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Man Is Slain by Lifeguard After Firing Gun at Beach : Law enforcement: An officer was checking the driver's license when the Montebello man opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol at Huntington State Beach.

August 15, 1990|JIM CARLTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — In only the second such incident in the history of the California Parks and Recreation Department, a Huntington State Beach lifeguard on Tuesday shot and killed a man who allegedly fired at him after being stopped at a beach exit.

The shooting occurred about 12:25 a.m. as the lifeguard notified beach-goers that the gate at the park's Newland Street exit would be closing soon, Sheriff's Lt. Richard J. Olson said.

The uniformed lifeguard stopped Nicholas Joseph Caliri Jr. of Montebello on suspicion of drunk driving and asked for his driver's license, Olson said.

Caliri, 38, handed over the license, and the lifeguard returned to his vehicle to check for warrants. But then Caliri reached behind the driver's seat of his Mustang convertible and pulled out a semiautomatic pistol, investigators said.

Caliri fired at least two shots at the lifeguard, who ducked and returned fire, killing Caliri, Olson said. The lifeguard was not wounded.

State records show that Caliri had been convicted of reckless driving in 1986 and of driving under the influence in 1987.

Caliri's father said his son was a certified internist at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center who surrendered his medical license two years ago because of a heroin addiction.

He had been recovering for the last five months on a methadone program and had been hoping to get his license back soon, said Nicholas Joseph Caliri Sr., 72.

"I lost my boy, and I feel very bad," Caliri said of his only child.

The lifeguard, whose name was withheld, is one of 49 sworn peace officers assigned ranger and lifeguard duties in the state's Orange Coast district, which includes Huntington State Beach, Bolsa Chica State Beach and Crystal Cove State Park.

State lifeguards wear a badge and full uniform as part of their evening and nighttime patrols, state officials said.

During the day, they said, lifeguards remain in uniform but wear swimsuits underneath so they can strip down for rescues. The lifeguards in towers and wearing only swimsuits are seasonal workers without peace officer status.

The only other fatal shooting involving an on-duty state Parks and Recreation Department officer occurred in November at Lake Perris Recreation Area in Riverside County. A state ranger shot an unarmed auto burglary suspect after a chase. The Riverside County district attorney's office later determined that the shooting was justified.

The lifeguard involved in Tuesday's shooting was routinely reassigned to administrative duties and will receive psychological counseling, regional state lifeguard supervisor Mike Tope said.

Tope declined to detail the incident, except to say he supports the lifeguard's action.

"Had he not had a weapon, our officer would have been killed," Tope said.

Jack Roggenbuck, Orange Coast district superintendent for state parks and recreation, said the agency maintains the same policy on deadly force as police departments: Officers are expected to shoot to kill to protect themselves or others.

"We don't fire warning shots," he said.

Roggenbuck said he has noticed a dramatic increase this year in the number of beach-goers carrying weapons. So far this year, he said, his officers have confiscated eight to 10 firearms from visitors at Huntington State Beach, Bolsa Chica State Beach and Crystal Cove State Park. By comparison, he said, 10 years ago it was unheard of to find a gun among beach-goers.

The three beach and park areas accounted for 198 arrests and more than 1,000 citations last year, with the bulk of the offenses concentrated in Bolsa Chica and Huntington State Beach, state records show. Of the arrests, 100 were for driving under the influence.

State parks and recreation officers began carrying guns in the mid-1970s as violent crime swept out of the cities and onto the state's beaches and parks, said George Cook, deputy regional director of state parks and recreation in San Diego.

"There was an increase in the problems and a recognition that state parks were not exempt from law enforcement problems," Cook said.

To be certified as peace officers, state rangers and lifeguards must undergo 700 hours of training at state law enforcement academies, just as their police counterparts do. After graduating from the academy, the officers are required to take a 24-hour refresher course every two years.

Following the lead of the state, rangers for some local agencies have asked to become certified peace officers.

In 1988, Orange County park rangers put in a bid to regain their status as law enforcement officers, which was stripped away by county officials in 1986. The rangers had been designated law officers without gun-carrying privileges in 1984. An Orange County Superior Court commissioner ruled in April, 1988, that the county's rangers should not be designated as law enforcement officers.

Most recently, the Santa Ana City Council in May unanimously endorsed a proposal to arm the city's five full-time park rangers with .357-caliber Smith & Wesson revolvers. According to Sean Mill, a city Recreation and Community Advisory Board member who helped form the plan, the weapons are needed to help arm the rangers against growing gang violence in city parks.

Some city officials have voiced concern, however, that the rangers do not have enough experience with weapons to carry them. The rangers are expected to start carrying their guns in October, becoming the first city park rangers in Orange County to do so.

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