Just three months after Jorge Zambrano finished his seven-year prison sentence for cocaine trafficking, he was stopped by Worcester police, who suspected him of selling drugs from his car.
“What’s your problem?” Zambrano yelled at officers, his hands raised. He was arrested on charges of carrying a dangerous weapon, a folding knife, and driving without a license.
Two months later, in April 2014, court records show a similar incident.
“Why are you [expletive] with us?” Zambrano screamed as police tried to question him. He was charged with disorderly conduct and carrying a knife.
The arrest records reveal a pattern of hostility toward police, one that culminated tragically last month when Zambrano allegedly killed Auburn police officer Ronald Tarentino during a routine traffic stop.
New details of the incidents, culled from a review of Zambrano’s extensive criminal history, also reaffirm a second pattern — Zambrano’s volatile behavior, no matter how persistent, did not result in jail time.
In perhaps the most glaring example, Zambrano struggled so fiercely during an arrest in February for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend that it took four officers to subdue him, police said. Later, in his cell, he cried and repeatedly punched himself in the head.
But the next day, Judge Andrew Mandell set bail at just $500, rejecting a prosecutor’s request to keep him in jail because he was already facing charges for allegedly assaulting a police officer the month before.
“The guy is spinning out of control, what are we waiting for?” said Boston attorney Leonard Kesten, who regularly represents police officers. “I think they should have had him evaluated before he was released.”
Zambrano, 35, was killed during a shootout with police in Oxford, about 18 hours after police say he shot and killed Tarentino. The stolen gun, a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson, used to kill Tarentino was found near Zambrano’s body, authorities say.
Five knives, plastic bags containing white powder, and a scale were found in Zambrano’s car, according to recently unsealed court records.
Zambrano, who had a history of assaults against police officers, had been arrested six times this year and violated his probation on several occasions, potential red flags that have raised questions about how he was allowed to remain on the streets.
The trial court and the Worcester district attorney’s office are reviewing how his criminal cases were handled. The court’s preliminary review indicated that no procedures were violated.
Many legal specialists said it’s unfair to assign blame in the Zambrano case, given the difficulty in predicting who poses a risk of lethal violence.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted that by releasing this man he would have committed such a violent crime,” said Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel of the public defender division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services. “It doesn’t strike me that it’s an unusual case that was crying out for someone to be held.”
Worcester lawyer Anthony Scola, who began representing Zambrano in February, said that “in hindsight you’d say you would do everything differently.”
But in each of Zambrano’s cases, Scola said, there were extenuating circumstances. That led to a joint recommendation in March by prosecutors and Scola, adopted by Mandell, that Zambrano should undergo a mental health evaluation and treatment rather than return to jail for assaulting the police officer in January and several other charges.
He was sentenced to a year’s probation, which he soon violated by testing positive for cocaine. Still, he remained free.
“When do you give up on people?” Scola asked.
Scola noted that Zambrano’s convictions since he got out of prison in 2013 were misdemeanors, and none involved a gun. His only felony charges, for carrying a folding knife, were dismissed by prosecutors.
Yet it remains unclear why Worcester prosecutors recommended the probation sentence just weeks after they had asked for Zambrano’s bail to be revoked. The district attorney’s office said it would “withhold any comment on these cases until that review is completed.”
After the February arrest for suspected assault, prosecutors should have considered requesting a dangerousness hearing, Kesten said. That would have allowed them to hold Zambrano without bail for several days, followed by a hearing to determine whether he posed a threat to public safety.
“It’s on probation and the district attorney to identify the ones who deserve a closer look,” Kesten said. “It’s not on the judge.”
Attorney Edward Ryan Jr., a former prosecutor and Massachusetts Bar Association president, said Zambrano’s case did not warrant a dangerousness hearing.
His girlfriend denied that he hit her, he noted, and he was ultimately not charged with assaulting or threatening the police officers.
“Any good prosecutor is unlikely to have requested a dangerousness hearing on the facts presented in that case,” Ryan said.
Yet Zambrano’s behavior in the February incident, particularly in light of his criminal history, “to me is a red flag,” Kesten said. According to a witness, he punched his girlfriend in the face, knocking her to the ground, then struggled with police, who used chemical spray to arrest him.
In the cruiser, Zambrano kicked and screamed and “stated several times how he can take all of us on and just wait until the handcuffs come off,” according to a police report.
At his arraignment, prosecutors noted Zambrano’s history of resisting arrest and assaulting police officers, and specifically cited his January arrest on a charge of assaulting a Worcester officer. Scola, his lawyer, told Mandell that Zambrano had “a mistrust of police.”
Mandell voiced concern about Zambrano’s record, saying “a lot of police ought to have to worry about him,” according to a recording of the hearing. Yet without explanation, he granted Scola’s request to set bail at $500.
Seven weeks later, another Worcester County prosecutor recommended that Zambrano be placed on probation for the January assault, in which he allegedly tried to pull a police officer into his car with a pit bull inside. Zambrano’s lawyer said he was asleep in his car and was startled when police checked on him.
The prosecutor, who was not identified on the recording, told the court the officer “explained to me that the situation was intense, but he recognizes that the defendant probably needs more help than jail time.”
Mandell chided Zambrano, saying that the bulk of his stops by police had been for driving without a license.
“You know you’re not supposed to be driving and you’re doing it, so you’re doing this to yourself,” he said.
Zambrano pleaded guilty to assault and battery on a police officer and a variety of other charges, resolving several of his cases. In sentencing him to a year’s probation, Mandell warned Zambrano that he would face 2½ years in jail if he violated the terms.
But in April, Zambrano tested positive for cocaine twice and suboxone once, and admitted to using both drugs on another occasion, according to court records. Still, he remained free.
A probation officer was working with Zambrano to obtain MassHealth coverage and had referred him to a mental health clinic “to get that process going,” the Probation Department said. Zambrano had completed an intake interview on May 10, and a full evaluation was scheduled for mid-May.
Scola said Zambrano had “impulse control problems,” but was unaware whether he had been diagnosed with any specific mental health condition. Zambrano’s girlfriend recently told him Zambrano had been taking medication and that it had recently been changed.
Bernard Fitzgerald, a retired chief probation officer in Dorchester District Court, said tracking offenders with mental health issues has “always been a problem.”
When offenders are ordered to enter mental health counseling, there is no uniform policy on where they must go, or what sanctions are imposed if they miss a session, he said. Probation officers cannot send someone to prison, even for a serious infraction.
“The probation officer can recommend incarceration, but the judge has to go along with that,” he said.
In Zambrano’s case, probation notified the court of his violations, but had not recommended he go to jail, according to court records.
On May 16, Zambrano was stopped in Worcester by a state trooper who ran the plates on his SUV and discovered they were registered to a different vehicle. He was arrested without incident and charged with driving with a suspended license.
Judge Janet McGuiggan released him on personal recognizance and told him to return to court June 9 with a lawyer.
“That’s perfect,” Zambrano said. “Thank you so much.”
Six days later, Zambrano was back behind the wheel. Shortly after midnight, Tarentino pulled him over, again because his plates didn’t match the registration. Zambrano allegedly pulled out a gun and fired five shots.