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Hunt for Officers' Killer Yields Surprise Arrests : Compton: Investigation nets suspects in three other homicides. As a result, there has been some meaning into loss of the two men, an official says.

April 11, 1993|ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When two Compton police officers were gunned down Feb. 22 during a traffic stop, investigators had little more to go on than statements from witnesses about the type of vehicle that had been pulled over and sketchy descriptions of one, maybe two suspects.

But that sparse information would unexpectedly lead to results that one police official agreed was extraordinary: Three other homicides and two attempted murders were apparently solved.

None of those cases ended up being related to the slaying of Officers Kevin Michael Burrell and James Wayne MacDonald, but they all might have remained unsolved otherwise.

A Compton city official said that the arrests of five fugitives for the other shootings injected some meaning into the loss of the officers. "Their deaths have brought to light a lot of people who were roaming the streets of the community murdering people," said Compton Mayor Pro Tem Berniece Woods.

Woods made her remarks at a news conference last week, where police announced the arrest of the man they believe killed Burrell and MacDonald. Police have not connected that man, Regis Deon Thomas, 22, to the other suspects or crimes.

In an interview, Compton Police Chief Hourie L. Taylor cited at least two factors that put the other men behind bars: the ability of the media to assist police when the story ignites the public and the zeal with which the law enforcement community mobilizes when its own are attacked.

But also playing a role, he said, were guesses police officers made at the outset of the investigation--guesses that eventually paid off.

"We truly believed these individuals could have been involved or had information" in the police officers' deaths, Taylor said. "We weren't using the press to clean up cases."

Nevertheless, he said, the media's role was crucial, given the paucity of clues.

"Our belief from the beginning was that the suspects (in the deaths of the police officers) were gang members," Taylor said.

That belief, he added, was based solely on where the shootings occurred and the pickup involved. The truck was red, the color associated with the Bloods street gang.

The more than 100 investigators--culled from five police agencies, including the FBI--focused on members of three factions of the Bloods in neighborhoods near the intersection where the police officers were shot.

If the suspects were from the Compton Bloods, the most puzzling aspect of the case had been answered: why Burrell and MacDonald did not contact a dispatcher before they approached the vehicle, as is routine in police work.

If they had followed procedure, investigators would have had a license plate number and a description of whom they were looking for.

"We believed (the officers) felt very comfortable with whoever it was," Taylor said. Investigators theorized that the officers had pulled over gang members they knew, perhaps to gather intelligence about a drive-by shooting that had taken place that night.

Because of that theory, police let it be known through the media, including the television show "America's Most Wanted," that they were looking for four of the Bloods for questioning. Authorities had been looking for some of the men for months in connection with other crimes. But Taylor believes that only when the suspects saw their mug shots flashed across television screens in connection with the killings of the police officers did a jail cell seem safer than freedom.

"The airing of the pictures on television had a great impact, especially as it related to the (suspects') families," Taylor said. "The families became concerned and helped talk them into turning themselves in."

Each of the men first went to local television reporters. They all said they thought they would be harmed if they went directly to the police. Later, the fifth fugitive also surrendered after police asked that his sketch be publicized.

The first to turn himself in was Keith Terris Caldwell, a 27-year-old parolee.

He is accused of kidnaping and murdering his cousin in Compton in October after they argued over money and of then trying to kill a 75-year-old man who had come to her aid. The man also was kidnaped, shot and left for dead.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Tina Hansen, who is prosecuting Caldwell, believes that he may have been caught eventually but perhaps only after committing other crimes.

"Somebody who would not hesitate to kill their own family member will not hesitate to kill somebody else," she said. "This is as coldblooded as you get."

That Caldwell was taken into custody when he was, she said, "means there is a little piece of safety available for citizens out there that wouldn't be otherwise."

The investigation also netted:

* James Dion Smith, 25, accused of the attempted murder of a 25-year-old man wounded in a drive-by shooting in Compton just hours before Burrell and MacDonald were killed. Police believe that shooting was a retaliation for one Feb. 2 that killed a 16-year-old.

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