Ontario shooting that left one man dead remains under investigation

A police pursuit that started in Idaho ended at the west end of the Ontario underpass March 14. Victor J. Morales Zavala was shot and killed after he confronted police with a revolver. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – Police continue to review a shooting last week that led to the death of a 25-year-old Ontario man.

Victor J. Morales Zavala died late in the afternoon March 14 after he was shot by Oregon State Police troopers on the west end of the Ontario underpass.

Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, said Morales Zavala stopped the pickup truck he was driving and then jumped out holding a .22-caliber revolver to his head. 

What happened next is still under investigation by police and Goldthorpe’s office, but Morales Zavala’s next move was judged to be threatening enough by two troopers to prompt a use of deadly force. Goldthorpe said Friday that the two troopers are now on administrative leave pending the conclusion of the investigation.

Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe said Monday that an autopsy was performed on Morales Zavala Sunday in Portland but he declined to release the results. His office is leading the investigation. Goldthorpe said he viewed the police dash cam video of the incident and was waiting on interviews with the two troopers.

Morales Zavala, a 2012 Ontario High School graduate, didn’t have an extensive criminal record, said Goldthorpe.

According to his family, Victor Morales Zavala was on the verge of turning his life around after recent drug use.

He had stopped using drugs in December, said his brother, Jose Morales Zavala, and was attending a Caldwell church regularly.

His brother’s demeanor began to change once he started to go to church, said his brother.

 “He started to find peace. He was happier and more alive,” said Morales Zavala.

Morales Zavala said his brother worked with their father at an organic dairy farm near Malheur Butte.

“My brother was a hard worker,” said Morales Zavala.

On Monday Morales Zavala said he and his family were still trying to come to grips with the shooting incident and searching for answers. 

He said the family has no idea why his brother acted the way he did Thursday.

“He was doing really good. He just wanted to work. You don’t know what people are thinking or going through,” the brother said.

Morales Zavala said he believed the revolver his brother brandished was broken. 

Morales Zavala said his brother “was always helping somebody else out and never asked for help.”

“He acted like the tough guy on the outside but inside he was a sweet bear,” he said.

A friend, Hector Martinez, said, “He was a caring person. If you ever needed something, he’d go out of his way to help you out. He was also probably one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever met.”

The last time Jose Morales Zavala saw his brother was the Sunday before the shooting.

“We were just talking and having fun. He was always smiling, always trying to lift people,” said Morales Zavala. Martinez said he talked to Victor Morales Zavala the morning of the shooting.

He said Morales Zavala didn’t go to work but instead announced his plans to leave that day for Nevada.

“I told him to relax and just wait it out. I said he should think about it. I told him we could meet up after I got off from work,” said Martinez. “But he just wanted to leave.”

Later that afternoon at about 4 p.m., according to police, a motorist reported that Morales Zavala was driving erratically east on Interstate 84 about 11 miles from the Oregon border.

Police chased Morales Zavala into the Nampa area, where he drove off the interstate at the Nampa-Marsing-Midland Boulevard exit and steered west toward Caldwell.

He eventually drove back onto the freeway, police said, going west at the Middleton exit.

By then, he was pursed by officers from the Idaho State Police, the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office and the Caldwell Police Department. 

At 4:35 p.m., Oregon police received word Morales Zavala was heading toward the border. An Ontario officer set spike strips along the highway near the Oregon-Idaho border.

When Morales Zavala hit the spike strips at about 4:47 p.m. All four tires were blown.

Morales Zavala drove toward Ontario, exited the interstate and then drove west on East Idaho Avenue, chased by eight police vehicles from at least three agencies.

Morales Zavala drove west through the underpass before he stopped halfway up the other side and then jumped out.

Moments later, at 4:51 p.m., troopers shot him.

Morales Zavala was taken to Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario where he died.

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