A police investigation into a bloody, 12-hour siege at an Escondido apartment complex that left two people dead and two others wounded Saturday focused on two key questions Sunday:
How did Robert Gary Taschner, who fatally shot one San Diego County deputy sheriff and wounded two others before being killed himself by Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) officers, come to have a powerful rifle in his possession only four days after Escondido police seized numerous other weapons from his apartment?
Did officers, as Taschner's mother charged Sunday, "execute" him by firing a shot into his body after he had already been felled by other shots and was lying, incapacitated, on the ground?
"My son was not a police killer, that's for sure," Sally Taschner, the gunman's mother, said Sunday. "He was a wonderful boy. He loved animals and loved people. He was the type of person who'd give you his last cent. This just doesn't make sense."
The slain deputy, Lonny Brewer, 29, of El Cajon, was a seven-year veteran of the force who for the last two years had been a member of the elite SWAT team. Of the two wounded officers, SWAT officer Chuck Wagner was treated for a superficial finger wound and released Saturday, while officer Scott Rossall, of Encinitas, was in good condition at Palomar Hospital with a leg wound Sunday night.
Chain of Events
While deputies mourned the loss of a fellow officer, and Taschner's family and friends, amid their own grief, sought explanations for the shoot-out, investigators Sunday attempted to reconstruct the deadly chain of events that began at 10:30 p.m. Friday when a neighbor of Taschner reported that a shot had been fired from his apartment.
Escondido police who responded to the apartment complex at 980 East Mission Ave. on Friday night left after finding no sign of Taschner, a 37-year-old gun collector and suspected drug user who had been arrested Tuesday on weapons and drug charges. At 4:15 a.m. Saturday, however, police received another call about gunfire coming from Taschner's apartment. This time they found him at home but unwilling to talk to them.
When police negotiators could not end the standoff, they called for assistance from the sheriff's SWAT team about 6:30 a.m. After unsuccessfully attempting to flush Taschner out of his apartment with tear gas, SWAT officers stormed the ground-floor unit at 10 a.m. and were met by bullets. During the ensuing gunfire, Brewer, whose wife, Kathy, is also a deputy sheriff, received a fatal wound in his back.
In late afternoon, San Diego Police Department SWAT officers joined the county team for another assault attempt on the apartment. While officers poured more tear gas grenades and gunfire into the apartment from a special armored assault vehicle, Sheriff's Department explosives experts planted concussion grenades on the walls of the apartments on either side of Taschner's, hoping to blast holes through which SWAT members could enter the apartment.
Although only one of the concussion grenades exploded and the hole it created was too small for an officer to enter, the grenades started a fire that forced Taschner out of the apartment.
As he ran out the front door firing his AK-47 assault rifle, he was struck by several shots fired by the SWAT officers.
What happened in the next few chaotic moments is a subject of controversy. San Diego television station KGTV (Channel 10) broadcast a videotape Sunday showing that, as Taschner was lying on the ground, restrained by one officer and a police dog, he was quickly surrounded by other officers, one of whom fired a shot only inches from Taschner's head.
Slow-motion replays of the KGTV footage do not make it clear whether that shot struck or narrowly missed Taschner--who might have already been dead from the other wounds. In addition, the officer who fired the shot appeared to stumble slightly before his gun discharged, raising doubt over whether the shot was accidental or deliberate.
Taschner's mother, nevertheless, cited the footage as proof that police used excessive force.
"He was down, not moving, being held down, but they still blew him in the head," Sally Taschner said. "Who knows if he was still alive? But it wasn't necessary. It was wrong. My son was a victim, too.
"He knew all along if he came out the door to try to give himself up that they'd kill him. Anybody knows when the SWAT team comes in, you're dead. After the officer died, there was no doubt that that was how this thing was going to end."
Sheriff's Department spokesmen had no comment Sunday night on the incident. Sgt. Frank Nunez of the sheriff's public relations division said that investigators had not yet reviewed the tapes of the incident and therefore could not draw any conclusions about the shot.
Officials in the San Diego County coroner's office declined to specify whether Taschner had received a head wound or to release any other information Sunday night, saying that the autopsy had not been completed.
Under Influence of Drugs?
Police have speculated that Taschner may have been under the influence of drugs during Saturday's fatal shoot-out. Although preliminary details about the autopsy could be released as early as today, Deputy Coroner Chuck Bolton said late Sunday that it will be at least several days before drug test results will be known.
Another question that authorities had little to say about Sunday dealt with how Taschner came to have the AK-47 assault rifle in his possession only days after Escondido police officers confiscated numerous other weapons from his apartment.
Escondido police said that the rifle was not among the weapons seized when Taschner was arrested Tuesday. Lt. Ed Jackson added, however, that he was not certain whether officers failed to locate the rifle during their search on Tuesday or whether Taschner acquired it after posting bail and returning home from jail Thursday.
Taschner's mother said she did not know whether the rifle was part of her son's gun collection.