By Eric M. Johnson
PASCO, Wash. (Reuters) - The afternoon before Antonio Zambrano-Montes was shot dead by police after he pelted them with rocks, the farmworker had walked out of a Washington state jail a free man.
The Feb. 10 killing, about 24 hours after the Mexican immigrant's release, sparked outrage in a Latino majority community that has likened his death to police slayings of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York.
Zambrano-Montes' death sparked protests by demonstrators who complain Pasco police were too quick to use lethal force in their fourth slaying in seven months, in an agricultural city with about 68,000 residents.
A coroner's inquest is to begin in May, after which a prosecutor will decide whether to bring charges against the officers. His family and civil rights groups are calling for a federal probe.
Like many migrant workers, Zambrano-Montes arrived in Washington state's apple-growing belt seeking opportunity about a decade ago, but his life swiftly crumbled after a series of personal tragedies and drug use.
"He had a hard time, he certainly needed help," said Eduardo Baca Cuenca, the Seattle-based Mexican consul.
Zambrano-Montes, who a police spokesman said ignored orders to surrender before he was tasered and then shot and "clearly committed a felony" by throwing rocks at officers, immigrated with his wife from a village in Mexico's Michoacan state, a family lawyer said.
"He was talkative, always cheerful. If you were down he would try to cheer you up as much as he could," said 19-year-old former neighbor Bertha Coria.
One of 16 children, Zambrano-Montes liked to joke and took pride in his hardscrabble work at Columbia River basin orchards, and in sending money home to his parents and two younger siblings, relatives said.
But he also had a darker side that nine years ago prompted his wife to leave and bar him from his two daughters, accusing him of abuse, according to a 2006 protection order petition.
That year in Pasco, Zambrano-Montes angrily accused his wife, Teresa Meraz Ruiz, of infidelity and repeatedly slapped her, bloodying her nose. It was not the first time he was accused of violence.
"In '99, he pointed a gun at me while I was lying on the floor after he had physically abused me," Ruiz wrote in the petition. "I was pregnant with our eldest daughter at the time."
Ruiz later took their daughters to Northern California, where she works at a dairy farm, her lawyer said.
While the separation sent him into bouts of depression, Zambrano-Montes toiled as a seasonal laborer for years afterward until he tumbled off an orchard ladder and broke his wrists sometime last fall, Ruiz's lawyer said.
"In the agricultural area, in general, conditions are hard," Baca Cuenca said. "Housing, transportation, the safety net, there are challenges there."
Compounding his woes, Zambrano-Montes spoke little English and battled mental illness, said Felix Vargas, chairman of advocacy group Consejo Latino. The Pasco area hosts bilingual government and church counseling and aid programs.
"He was looking for help from the family," his uncle Jose Zambrano said. "He also didn't know if there was some state program for people with serious problems like him."
Weeks after he broke his wrists, an out-of-work Zambrano-Montes nearly died in a January fire in a converted garage where he was living that destroyed most of his possessions.
Pulled from the garage by public works employees, he later told investigators he had lit a cigarette off the stove and thought a towel caught fire. He used crystal meth the night before, a Pasco Fire Department report said.
"He was making illogical statements, such as someone was trying to kill him, and showing signs of paranoia," the report said.
After the fire, Zambrano-Montes spent time in a homeless shelter and relatives' homes. Then, three days before his death, he was arrested and held for two days for failing to appear at a hearing and pay fines and fees linked to his assault conviction, court documents show.
"He was nice but he was depressed," said Eugene Hernandez, a tree pruner staying at the shelter. "He told me straight up, he brought his wife to America but his wife left him. He told me he wanted to die."
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Pasco, Washington; Additional reporting by Dan Wallis in Denver and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Richard Chang)