Nelson H. Yamamoto, a rookie Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who had been on patrol less than two months, died Tuesday of wounds suffered last weekend in a shootout with murder suspects in Walnut Park. He was 26.
The shooting marks the first time a Los Angeles County deputy has been killed in hostile action since 1989, officials said.
As word spread of Yamamoto's death, flags were put at half-staff at his Firestone substation, and deputies from other stations were called in to cover the area to allow Yamamoto's colleagues to grieve.
"This is, of course, an incident that casts a pall over the entire department--and indeed over law enforcement--and, I would hope, over the entire community," Sheriff Sherman Block said at a somber press conference at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center late Tuesday. "What we will do now is to grieve our loss and reaffirm our commitment to try to rid our community of the kind of people capable of committing such a heinous crime."
Just 10 minutes before he died, Yamamoto's captain had "held his hand to let him know he was there, and Deputy Yamamoto squeezed his hand to let him know he heard him," Block said, adding that he himself had spent many hours at the hospital trying to comfort the deputy's family.
Yamamoto, who joined the department three years ago, was described as a friendly and athletic young man of considerable promise. Born in Gardena, Yamamoto lived in Torrance with his parents and held a degree in criminal justice. He was engaged to be married to Michelle Tomi, a schoolteacher, Block said.
The deputy was wounded during a brief but intense gun battle Sunday with two men, one a murder suspect, in the unincorporated Los Angeles County area of Walnut Park, near the northwest city limits of South Gate.
The incident began at 8:10 p.m. Sunday, when deputies received a complaint that men with guns were threatening a resident of a small home in the 2500 block of Cass Place. Deputies peered through the window of a converted garage behind the home and saw at least two men inside with handguns.
Two men ran out and opened fire, a sheriff's spokesman said. Deputies returned fire at close range. Yamamoto emptied all 16 rounds from his 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol in the incident, Block said. One suspect, Isidoro Ibarra, 30, died in the gunfight. Yamamoto was shot in the abdomen, shoulder, thigh and foot with a .357 magnum, Block said.
In the ensuing confusion, Cesar Uriel Mazariego Molina, 26--who allegedly fired the shots that killed Yamamoto--and his cousin, Juan Manuel Mazariego, 22, fled and were still being sought by deputies Tuesday. Mazariego Molina was identified as a suspect in three other killings--one in North Hollywood and two in El Salvador.
Block said he was particularly angry because Mazariego Molina is believed to have entered the country illegally in an attempt to elude Salvadoran police. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has no record of his entry and the FBI has a warrant for his arrest, the sheriff said.
Yamamoto was initially reported in serious condition. After the Sheriff's Department put out a call for blood donors, there were so many volunteers that some deputies had to wait as long as eight hours before they could donate.
However, Dr. James Haughton, the hospital's medical director, said that Yamamoto had lost so much blood by the time he underwent surgery that, even with a transfusion of more than 25 pints, doctors could not revive him.
The last deputy killed in hostile action was Jack Miller, 33, who was fatally shot in January, 1989, while serving a search warrant in connection with a cocaine case.
At his hospital news conference, Block noted that Yamamoto was Japanese-American, and that promising young Asian-Americans are difficult to recruit into law enforcement.
"Those (Asian-Americans), who do come in want very much to become law enforcement officers," Block said.
To deal with the grief and fear of Yamamoto's colleagues, department psychologists were dispatched to the Firestone station, which serves the unincorporated communities between Florence and Watts.
"Some people deal with it faster than others," said Sgt. David Cowen, the station's watch commander. "We try to let them (deputies) know whatever they're going through, they're going to grieve. And we understand it."
After word went out Tuesday that Yamamoto had died of his injuries, Cowen admitted, "The spirits are really low here--I think I've been through 10 of these things. They all feel the same."