The two men who allegedly led officers on a high-speed chase that ended in a crash and fatal shooting knew the still-at-large escaped inmate for several years, according to the Denver Police Department.
Barbara Archer, commander of DPD's major crime division, told media on Thursday that Steven Nguyen and Rafael Landeros, both 23, were "associates" of Mauricio Venzor-Gonzalez, but didn't elaborate on their relationship.
Nguyen, 23, was fatally shot by Denver officers after police say he refused to pull over for a traffic stop and led officers a high-speed chase into northeast Denver on Monday.
Undercover officers were surveilling a home in Aurora that was believed to have a connection to Venzor-Gonzalez when those officers saw a vehicle leave that home "at a high rate of speed."
Officers chased that SUV, believing Venzor-Gonzalez was the passenger. Archer says the responding officers knew Venzor-Gonzalez had recently been arrested for attempting to kill a cop, so they assumed the movement inside the SUV were "efforts to locate a weapon" and fired because they were in fear of their safety.
After they fired at the SUV, it went down an embankment, and the officers said they still saw movement in the vehicle that looked like the people inside were looking for something, so they fired again.
The three officers fired an unknown amount of shots.
When the SUV stopped, officers took Nguyen, who was driving, and Landeros out of the vehicle. Both men were taken by ambulance to the hospital. Nguyen died from his injuries. Landeros was later booked on outstanding warrants out of Adams County. Police did not say what if any charges Landeros could face after the chase.
No officers were injured, and neither of the suspects fired, even though a loaded gun was later found in the SUV. When the SUV was pulled out of the embankment on Tuesday, it was riddled with at least 20 bullet holes.
When asked if she believed this case of mistaken identify that ended in a death would be a problem for the department, Archer said she didn't believe it would be.
"The officers were acting on information provided to them that Venzor-Gonzalez was in the passenger seat. They believed that to be him," Archer said. "Their actions were based on that belief and based on his criminal history past of being an attempt murderer. That justifies their actions."
A joint investigation is underway between the Aurora Police Department homicide investigation unit, Denver District Attorney's Office and the office of the Independent Monitor.
Venzor-Gonzalez, 23, evaded Denver sheriff's deputies on Monday morning while at Denver Health Medical Center. He's been on the loose since then, and is considered armed and extremely dangerous.
He is described as 5’7” tall and 140 pounds, and has black hair with brown eyes.
Anyone with any information about Venzor-Gonzalez is urged to contact police.