The manager of a Beverly Hills jewelry store was shot and killed by a sheriff's sharpshooter after a 13 1/2-hour hostage siege because he was mistaken for the fleeing gunman, Sheriff Sherman Block said Wednesday.
"It was not an accidental shooting," Block told a press conference. "The person who was shot was, in fact, the person he had fired at. . . . It was a tragic end--a mistake."
Deputy George Johnson, a 13-year-veteran, fired a single rifle shot from his rooftop perch, about 100 yards from the store parking lot that was the shooting scene, after a spotter, Deputy Jon Rhodes, who was positioned next to him, reported, " 'He has a gun. He's going to shoot,' " Block said.
Hugh Skinner, 64, the longtime manager of the Van Cleef & Arpels store, was one of three hostages killed in the bloody siege. The bodies of two other employees--saleswoman Ann Heilperin and security guard William Richard Smith--were found inside the store, apparently executed by the robber.
Suspect Steven Livaditis, 22, was feigning death when he was arrested immediately after the shooting, Block said. A fully loaded, high-caliber revolver was hidden under his body.
Block said that in the hours before the standoff ended, he and Beverly Hills Police Chief Marvin Iannone discussed a number of options that officers might take--including surreptitiously entering the building, if it was learned that any of the hostages had been harmed.
The suspect had indicated by telephone several times during the day that he had killed one or two of his captives, claims that were confirmed by hostages Heilperin and Skinner in phone conversations with reporters. But authorities maintained during that period that they believed the gunman was bluffing.
"In other conversations, he denied having killed a hostage," Block said. "We were fairly certain in believing the killing had not occurred. . . . He (Livaditis) said, 'I really didn't.' "
The sheriff said "the combination of circumstances" led the marksman and spotter to believe the store manager was their target as Livaditis, with his three hostages, attempted to slip out a side door, shortly after indicating to authorities that he was planning to remain inside the Rodeo Drive store throughout the night.
Livaditis' attempted escape at about 11:30 p.m. took authorities by surprise.
Block said the gunman and the hostages were covered by a dark drape as they left the store. Officers stationed outside could see only the legs of three men and a woman underneath. Two of the men were wearing dark pants and the third wore gray pants.
(Store employees who had escaped when the attempted robbery began about 10 a.m. Monday told authorities that the gunman was wearing a gray suit.)
Two deputies lobbed "flash-bang" concussion grenades at the quartet to divert them and, Block said, the man wearing the gray pants became separated from the others. The sheriff said that the man, Skinner, fell to the ground, then raised himself into a sitting position and extended his arm toward the group huddled under the blanket. (When asked by reporters if Livaditis might have changed clothes with Skinner, Block replied that it was a possibility that was under investigation.)
It was at that moment, Block said, that the spotter issued his warning about a gun. Johnson fired his rifle once, the bullet hitting Skinner in the chest.
"It was a clear shot," Block said.
Night Scopes Used
The sheriff said deputies used night scopes and had a clear view of the parking lot area, which was illuminated.
Deputies rushed forward to find three people tightly tied together under the blanket. Livaditis was one of them. He was lying face-down. In order to separate him from the two surviving hostages, deputies had to cut away their bindings. Skinner had not been bound to the others.
Rhodes, 32, an eight-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department, later told investigators that he saw a shiny object when Skinner raised his hand, Block said.
"Whether it was light reflected, who knows?" the sheriff said. "A ring, a watch? I have no idea at that distance. He had car keys."
Block speculated that Skinner had not been bound to the others and carried keys because he was to drive the getaway car. Livaditis and his captives were headed toward a car in a nearby parking lot.
"Perhaps it was planned that he might mistakenly be seen as the suspect," Block also theorized.
The marksman has the ultimate authority in such situations on whether to shoot, Block said. Johnson, 42, and Rhodes, like other deputies involved in fatal shootings, will be off field duty for the next five days and will undergo psychological counseling.
Backed by Sheriff
Block was not critical of their conduct, adding that Johnson--a member of the special weapons team for more than three years and a highly trained marksman--was "absolutely" justified in taking his shot.
Iannone, who had overall command of the operation, has said that actions by law officers throughout the siege were correct.