Protests reopen wounds in cop-involved killing

Steve Orr
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

The family of the late Sandy Guardiola continues to look for answers

Barricaded streets, flashing blue lights, boarded-up stores, spray-painted exhortations to resist the police: Andrew Ocasio has vivid memories of driving into Manhattan early one May morning after protests had erupted over the death of George Floyd.

Some might have seen chaos in the streets. Ocasio saw a personal wake-up call. 

"Something about that kind of made me feel like ‘Wow, this is serious. People are really upset by this one,'" he remembers thinking. "Why am I going to sit here and do nothing and say nothing like I’d been doing, when my family has been personally affected by something similar?"

Ocasio's mother, Sandy Guardiola, was shot to death in her Canandaigua apartment by a police sergeant who'd been sent to check on her well-being after she didn’t show up for work.

The October 2017 shooting was ruled justified in a secret proceeding before an Ontario County grand jury, but a detailed account of what happened inside Guardiola's lakefront apartment has never been made public.

Neither the state parole officials who sent police to her apartment that day, nor the officer who pulled the trigger, has spoken publicly about what happened.

Her family remains convinced that both New York state and local officials have hidden the truth about the case, which bears considerable resemblance to that of Breonna Taylor, the Louisville woman who died earlier this year in a hail of gunfire from police who kicked in her door.

Photo of Andrew Ocasio with his mother Sandy Guardiola. The family of parole officer Sandy Guardiola have filed a civil rights lawsuit.

Taylor was Black. Guardiola was Afro-Puerto Rican.

Taylor's shooting death drew instant attention nationwide. Her name, like those of Floyd, Daniel Prude, Philandro Castille, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other people of color who have been killed by officers in recent years, have been chanted by thousands of angry voices in street demonstrations.

Guardiola's case has been chanted too, but not that often.

After that morning in May, when the 26-year-old Ocasio drove to work through a Manhattan riven by protests, he began speaking in public about Guardiola's case in the hope of forcing authorities in Ontario County to open up about her death and authorities everywhere to rein in police brutality.

First it was at a rally on Long Island, where he lives; when he asked the crowd of 1,000 how many knew of his mother's case, perhaps a dozen raised their hands.

He went on to rallies in Manhattan and in Brooklyn, where his mother grew up. He traveled to the site in Minneapolis where Floyd was killed by a police officer in May, and met with a group of people who had similarly lost loved ones to police aggression.

At the invitation of a young man he met in Canandaigua, Ocasio traveled to tiny Naples for a Black Lives Matter rally in June. He was part of the enormous march on Washington, D.C., in late August.

Approximately 50 people attended an event called a rally for empowerment and truth on the front lawn of Bristol Valley Theater in Naples, NY on Saturday, June 20, 2020. Andrew Ocasio of Long Island spoke of his mother, Sandy Guardiola, a parole officer living in Canandaigua, who was shot by Canandaigua City Police during a welfare check in 2017.

After that, he slowed the pace, weighed down by the feeling that people weren't hearing and he wasn't making a difference. "I could tell the story a million times but it just seems like nothing's going to change and that gets discouraging," he said.

 marked what Ocasio calls the third "angelversary" of his mother's death. He said he intended to use the occasion to starting "coming back into the light" by publicizing her case.

When and where he'll do that wasn't clear. Except for an appearance before fewer than 100 people in Naples this summer, he's not spoken in upstate New York about Sandy Guardiola's death. Her name rarely comes up at rallies in the area.

He's found the silence discouraging. 

"Once everything happened in Rochester with Daniel Prude, I thought I would start hearing about rallies and things going on, and I didn’t," Ocasio said. "I don’t know what it would take for me to come upstate more, to stand on a corner and shout her name."

Unwelcoming workplace

Andrew and his sister, Alysa Ocasio, 25, are suing the city of Canandaigua, the owner of her apartment complex and five individuals for their alleged roles in Sandy Guardiola's death. 

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in October 2018, accuses the defendants of violating Guardiola's constitutional rights and of "falsely and maliciously vilifying" her in their efforts to cover up what the family asserts really happened.

Guardiola, who had been a corrections officer and a social worker earlier in her career, joined the state parole division in 2015.

In June  2017, she transferred to the Rochester parole office and rented an apartment in Pinnacle North, the then-brand new upscale complex on North Shore Boulevard in Canandaigua.

Not long after she began work in Rochester, Guardiola encountered difficulties in the workplace. Her son said there was a dispute in July 2017 with a co-worker, and their supervisor sided with the co-worker. 

Guardiola was given a disciplinary letter, Ocasio said. She declined to sign it immediately, earning her more disfavor.

The workplace proved unwelcoming, Ocasio said, and he believes his mother was subjected to discrimination on the basis of her race and ethnicity.

Later that summer, she arranged a transfer to the Binghamton parole office. Ocasio said this was in part to get away from a hostile workplace and in part because she had concluded parole service in Rochester was not the change of pace she had sought.

Binghamton would be closer to her children in the New York City area.

Before she could start in Binghamton, Guardiola was involved in a serious motor-vehicle accident that left her with a concussion and several broken bones. After recuperating at home for several weeks, she visited a physician on Tuesday, Oct. 3, and got written clearance to go back to work, according her son and the family’s legal complaint. 

She planned to begin work the following day, but she never showed up.

Welfare check

Jim Ritts, who was then the first assistant district attorney in Ontario County and was the primary spokesman for the official inquiry into the shooting, said months after the incident that authorities did not know why Guardiola was a no-show at work that day.

Her absence concerned parole officials, Ritts said. So did their inability to reach her by phone, though Ritts gave conflicting estimates of how long she had been out of touch.

Ocasio said his mother’s failure to appear at work that Wednesday remains a mystery to the family.

The family's legal papers assert that Guardiola did phone the Binghamton office that morning, and her son resisted the idea his mother had been out of touch with her employer. “The way our mother raised me and my sister, you didn’t miss school for anything. My father too — they raised us with a real strong work ethic. I’m sure she was doing the right thing," Ocasio said.

Late that Wednesday afternoon, a former colleague in the Rochester parole office — where Guardiola had not been employed for weeks — drove to Canandaigua. He later told authorities he was checking on her well-being.

Ocasio does not believe it. "Whether she called in or not, it was her first day back at work that she missed," he said. "You don’t show up to work for one day and your employer or co-worker shows up at your house? That’s ridiculous. For one day?" he said.

Ocasio points out the parole did not call him or his sister, who were listed as their mother's emergency contacts.

He believes, and the family's court papers assert, that this visit by the former colleague was further harassment.

That former colleague, Thomas O’Connor, rang her buzzer but got no answer, Ritts said, and then went to the apartment managers, who also could not reach Guardiola. They called 911 and asked for a "welfare check," which Ritts portrayed as a routine request to police.

Sgt. Scott Kadien, a 15-year veteran of the Canandaigua force, arrived about 4:20 p.m. After Guardiola didn't respond to his knock, he used a key fob to open the electronic lock on her apartment door.

He entered alone, Ritts said later. Inside, Guardiola was in bed.

Under the pillow

Kadien told authorities he moved through Guardiola's apartment, calling her name. He located her in her bedroom. He said she appeared to wake up and mouthed words at him but didn't speak. The room was dimly lit by late-afternoon sunlight through the windows and a candle, Ritts said.

Kadien backed out of the bedroom and called for an ambulance, believing Guardiola was ill, Ritts said later. The ambulance reportedly parked across the street.

The family and their lawyers say that Guardiola had no idea who'd come into her apartment. She typically wore earplugs when she went to bed, they said, and took medication to help her sleep.

Though officials' statements on the next sequence of events changed over time, the most thorough account was that Kadien went back to Guardiola's bedroom.

Her service handgun discharged at this time, Ritts said. Though early accounts used the term "exchange of gunfire," that created a false impression.

The gun was not pointed at Kadien when it was fired; both Ocasio and Ritts said it was under Guardiola's pillow, where she apparently had placed it while she slept. Ritts said she may have been pulling the weapon from under the pillow when it fired.

The bullet passed through the pillow and hit the wall opposite from where Kadien was standing.

Kadien's account, as related by Ritts, is that Guardiola then began to move the gun so that it was pointed toward him.

"That’s when he draws his sidearm. He gives verbal commands not to move the gun. The gun starts to move, it’s pulled up. He says ‘Don’t do it, Sandy, don’t do it.’ At that point he discharges his weapon three times," Ritts said.

The family's legal papers present another scenario: She was lying on her side facing the doorway, and saw a figure appear there. The papers said the autopsy indicated that Kadien's first shot struck Guardiola in the right forearm as she was reaching for her handgun under the pillow.

Kadien fired first, before Guardiola's gun was out from under the pillow. His shots caused her to pull the trigger on her gun reflexively, according to this account.

Ocasio has a slightly different interpretation but also does believe his mother pointed her weapon at Kadien.

"I think she was sleeping. Her gun’s under her pillow. She might have heard something and might have let off a warning shot. She might have been thinking she could scare somebody off," he said. "She may have shot first and then he shot her."

Guardiola suffered three wounds, two of them in her head. She was handcuffed and other police were summoned by Kadien.

Medical help didn't arrive until about 10 minutes had elapsed. Guardiola was alive then but died not long after arriving at F.F. Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua.

'Shot in her bed'

Ocasio believes people in Canandaigua and Rochester, where the case had a high profile for a brief time, formed the wrong impression of the incident.

"On social media, the community was just completely oppositional to what happened to my mother. Still to this day, people think my mother shot at this officer, that she pointed her gun at this officer," he said. "The people in upstate New York need to know my mother was shot in her bed. Her gun never was fired in the direction of the officer."

Ritts said the State Police, who handled the case, conducted a "thorough, extensive, independent investigation," though details of that investigation have never been made public.

Andrew Ocasio of Long Island gets a hug from Keith M. Barton of Naples after Ocasio spoke of his mother, Sandy Guardiola, a parole officer living in Canandaigua, who was shot by Canandaigua Police during a welfare check in 2017. Ocasio was speaking at an event in Naples, NY on June 20, 2020.

Kadien, who left the Canandaigua department after the shooting, has not talked publicly about the matter. Other than a few broad statements, no one else from the police force has either. Kadien and Chief Stephen Hedworth are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The city rejected an open-records request from the Democrat and Chronicle in August that sought Kadien's personnel file and disciplinary records. The newspaper is challenging that denial.

The state parole division also has never provided any accounting of Guardiola's troubled time in the Rochester office and no explanation for their employees' actions on the day she died.

The agency declined to provide the D&C with any reports on those topics, citing the lawsuit. Three parole officers in the Rochester office, including O'Connor and Guardiola's supervisor, are named as defendants in the suit.

A formal open-records request filed by the D&C is pending with the parole division.

When the State Police concluded their inquiry into Guardiola's slaying in the late winter of 2018, evidence was presented to the grand jury.

Jurors were asked to determine whether the shooting was legally justified, Ritts said, and concluded that it was. "He believed that he was confronted by the imminent use of deadly physical force against him," said Ritts, who is now Ontario County's DA.

The grand jury, which met four months after the incident, apparently did not consider any criminal charges.

Guardiola's son believes charges should have been on the table. "I was so disappointed that the grand jury didn’t think this whole situation warranted a trial," he said.

He believes, though, that the outcome was preordained.

"I think that it’s clear that this jury was swayed into making the decision they did," Ocasio said. "I think that's consistent with all police-involved shootings. My mom’s situation, Breonna Taylor's situation — they aren't unique. The system that’s in place, it protects these officers, not these victims."

What makes Guardiola's situation somewhat different, he said, was the fact that she carried a badge and a gun. "Part of the reason my mom doesn’t get the same attention other people do is she was law enforcement. I feel that is almost a deterrent for people who might want to highlight her situation," he said.

He hopes area residents will get past that. "If people in upstate New York want to know the truth, they need to put the pressure on Canandaigua and the DA and the State Police to learn what really happened to my mother," he said.

"What happened was absolutely terrible. There will never be any closure for me. Nothing’s ever going to bring back my mother," Ocasio said. "It’s never going to be easy but I need to get justice for my mother, so that’s what I’m going to do."