Brandishing two handguns and yelling, "This is a robbery!" a masked gunman opened fire on a police motivational seminar at a Holiday Inn in Torrance on Monday, killing two suburban policemen before he was subdued and later pronounced dead, authorities said.
Two veterans of the Palos Verdes Estates Police Department--Capt. Mike Tracy, 50, of Redondo Beach, and Sgt. Tom Vanderpool, 57, of Torrance--were shot to death in the 3:50 p.m. attack, police said.
The 32-year-old assailant, whose name was not released pending notification of his family was taken to Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, were he was pronounced dead, police said.
Officials said there were some similarities between the gunman, a young Asian, and a suspect in the shooting of a Manhattan Beach officer two months ago.
Witnesses said the shootings occurred as 13 police and city officials from the upscale South Bay community of Palos Verdes Estates were wrapping up an all-day meeting in the hotel's 12th-floor meeting room. The deaths were the first fatalities in the history of the tight-knit, 35-member department.
The seminar, which was to have lasted two days, was sponsored by the city, and attended by the top brass of the Police Department and City Hall, said City Manager Jim Hendrickson, who was among those seated around the square conference table.
Officials said it was unclear whether the attacker knew he was shooting at law enforcement officers. All the police at the seminar were in plainclothes. And the session was identified at the hotel only as a Palos Verdes Estates meeting, without specifying police involvement.
In the midst of the seminar, Torrance Police Sgt. Dave Smith said, the door burst open and a man stepped into the room, his face obscured by a fencing mask and hooded sweat shirt, his chest thickened by the bulk of a bulletproof vest.
When he announced that he planned to rob the group, Smith said, one officer stood and was immediately shot. Then, when the second officer stood to come to the aid of the wounded man, the attacker fired on him.
Hendrickson, who was sitting with his back to the door, said events unfolded so quickly that at first he believed the gunman was joking, and so did most of the officers.
Vanderpool, a 13-year veteran of the department, stood and said "in earthy language, 'I'm not going to take this,' " Hendrickson said. The gunman fired two or three times, hitting Vanderpool in the chest, Hendrickson said.
"None of us comprehended that this was real," he said. "The sounds went pop-pop-pop."
Then as Tracy rushed to the sergeant's aid, the gunman fired again, hitting Tracy in the chest, as three or four other police officers leaped across the table and pinned the gunman to a wall, Hendrickson said.
Smith, whose department is investigating the incident, would not say how the gunman died. Hospital officials, saying they were acting at the behest of Torrance police, refused to divulge the cause of the gunman's death.
Palos Verdes Estates Police Chief Gary Johansen, who was at the meeting, said he did not know how the man died, but he did not hear him being shot. "Nobody had a chance to get their guns," Johansen said, adding that "the assailant was fighting something fierce. I don't know if he was beaten--he still had a gun in his hand."
Officials said they do not know why the gunman chose that meeting room. "It was a regular business meeting. They were wearing regular attire and that's the key," Smith said. "We don't know at this point if (the gunman) knew who they were or not."
Both Smith and detectives at the Manhattan Police Department said they are investigating the possibility that the shooting may be linked to the fatal attack two months ago on another South Bay police officer, Martin Ganz of the Manhattan Beach Police Department.
Ganz, 29, was shot to death Dec. 27 during a seemingly routine traffic stop. Assigned to a holiday drunk-driving abatement patrol, investigators said, he had used his patrol car loudspeaker to pull over a Daihatsu Charade in front of a Manhattan Beach mall about 11 p.m., and was shot when he got out of the car.
A witness to the shooting--the officer's 13-year-old nephew who happened to be with him on a department sponsored ride-along--said the gunman was a heavyset Asian in his 30s, a description that fits the killer in Monday's attack.
The incident was a stunning blow to the placid seaside community of Palos Verdes Estates.
Vanderpool and Tracy were well-known veterans of the department, with 13 and 25 years, respectively, on the force. Vanderpool was the oldest member of the department and Tracy at one point was a contender for the job of police chief, officials said. Each leaves behind three grown children. Tracy was a grandfather, friends said. Monday was Vanderpool's wedding anniversary. One grief-stricken colleague described them as "everybody's friends."
Johansen lauded the heroism of the two men.
The gunman, Johansen said, "probably did not know the room was full of cops, but we are sure that when he found out, he would have killed everyone in the room if given a chance. Capt. Mike Tracy and Sgt. Tom Vanderpool didn't give him that chance. Their unselfish valor saved every other officer in that room."
Times staff writers Nieson Himmel, Eric Malnic and Ted Johnson and correspondent Charles Hillinger contributed to this report.