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DEATH OF A DEPUTY

Violence on Quiet Street Shocks, Saddens Neighbors as Many Pray at Site

Community: Incident that resulted in deputy's death jolts the calm of Meiners Oaks, stuns residents and sears the memory of a 6-year-old girl.

July 19, 1996|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEINERS OAKS — Children on bikes stopped and stared at the bloodstains on the walkway. Mothers brought flowers and knelt in the middle of the narrow, tree-lined street to say a silent prayer. And one 6-year-old girl kept reliving the experience of seeing a gun-wielding, naked man shot down by police across from her house.

Residents of the working-class hamlet of Meiners Oaks were still dumbfounded Thursday by the shooting death of a sheriff's deputy and the wounding of his attacker that exploded in their midst Wednesday night.

It's true that residents here have been struggling against a wave of crime that seems to have rolled into the bucolic Ojai Valley from cities to the south.

But the death of Deputy Peter John Aguirre Jr. was more than anyone could understand.

"It is just incredible that something this tragic could happen in your neighborhood," said Patricia Fry, looking over her white picket fence at the crime scene down the street.

"I've lived here in this house for six years," she said Thursday. "I have felt comfortable here."

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But that comfort was shattered Wednesday night when the 26-year-old deputy was shot to death while responding to a domestic dispute. The alleged gunman was shot and wounded moments later in a gunfight in the front yard.

The incident has pointed a media spotlight on Meiners Oaks, a community of 3,300 nestled before the Topatopa Mountains next to the more affluent Ojai.

And it has seared the memory of 6-year-old Adrianna Kelley, who watched from the window of her yellow house as police shot the alleged gunman across the street.

"I saw the whole thing," Adrianna said Thursday before shyly burying her face against her mother's leg.

Adrianna was watching television Wednesday evening when the drama began outside.

Her mother, Babetta Kelley, 32, was in the kitchen pulling chicken from the freezer when she heard three quick pops, which she thought were firecrackers. Her daughter informed her otherwise.

"She said, 'Mommy, come here, they're shooting,' and I said, 'It's probably firecrackers,' and she said, 'No, come see,' " Kelley said.

More rapid-fire shots rang out, and Kelley ran to the front yard of her house, she said. She saw a naked man lying in the yard across the street, and a deputy was standing over him with a shotgun, she said.

Another deputy was darting in and out of the front door of the white house, she said.

Within minutes, she said, paramedics arrived and the deputy yelled, "Hurry up! Hurry up!" gesturing for them to come inside, where the deputy had been shot in his face.

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Adrianna, listening to her mother describe the scene, arched her back and flinched to demonstrate how the gunman she had watched looked when he was shot.

"I just don't expect it here," Kelley said, standing in the same spot outside where she had stood the night before.

Kelley and her three children moved to Meiners Oaks about three months ago from Lompoc. She wanted to get her family away from the violence there, she said, recalling how friends told her about the Ojai Valley.

"People said, 'Nothing ever happens in Ojai,' " she said.

Usually, that's true. But in recent years, an increasing number of violent crimes have been reported in the Ojai Valley.

Six elderly women were beaten and sexually assaulted during the summer of 1994. A drugged-out and mentally ill mother starved her infant daughter to death last year in their canyon trailer. And seven months ago, an Ojai man died from a gunshot wound after a scuffle at a Meiners Oaks horse stable.

The Ojai Valley has also been a popular spot for marijuana farms and methamphetamine labs, which have been discovered by deputies.

Still, the number of crimes is small by comparison to other similar-sized cities, and sheriff's deputies say it is no different from other areas they patrol.

For many longtime residents, though, it isn't even in the same league.

"It's a quiet, little community," said 73-year-old Gorton Horton, an Ojai Valley resident since 1938. "There are no red lights or sirens during the day."

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Peering out the window from the Meiners Oaks Hardware store Thursday, Horton and lifelong Ojai resident Terry Gustafson, 43, stared incredulously at the swarm of reporters and television crews that had congregated on North Encinal Avenue in response to the shooting.

"It certainly has put Meiners Oaks on the map," Horton said.

"About the last time you saw a news crew here was during the Olympics in 1984," added Gustafson, referring to the Olympic rowing events held at nearby Lake Casitas at this time 12 years ago.

Although both men said they have noticed a slight increase in crime in their small town, shootings like the one that occurred Wednesday are rare.

The only one they can remember, in fact, occurred at a local biker bar many years ago.

Residents on North Encinal Avenue, a tree-lined street dotted with cottage-size homes once marketed as weekend getaways, also described their neighborhood as relatively crime-free.

"It is just so shocking," said neighbor Samantha Knuesel, 19, who recently moved from Minneapolis. "Ojai seemed so quiet."

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