlin is a public safety reporter with a focus on investigations. She is a proud Ohioan, champion for local libraries, volunteer reading tutor and an expert ice cream connoisseur (mint chocolate chip!). She joined the Gazette in 2016.

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