Tim Steller

Tim Steller

Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

When Marcus Dickson shot a man in Marana on June 30, witnesses were around and saw how the conflict started.

He alleged self-defense, but he ended up charged with second-degree murder.

When security guard Sean Esparza shot a man near the UA Science and Tech Park on Aug. 15, no one was around.

He, too, claimed self-defense, but prosecutors say they won’t charge Esparza. He retains his license to work as an unarmed security guard in Arizona, though he was armed and working when he fired.

“Our standard is always the same in every case,” Deputy Pima County Attorney Jonathan Mosher said. “We can only charge a case if we have evidence that creates a reasonable likelihood of success at trial. We did not have that in this case.”

The fact that one is facing criminal charges and the other isn’t doesn’t mean either one has less ethical culpability. Neither shooting would have happened, police reports suggest, if Esparza and Dickson had simply driven away from their conflicts.

But they were men in their 20s and armed. They did the stupid thing. They got more deeply involved when they should have just left. And they ended up killing.

Dickson’s case is well-known. He was the aggressor in a traffic dispute with Martin Padilla near Arizona Pavilions. When Padilla, who was driving with his young son, turned into the Walmart parking lot, witnesses told Marana police, Dickson honked at him. And when Padilla pulled over to let Dickson pass, Dickson instead blocked in Padilla’s vehicle.

The two got out of their vehicles. A fight ensued, and Padilla was sitting atop Dickson, restraining him. When Dickson got up, he pulled out a gun and shot him twice. Self-defense, he said.

The Marana police report cites a witness, though, in reporting, “Both males got up off the ground with several feet between them and one male shot the other male two times.”

Those several feet could well be what undermined Dickson’s legal claim of self-defense and led to his being charged. Plus, there was the fact that, as witnesses said, he was the aggressor. He got angry in traffic, pursued Padilla and ended up killing him. Then he called it self-defense.

I called Dickson and his attorney but received no response.

You won’t find such telling witness statements in the police reports on Esparza’s killing of Thomas Dickinson. That’s because the only surviving witness was Esparza, the shooter, who was working that night as a security guard for VetSec Protection Agency. Unsurprisingly, his account justifies his actions — at least the fatal decision.

GPS tracking of his company vehicle showed that Esparza was driving between businesses that the company patrolled, police reports say, citing a company manager. Esparza told police he had been driving north on South Kolb Road and was stopped at a red light at Science Park Drive when he saw a man walking north on the side of the road who looked angry, yelled at Esparza and flipped him off.

The man threw a rock at Esparza’s company vehicle, and Esparza rolled down the window and asked him what the problem was, Tucson police reports say, citing Esparza’s account.

Then Esparza made a literally fatal mistake: Rather than continuing north on Kolb, he “elected to turn right on Science Park Drive and into the desert so he could go see what was up with the guy,” Tucson police Officer Heriberto Orozco reported.

Esparza parked his vehicle in the dirt and got out, but initially could not see Dickinson, Orozco reported. Then Dickinson appeared about 20 yards away, carrying a rock, running toward Esparza and yelling at him. Esparza was a licensed unarmed security guard, but he was carrying a pistol in a backpack and pulled it out, the report says.

Esparza told police that he told Dickinson to stop, but Dickinson kept coming and threatening, saying “I’ll beat your head in.” So Esparza fired from about 3 feet away, Esparza told police. The report says he claimed to have a “legit fear” for his life.

“When asked why he carried a weapon for his job if he was unarmed security, he responded, ‘Because anything could happen,’” Orozco reported, “and he would ‘rather be prepared than dead.’”

My question is, prepared for what?

There was no reason Esparza needed to turn and look for Dickinson, a drifter who, according to his autopsy, had taken meth and apparently was acting erratically. The smart response, but one that feels like it is becoming increasingly rare, is to drive on. Walk on. Bike on. Whatever vehicle you’re using, leave the conflict behind.

But in Arizona, the law embraces people who claim to defend themselves. Our “stand your ground” law says a person has no duty to retreat and may shoot someone else if he or she has a reasonable fear of death. That means there doesn’t need to be an actual threat, but at least a perception of one that a jury would consider reasonable.

It’s likely that Dickson, who is out of jail on bond, will use that defense. His attorney has listed “self defense” as one of the principal arguments he expects to use. Even though witnesses said he started the whole thing and was several feet away when he fired.

Esparza won’t be required to make a criminal defense, since he was neither arrested nor charged. The reports indicate that Tucson police trusted his version of events. They took note of the fact that he was a former Army infantryman working as a security guard. And besides, there were no witnesses.

VetSec, his then-employer, would not tell me if Esparza remains on the job. But he could be — even though he was carrying a gun with him in the car while working as a security guard licensed only to work unarmed. His license is still good and valid until February 2018.

Normally, proceedings against security guards begin after an arrest or conviction triggers a report to the licensing bureau, Detective Derek Smith of the Arizona Department of Public Safety told me. That apparently has not happened.

Of course, all of this could have been avoided, and Dickinson would still be alive, if Esparza had decided to simply drive on. And Padilla, too, would be with his children, if Dickson had thought better of escalating the conflict and left. Instead, both put themselves in a position of using what they later claimed was justified self-defense.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter