A San Diego County deputy sheriff was killed and two others were wounded by a heavily armed gunman who was slain at the end of a bloody, 12-hour siege at an Escondido apartment complex Saturday.
Officers killed the gunman at sunset as he ran from his apartment on Mission Avenue, firing an AK-47 automatic assault rifle. The apartment had been set ablaze by a bombardment of tear gas grenades and concussion bombs.
The slain deputy, Lonny Brewer, 29, of El Cajon, was a seven-year veteran of the force, the last two years as a member of the elite Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit. Brewer died of a massive chest wound despite emergency surgery at Palomar Memorial Hospital. He was only the third member of the department killed in the line of duty in this century, Sheriff John Duffy said late Saturday.
Officer Scott Rossall, 31, of Encinitas, was in good condition at Palomar Hospital with a wounded leg. A third SWAT officer, Chuck Wagner of North County, was treated for a superficial finger wound and then released.
Brewer and Rossall were shot during an unsuccessful morning assault on the apartment of Robert Gary Taschner, 37, an apparent weapons enthusiast and suspected drug user who was well-known to Escondido police.
Taschner died in a hail of gunfire as he charged from his burning apartment with his rifle, wounding Wagner.
Taschner had been arrested Tuesday for alleged weapons and drug violations but posted bail Thursday and returned home. Escondido police confiscated numerous weapons from Taschner's apartment during the Tuesday arrest, spokesmen said late Saturday.
The deadly chain of events began at 10:30 p.m. Friday at the Fairwinds Town House, 980 East Mission Ave., after a neighbor of Taschner reported a shot fired through the wall into her apartment, Capt. Mike Stein of the Escondido police said.
Police who responded found no sign of Taschner and left after taking a report from the neighbor, he said.
At 4:15 a.m. Saturday, police received another call regarding shots fired at the apartment complex. When they arrived this time, Taschner was in his apartment but unwilling to talk with them, Stein said. A police negotiation team was called in and made intermittent phone contact.
Called for Assistance
"He would talk for a while in a muffled voice, and it was hard to ascertain what his desires were," Stein said. "(Some officers) felt that he wanted them to move closer to the apartment (so that he could fire at them)." Stein said "our best guess" is that Taschner was under the influence of drugs.
As a result of the standoff, Escondido police called for assistance from the sheriff's SWAT team about 6:30 a.m. At the same time, police began evacuating residents of the complex and from houses facing the two-story building. Spectators at the Grant Middle School across Mission Avenue from the apartments were also moved from the area.
The SWAT team arrived about 7:20 a.m. and moved into position around the building for an assault, sheriff's spokesman Lt. Alan Fulmer said.
"At 9:50 a.m., the team fired tear gas into the apartment in order to flush him (Taschner) out," Fulmer said. "It did not work. He did not come out, and at 10 a.m. the team elected to force entry."
With tear gas still in the air, the entry team--which included Brewer and Rossall--forced the ground-floor door of the two-story apartment and were immediately met by gunfire from Taschner who was in a prone position 15 feet inside the apartment, Fulmer said.
Fulmer said Rossall was the first officer hit. He was struck in the leg and spun around as he fell to the ground in the parking lot in the building entrance before being helped to safety by fellow officers. In the confusion of noise and gas, Fulmer said, the assault team did not realize that Brewer had also been hit.
"It was 10 to 15 minutes later that the team realized that Brewer had not fallen back with them," Fulmer said. "They then saw him lying between vehicles in the parking lot and tried to rescue him."
Brewer was taken by paramedics to Palomar Hospital, where a surgical team led by Dr. Thomas Velky labored for more than two hours to try to save Brewer's life. Velky said a single bullet had entered Brewer's back just behind the left shoulder and passed through bone to lodge in his chest just above the heart. "It was in all probability a lethal injury, . . . and he was probably dead at the scene," Velky said.
Fulmer and Sheriff Duffy defended the decision to assault the apartment despite the fact that Taschner held no hostages. "We have (these situations) at least three times a year, but they are dangerous, goddamn it," Duffy said. The sheriff spent much of the afternoon with Brewer's wife, Kathy, also a deputy sheriff and who was on traffic patrol duty Saturday in Poway. The couple had been married only three weeks and Saturday was Kathy's birthday, Fulmer said.