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Shot by Another Police Officer : Disabled Ex-Bell Gardens Detective Wins Suit

August 13, 1989|ANNETTE KONDO | Times Staff Writer

DOWNEY — There are nights when Ron Kunkle wakes up in a cold sweat, gasping for air. Other nights his right arm twitches nervously, waking his wife. And there are nightmares. When he can remember them, they are always the same.

"I get shot, knocked down, and I can't move," Kunkle said. "I can't get help."

Three years ago, Kunkle, then a Bell Gardens detective sergeant, was accidentally shot by another police officer during a narcotics raid in Maywood that involved officers from Bell Gardens, Bell and Maywood. Five shots were fired. Three hit him. Kunkle survived but lost 20% of the movement in his arm and took disability retirement in 1987.

Recently a Los Angeles Superior Court jury awarded Kunkle a $912,000 judgment in a civil lawsuit against the city of Bell and John Zsenyuk, the Bell police officer who shot him. The suit alleged negligence and sought compensation for physical and psychological damage. According to Kunkle's attorney, Charles S. Mazursky, the jury determined that there was negligence by both Zsenyuk and his employer, the city of Bell.

Zsenyuk will not have to pay any of the damages because the city was held liable, said Raymond Fuentes, attorney for Zsenyuk and the city of Bell. The officer was not disciplined or dismissed, according to Bell police Cmdr. Jim Edwards. Fuentes said Zsenyuk has left Bell and become a deputy with the Fresno County Sheriff's Department.

"There will be a motion by the city of Bell for a new trial based on legal errors during the trial and other legal grounds," Fuentes added.

Doesn't Want Desk Job

Kunkle, however, said he hopes to close that chapter of his life and move on. He worked for the Bell Gardens Police Department for 12 years and does not want a paper-shuffling job in law enforcement. No other career interests him. The accident, he said, has forever altered his prospects.

"Seventeen years in law enforcement. That was my life," Kunkle said, shaking his head in disappointment. "Being a cop was something I looked forward to. It was exciting. It was challenging. To lose that has really set me back. I hope someday to come to grips with that."

Kunkle, 44, said his decision to retire was not immediate. With sick leave, he was allowed up to a year to recuperate. During the quiet days at home, his fellow officers and family members lent support and encouragement. At night, however, he was haunted by dreams that gnawed away at his confidence.

"I lost the edge," Kunkle said. "I lost the mental advantage. I was afraid of under-reacting or over-reacting."

He worried about being shot by fellow police officers. He wondered if he was gun-shy and if his street smarts had eroded. After more than a year, he concluded that he could not do the job and retired on physical and psychological grounds.

"After a police officer is injured, he needs to go through an agility test to be able to go back to work," Mazursky said. "He never took the test, so we don't know if he would have passed with a 20% motion loss."

A former colleague, Sgt. Doug Kingery, recalls: "Everyone knew Ron Kunkle. He goes way back in the southeast county. He was a born narc and knew how to put dope dealers behind bars."

Kingery was one of four Bell Gardens officers who assisted Kunkle on the drug raid in Maywood three years ago. "We used up a lot of luck that night," Kingery said.

It was Feb. 28, 1986. A week earlier, Kunkle had been promoted to detective sergeant and put in charge of a special investigations unit.

Shot Through Window

The plan was for Kunkle to lure a suspected heroin dealer to a parking lot in Bell Gardens. The dealer, however, opted to stay at his house on 56th Street in Maywood. Kunkle, Kingery, three other Bell Gardens officers and several Maywood officers went to the house at about 8 p.m.

One officer looked through a window, saw the suspect with a gun and shot through the window. All of the police took cover. Kunkle jumped over a wall into a neighboring yard and waited. The suspect was in the house, the shooting stopped, and there was silence. Back-up police were called in from Bell. Several blocks away, Zsenyuk heard the call for assistance. He quickly arrived at the house.

Moments later, Kunkle looked over the wall and was suddenly knocked down. His pants leg jumped, and when he put his hand in his jacket he felt blood.

Nearby, Bell Gardens Officer Richard Elizondo screamed: "Don't shoot! Don't shoot! He's a cop."

But Zsenyuk had already fired five shots. One bullet bounced off Kunkle's flak vest, one hit his right ankle and a third went through his shoulder and lodged in his back, narrowly missing his spine. As blood filled his shoes and poured down his chest, Kunkle limped down the driveway toward the street.

At the trial, Zsenyuk testified that when he got to the suspect's house, he saw a dark figure in a jacket, jeans and tennis shoes pointing a gun over a wall in the direction of other officers. His lawyer, Fuentes, said: "Zsenyuk shot because he thought he (Kunkle) was the suspect."

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