A gunshot victim who was held hostage by a Modesto man in a San Andreas apartment complex just moments before the man was shot dead by police is speaking out about her ordeal, and she wants to set the record straight that she was not injured by a police-fired bullet.
In an exclusive interview with the Enterprise, 74-year-old Sue Zielinski, who is now recovering at a local rehabilitation facility, spoke of her confusion and anger when now-deceased suspect Mark Aitulagi Lavea, 47, allegedly kicked through her front door just before midnight on May 6.
Her daughter Kelly Riley, a secretary at Gold Strike High School, was visiting that night and had called police after hearing four nearby gunshots at approximately 11:30 p.m. She believes they were the same shots reportedly fired by Lavea that injured Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jonathan Brown as he was interviewing Lavea’s female partner and alleged domestic violence victim in the parking lot of the Diamond Place Apartment Complex.
Riley then called her daughter and told her to keep away from the apartment. Minutes later, she heard a loud bang. Emerging from the bedroom into the hallway, she was met by a tall, hooded figure whom she did not recognize.
“I was very upset. I was mad,” she said. “I got in his face and pushed him. I said, ‘Why are you here? Get out! Get out!’ I threatened to call the cops and he said the cops were already coming.”
Riley said Lavea gave her a “death glare” when she flung open the front door and demanded that he leave. It was then that he lifted his shirt to reveal a handgun. Riley ran out the door to get help and was quickly met by sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers who were pursuing Lavea.
Zielinksi, who suffers from severe hearing loss, is diabetic and requires oxygen, was left alone in the living room with Lavea. She had not awoken when he kicked through the door but was later roused by the sound of Riley and Lavea arguing.
“I didn’t think he was going to hurt my mom. I figured he would leave or run out into the woods,” said Riley, who was moved to tears in remembering that harrowing night.
However, Lavea remained inside the apartment with Zielinski as police organized outside.
Zielinski said she watched as Lavea closed the blinds, turned off the lights and rifled through her pill bottles. She heard him say that he wanted to “kill himself,” and he asked her if she had any guns in the apartment. She did not. Lavea took Zielinski's cell phone and used it to contact his partner.
Likely suffering from low blood sugar, Zielinski began to feel light-headed.
“Nothing seemed to make sense to me. I didn’t know why I was numb. I really didn’t know what was happening,” she said.
Zielinski realized she needed some fresh air. Despite knowing that Lavea had a gun, she stood up with her walker and went to the front door. Lavea held it closed, but she persisted until he let her go outside.
While she sat on the porch, Zielinski could see Lavea peeking out through the front door.
“I realized I needed to get up and move,” she said.
As she made her way toward the cement steps ahead, she could feel him behind her and what she assumed was a gun pressing into her back.
“I knew I wouldn’t be able to get up those steps,” Zielinski said. “So, I turned the walker to my left. I felt the gun in my back, and I decided if I turned that way, maybe he would shoot forward and not hit me.”
The gun went off and Zielinski felt her left forearm instantly go limp as she fell to the ground “in slow motion.”
“Then, all the guns in the world went off,” she said.
Riley, who had been sheltering in her vehicle during the standoff, was not able to see the shots fired but says she heard them. She could hear police yelling to “come out with your hands up” and “drop the gun,” then heard several shots fired from “both sides.”
Meanwhile, Zielinski was going into shock. She believes she was struck by one bullet fired by Lavea, which shattered one bone in her forearm and broke the other, requiring the insertion of a metal plate. She was also hit by ricocheting shrapnel.
Lavea was pronounced dead at the scene after exchanging gunfire with police, according to the sheriff’s office’s initial report.
Zielinski was administered first-aid at the scene by law enforcement officers and later air-lifted to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto, where she remained for roughly a week.
Sheriff’s office PIO Sgt. Greg Stark told the Enterprise on Monday that it has not been confirmed who shot Zielinski but he has “no reason to question her opinion” given that she is a first-hand witness.
Zielinski, who says she is happy to be alive, has nothing but gratitude for her law enforcement “heroes.” She received flowers from the sheriff’s office in the days after the incident and sent a letter in return thanking them.
She remembers one officer in the immediate aftermath who comforted her while a tourniquet was applied.
“He had his hand on my shoulder and patted me a little bit and kept talking. Of course, I was going into shock then, but it centered me on his voice and his touch,” Zielinski said. “It kept me knowing that I wasn’t going to die here in the dark, alone.”
Zielinski said she is forever changed by the trauma of the seemingly random experience, despite her maintained sense of humor and resolve to push forward.
“My life just turned around. It will never be the same because I have the memories, and the memories may soften but will never go away. And that will affect my life, sometimes negatively,” she said.
For Riley, there is lingering anger that Lavea, a convicted felon, was released early from state prison. He had been sentenced to six years for domestic violence charges and had an unserved domestic violence restraining order at the time of the May 6 incident, which began with a 911 domestic violence call.
“We’ve been Calaveras County residents for a long time. It’s nice and it’s peaceful and it’s quiet, and we don’t need this in our neighborhood. This is a bigger issue for them to be letting criminals out of the prison system early. (Lavea) was supposed to serve six years, and he served two. There is a problem with that at a larger level,” Riley said.
Update 4:17 p.m., 5/25/21: The sheriff's office on Tuesday released a community briefing video regarding the May 6 incident: Calaveras Sheriff's Office Officer Involved Shooting and Hostage Situation, San Andreas, 5-6-21 - YouTube.