By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - One of three police officers who fatally shot a Mexican orchard worker in Washington state after he pelted them with rocks had come to the immigrant's aid during a house fire weeks before the February slaying, police said on Wednesday.
Antonio Zambrano-Montes was killed in the southeastern farming city of Pasco in an incident captured on video that sparked outrage in a majority Latino majority community that has likened his death to police slayings of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York.
The shooting, which occurred at a busy intersection after Zambrano-Montes threw rocks at the officers, triggered protests by demonstrators who complain Pasco police were too quick to use lethal force in their fourth slaying in seven months, and fueled a national critique on police use-of-force against minorities.
Weeks before the shooting, on Jan. 22, Zambrano-Montes was pulled from a house fire at a converted garage where he was living by public works employees who were in the area, a Pasco Fire Department report said.
While he was sitting on the ground, Officer Adam Wright, one of three who shot him the next month, asked him to move farther away from the blaze. When he did not respond, Wright pulled Zambrano-Montes away for safety reasons, Pasco Police Department Captain Ken Roske said.
Zambrano-Montes later told investigators he may have accidentally sparked the fire and had used crystal meth the night before.
"It appears that because of his drug abuse at that point, (Zambrano-Montes) was still in harm's way. Officer Wright was able to pull him further to safety when medics arrived on scene," Roske said.
Roske said no conclusions should be drawn about the incident until the shooting investigation is complete. Wright, an eight-year veteran, and the other officers have been placed on leave pending the investigation.
"It is significant that the officer had prior contact with Mr. Zambrano because it shows they had knowledge of his mental condition and should have dealt with the person with gentler gloves instead of firing away," George Trejo, a lawyer representing his family members, said.
A coroner's inquest that was slated for May was now more likely for June or July, after which a county prosecutor will decide whether to bring charges against the officers. Zambrano-Montes' family and civil rights groups are calling for a federal probe.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott)