A former San Diego County Sheriff's Department deputy accused of shooting and killing a mentally ill man who had escaped custody outside the downtown jail last month pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder.
Former deputy Aaron Russell appeared before a judge on Tuesday via video call after he was charged in connection to the fatal shooting of 36-year-old Nicholas Bils.
Law enforcement officials confirmed the second-degree murder charge is the first time a current or former peace officer in San Diego has been charged with murder in connection with a deadly shooting that occurred while they were on duty.
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Back in May, Bils escaped a California State Park Officer's car outside the San Diego Central Jail and was running away from rangers when he was shot, according to the San Diego Police Department, which is investigating the shooting.
Bils’ mother Kathleen Bils told NBC 7 her son was a paranoid schizophrenic who was afraid of law enforcement. She said detectives told her Russell shot her son four times; one bullet grazed his side and three entered his body, including one in his back.
Russell, 23, was arrested on a warrant Monday. He resigned from the sheriff's department on May 6, five days after the deadly shooting, after 18 months with the department.
"We reached the decision to file criminal charges following a thorough review of all the objective facts and evidence in this case by specialized prosecutors and investigators in our Special Operations Division," said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. "When a life is taken, we must make decisions based in facts and law, and not ones that are influenced by the status of the accused as a peace officer nor the status of the victim. These decisions must be made solely in the interest of justice and not based on favoritism nor public opinion. Every person must be accountable under the law."
The defense on Tuesday said Russell is "not a risk in any way" to the public. They also said he "based his entire life on the principles of honor and integrity."
The judge said Russell doesn't seem like a threat to the community or like a flight risk. He no longer has any firearms in his possession.
Bail for the former deputy was reduced to $500,000. If convicted, he faces 15 years to life in prison.
Kathleen Bils told NBC 7 Monday, "I appreciate the DA's Office for their hard work. I hope justice will be done soon."
According to Kathleen Bils, police said her son was putting golf balls at the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park when rangers approached him and told him he couldn’t have his dog off-leash and that the park was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Detectives said he swung a golf putter near the rangers, ran away, and that the rangers jumped into their cars to chase her son before finally arresting him for assault with a deadly weapon. They said the rangers put him into a truck with the windows partially rolled down – which is how he eventually managed to escape as the truck pulled into the county jail.
Investigators told NBC 7 there is no body camera footage of the shooting because deputies who work at the downtown jail aren’t issued body cameras – a policy that the sheriff’s department said it was reviewing following the incident.
Russell is scheduled to return to court on July 24 for a status hearing. If he is ultimately released, the judge said he must follow conditions that include staying at his brother's house, notifying the court if he moves with another relative and he is barred from leaving the county.
To read more about the shooting of Nicholas Bils, click here.