BELL — A burst of rapid gunfire greeted 1989 on Loma Vista Avenue.
But the hail of bullets around midnight was not to celebrate the New Year. It was aimed at four Bell-Cudahy police officers called to investigate a traffic accident that resulted in a fatal stabbing.
For their actions under heavy fire on that New Year's Eve night, police reservists Timothy McGee and Michael Hurtado, and regulars William Anderson and Kurt Owens this week were each presented the Medal of Valor, the department's highest honor.
First Award Since 1980
"It must be understood that what we ask of our police officers is (next to) impossible," said Mayor George G. Mirabal, who announced the awards Monday morning during a small ceremony at the Bell Community Center.
It was the first time since 1980 that officers in the 85-member police force received the award, given to those who demonstrate unusual courage and heroism, Police Chief Manual Ortega said. The last recipients were six officers who rescued a family from a burning vehicle.
The New Year's Eve incident began when McGee and Hurtado responded to an 11:45 p.m. call that a street fight had broken out after a traffic accident involving Geraldo Lujan, 22, of Bell, and Hector Bustamonte, 34, of Huntington Park, according to the police report.
Victim Died After 4 Days
Lujan, who reportedly sideswiped a car owned by Bustamonte, got into a heated argument in the middle of Loma Vista Avenue, and allegedly stabbed Bustamonte and another unidentified man who lived on the residential street near Huntington Park, Ortega said. Bustamonte died four days later of a single knife wound in the back.
The officers said they were a bit apprehensive as they eased their cruiser slowly down the residential street. There had been reports all night that people throughout the city had been shooting firearms into the air. "We knew that it was a strange night anyway," recalled McGee, a corporate attorney who dons a Bell-Cudahy police uniform once a week.
When the cruiser reached the center of the block, the two officers noticed two men covered in blood sitting by the curb, according to the police report. As McGee and Hurtado jumped out to help, they were met by a volley of semiautomatic gunfire from a sniper, apparently hiding between a row of houses across the street.
"It was numbing," McGee said. "We looked at each other and just said, 'They're shooting at us.' "
'Don't Try to Think'
"You don't try to think when bullets are flying all around you," said Hurtado, a community college instructor.
The two leaped behind a nearby pickup truck. Making their way back to the cruiser, they called for assistance, while the sniper shot out the car's "Christmas Tree" light bar.
Owens and Anderson arrived a few minutes later to find their fellow officers pinned down behind a parked car, unable to reach the two men huddled at the side of the street. McGee and Hurtado managed to get off eight shots, but the gunman continued to fire.
The four officers decided to use one of the cruisers as a shield from the bullets, which chiseled deep gouges in the sidewalk and chewed up parked cars. Hurtado slowly moved the car to the wounded men at the curb. The other officers followed the moving car. The officers loaded the men into the cruiser and Hurtado drove them to a command post that had been set up a block away.
One of the men, who was stabbed twice in the chest, was treated by paramedics and taken to a nearby hospital, where he was admitted, Ortega said. His name has been withheld by police pending an ongoing investigation.
The other man, who had cuts and bruises from a fistfight, was later identified as stabbing suspect Lujan, but he was released "inadvertently" by paramedics who treated his minor wounds, Owens said. "Apparently no one knew his status," Owens said.
Meanwhile, McGee, Anderson and Owens, crouching behind a parked car, heard shouts that a second stabbing victim, later identified as Bustamonte, was in a house across the street.
Braving another burst of gunfire, the three officers ran across the street, broke into the house and pulled the wounded man to the street, where Hurtado had returned with the cruiser.
"There were ricocheting rounds all around us," said Owens, a former Orange County Sheriff's deputy who has been with the Bell-Cudahy department for 18 months.
About 15 minutes after the ordeal began, the officers backed out of the danger. None of the officers, who wore bullet-proof vests, were hit by the gunman, who fired more than 300 rounds.
The unidentified gunman escaped after the incident, Chief Ortega said, evading more than a dozen police officers who attempted to seal off the area during the gun battle. A Sheriff's Department helicopter, and officers from South Gate, Vernon, Maywood and Huntington Park joined the search for the shooting suspect.
Lujan was arrested on Jan. 6 and charged with murder. He was arraigned at Huntington Park Municipal Court and later released on bail, Ortega said. He failed to show up at a hearing last month, Ortega said, and is at large.