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Former San Diego Sheriff's deputy faces federal charges for fatally shooting unarmed man in 2020

Sheriff's Department Intake in downtown San Diego on Dec. 23, 2020.
Matthew Bowler / KPBS
Sheriff's Department Intake in downtown San Diego on Dec. 23, 2020.

A former San Diego County Sheriff Department deputy who fatally shot an unarmed man outside the downtown San Diego jail over four years ago was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that could send him to prison for life, it was announced Friday.

Aaron Russell was charged in the indictment with depriving Nicholas Bils of his right to be free from officers using excessive force and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, according to the Department of Justice.

Bils, 36, was shot multiple times on May 1, 2020, as he was running away from officers who were taking him to the jail. The indictment alleges Russell issued no warnings before opening fire on Bils, who was shot from behind.


Russell was also prosecuted by the San Diego County District Attorney's Office, which initially charged him with second-degree murder. Russell pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced in 2022 to one year in jail, plus probation in connection with the shooting.

He faces a maximum possible penalty of life in prison if convicted of the new federal charges.

At his initial court appearance on Friday, Russell pleaded not guilty. He will be allowed to remain out of custody on certain conditions, including surrendering his passport and restrictions on his travel to San Diego, Imperial, and Orange counties.

At the time of the shooting, Russell was 23 years old and had been with the Sheriff's Department for 18 months.

Bils had been arrested for allegedly brandishing a golf club at park rangers in Old Town State Park and was being taken to the downtown detention facility, where he managed to partially slip out of handcuffs and escape from a California State Parks officer's car.


As he fled, he was shot four times in the back, arm and thigh.

Three other law enforcement officers were at the scene, but Russell was the only one to draw his firearm, according to prosecutors.

The shooting also led to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bils' family, which settled in mid-2022, with San Diego County agreeing to pay the Bils family $8.1 million.

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