WORCESTER — Minutes after Auburn police Officer Ronald Tarentino stopped Jorge Zambrano early Sunday morning, the Worcester man pulled out a gun and fired five shots including one that struck the officer in his lower back, police said Tuesday.
The new details surrounding Tarentino’s death during a routine traffic stop raised questions about whether the convicted drug dealer, who had a history of assaulting police officers, should have been on the streets.
When a state trooper in February tried to put Zambrano in handcuffs, he struggled so fiercely the trooper needed help from three other officers to get him into the cruiser.
Kicking and screaming, the muscular 35-year-old warned officers they had made a big mistake and, according to the trooper, said he could have taken their guns “if he wanted to hurt us.” It took a chemical spray to subdue him.
Yet when Zambrano appeared in court the next day, Judge Andrew L. Mandell set bail at $500, even as he noted that Zambrano, who had an extensive criminal past, had three pending criminal cases in Worcester District Court. Mandell has not explained his reasoning.
Zambrano’s February arrest in Clinton came less than two weeks after he allegedly assaulted a Worcester police officer.
“We’re seeing once again a tragic situation and people start talking about greater judicial accountability,” said Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. “This reminds us why we have mandatory sentencing.”
Tarentino stopped Zambrano after realizing the plates on the vehicle he was driving did not match registration records.
Auburn Detective Sergeant Scott Mills said evidence indicates that Tarentino had a conversation with Zambrano.
Mills said things took a turn for the worse when Tarentino told Zambrano his vehicle would likely be towed because it was not properly registered.
He said that at some point an altercation occurred and Zambrano pulled out a gun and fired. One bullet struck Tarentino in his lower back between his protective vest and belt as he turned to take cover, another struck him in the upper back shoulder but was stopped by his vest, a third hit his police radio, and another struck a pickup truck.
“He was going back toward his cruiser,” Mills said. “We’re taught to create distance when someone pulls a firearm and take cover.”
Mills said Tarentino withdrew his firearm, but was unable to return fire.
Zambrano was killed during a shootout with police 18 hours later in Oxford.
Zambrano’s long criminal history, which included three assaults against police officers and a seven-year prison stay for drug trafficking, has prompted Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey to launch a review of the court’s handling of Zambrano’s cases to determine whether “additional systemic steps should have been taken.”
The Worcester district attorney’s office, which in March recommended that Zambrano undergo mental health counseling and drug screening instead of returning to jail, is also reviewing its handling of his cases, and Governor Charlie Baker said through a spokeswoman he “looks forward to a thorough review of the facts to determine what steps need to be taken by the courts to ensure the safety and security of our communities.”
When Zambrano appeared in Clinton District Court in February, a Worcester County prosecutor said the charges of assault and resisting arrest were “troubling,” especially in light of his assault charge in Worcester from January.
The prosecutor urged Mandell to revoke Zambrano’s bail on that case, noting his lengthy criminal record and that “on almost all of his charges, there is a resisting arrest or [assault and battery] on a police officer charge,” according to a recording of the hearing.
But Mandell released Zambrano on $500 bail, letting him off with a stern warning.
“If I see you again, just figure the next stop is West Boylston [jail],” he said. Understood?”
Yet Zambrano remained free despite another arrest in May for driving without a license and repeatedly violating his probation by using cocaine, alcohol, and suboxone, according to court records.
Zambrano had been placed on probation in March, when he pleaded guilty to assaulting the officer in January and other charges. Mandell ordered Zambrano to undergo mental health counseling.
During that hearing, a prosecutor said the officer involved “recognizes the defendant probably needs more help than jail time.”
Probation Commissioner Ed Dolan said Zambrano was assessed as “high risk” for supervision. During his seven weeks on probation, he was seen nine times in the courthouse and was paid one home visit.
Asked why the department didn’t view Zambrano as a public threat, Dolan said, “Because he was generally compliant, although at times required prompting to be compliant with his conditions of supervision.”
Zambrano was to appear in court June 9 for a hearing on probation violations.
Fellow officers of Tarentino questioned how Zambrano was able to avoid jail time.
“It’s absolutely concerning to us . . . when you look at the violent history; he hasn’t hesitated to give police officers a hard time in the past,” said Oxford police Lieutenant Anthony Saad.
In the January case in Worcester, Zambrano allegedly tried to pull an officer into his car, where he had a large pit bull, police said.
“These facts alone warrant him a danger to police,” Saad said. “If he has no respect for the police, he [likely] has no respect for the civilian population in general.”
In Auburn, Tarentino’s colleague Mills, said, “Clearly in light of what’s happened, I can’t express the degree to which I wish Zambrano was incarcerated.”
At the same time, there are scenarios in which a person without a violent history suddenly takes a turn, Mills noted. Pointing fingers, he said, wouldn’t “bring our officer back.”
During the February incident, Zambrano was arrested on Interstate 495 in Berlin after State Police received a report that he punched a woman, later identified as his girlfriend, in the breakdown lane.
At the Feb. 11 hearing in Clinton District Court, Mandell rattled off Zambrano’s cases: a 1998 assault of a federal police officer and another attack on law enforcement in 2002.
“He’s just troubling,” Mandell said.
“How many times is it going to take here?” Mandell said. “You may not like what a police officer says, but he’s got to listen.”
Zambrano’s attorney, Anthony Scola, argued that his client was an “engaging and nice guy” and that his girlfriend, whom he was accused of assaulting, would agree.
He acknowledged that Zambrano has a “mistrust for the police.”
When Mandell set a low bail, Zambrano thanked the judge and apologized.
“Don’t let it happen again,” Mandell said.
In his bail order, Mandell noted that Zambrano’s girlfriend had told investigators that Zambrano did not hit her.
In a police report, the state trooper who arrested Zambrano said that during the struggle he said, “I am not going back.”
His erratic behavior continued in the cruiser and at the police station.
“He was screaming, kicking his legs, flaying his arms, and crying,’’ wrote Trooper Ray Burton. “His behavior switched like a light switch . . . he started to punch himself full force left arm to left temple area and right arm to the right temple area.’’
Once in the cell, Zambrano calmed down and started exercising, Burton wrote.
Globe correspondents Mina Corpuz and J.D. Capelouto contributed to this report. Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH. Jan Ransom can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom. Shelley Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph. John R. Ellement can be reached at email@example.com.