LONG BEACH — A flashlight beam split the darkness, followed by shouting, then rapid gunfire. When silence returned to the night, the muscular body of James A. Owensby lay crumpled in an alley off Palmer Court, punctured in the head, shoulders, chest and left leg by bullets from a police officer's .45.
The dead man's jacket pockets were stuffed with 26 12-gauge shotgun shells. The double-barrel Charles Daly he had wielded seconds before was dropped on the pavement nearby.
So was Francene Landry, bleeding from several wounds and barely alive. The 19-year-old waitress had been taken hostage by Owensby while she was a guest in his parents house at 1889 Palmer.
Drugged on PCP, as the coroner's report would later show, Owensby--a 22-year-old delivery truck driver--had reportedly crooked his left arm around the woman's neck, pointed the shotgun at her head and threatened to pull the trigger for no apparent reason. He had dragged her from the house to the alley when two Long Beach police officers arrived in a patrol car. The gunman and his human shield were walking steadily toward the cruiser when shooting erupted.
But all of Landry's wounds that chilly midnight last May 25 came from the .38 carried by the second police officer.
That officer had fired to save her life, says William A. Reidder, Long Beach's senior deputy city attorney.
Landry's lawyer, Paul W. Rosenfield, says he doesn't necessarily doubt that. Yet he notes that the young woman was struck "center front" with four rounds from the second officer's .38-caliber revolver.
"The shots went directly into her," Rosenfield said. "If he had (meant to identify) her as the target, it would have been excellent shooting."
Suit Seeks Compensatory Damages
On March 17, Landry filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court to recover $50,000 in medical expenses plus an unspecified amount of additional compensatory damages. Named as defendants are Owensby's estate, his parents, the City of Long Beach as well as Police Officers Jeffery L. Johnson and Nicholas G. Lovel.
"She knew her life was at risk," Rosenfield said. "The problem is the police officers didn't take into consideration the safety of the victim. We're not going for punitive damages to punish the officers in any way. But if they're 'To serve and protect,' something went astray."
The story behind the shooting seems at first to be the stuff of a made-for-television movie. But in the end, it bears too many inconclusive and contradictory elements, the kind only real life provides with regularity. Did two police officers overreact by virtually emptying their guns at a man shielding himself with a wholly innocent hostage? Or did Francene Landry contribute to her predicament, at least in part, by associating with a likes of a drug user?
Ten months after the incident off Palmer Court, Johnson and Lovel continue to patrol as partners on the midnight-to-sunrise graveyard shift. Johnson, 27, has been with the department 3 1/2 years and is distinguished by eight commendations, while Lovel, 33, has six commendations in his four years on the force.
Through a spokesman, the officers decline to comment, in keeping with department policy where litigation is involved.
Internal Affairs Shooting Board
But an internal affairs shooting board long ago decided that the two had reacted to Owensby as any good officers would, using deadly force because they felt that their own lives were in jeopardy. The inquiry was conducted by detectives under Criminal Investigations Division Cmdr. David Dusenbury, who also declines to talk about the case.
"We don't have hostage situations that frequently in Long Beach," Dusenbury said. "Every officer
that goes into the field knows that at any given moment he may be faced with a difficult situation. None of them look forward to that situation, but they have to deal with it."
Reidder, the deputy city attorney, said the officers "were probably in fear of their own lives" as they confronted Owensby in the alley. "They believed that he not only was going to kill the female but was going to kill them also."
Please see HOSTAGE, Page 3 That was justification enough, Reidder said, for the Long Beach City Council to deny Landry's negligence claim last Oct. 29, after which she sought damages in excess of $1 million. (Before anyone can sue a government agency, California law requires that they present an administrative damage claim. If the agency rejects the claim, the matter can then be taken to court.) That same day, the council rejected a similar claim filed by Owensby's father and mother, apparently without aid of an attorney. On the short, bureaucratically terse form, said Reidder, the parents simply wrote, "Long Beach Police Department shot my son at the above referenced address and was murdered."
Through an attorney, Owensby's parents decline to comment.
Trained Not to Surrender Weapons