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DEATH OF A DEPUTY

Rookie Entered House With Guard Down

July 19, 1996|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having been on the street barely seven months, rookie Sheriff's Deputy Peter Aguirre made two quick decisions on his own that may have cost him his life.

He left his gun in its holster and walked alone into a Meiners Oaks house occupied by an armed man--who allegedly shot him to death.

Sheriff's officials were reluctant Thursday to criticize Aguirre's actions or speculate about why he let his guard down enough for Michael Raymond Johnson to allegedly put two bullets in his head and one through his shoulder.

But they will be analyzing Aguirre's actions in the shooting for weeks to come, said Sheriff Larry Carpenter.

"We second-guess that a lot," Carpenter said. "We've seen nothing on this call to indicate that the tactics that were used were outside the policy and training of this department."

Other policing experts were reluctant to analyze the Aguirre shooting.

But they agreed in general that no officer should walk into a domestic dispute involving guns without at least having his weapon drawn and his partner by his side.

"In that situation, what we teach is first of all, we don't split up partners," said Deputy Brian Hill, a training officer at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Academy, the nation's largest.

Nor, Hill said, should deputies enter a house where a lone, armed suspect waits inside, without first getting instructions from a senior officer.

"If it's getting to a point where it's almost a barricaded suspect and we know he's in there with a handgun, then we are going to wait for a sergeant or a watch commander to come out" to oversee the situation, Hill said.

"We'll make phone calls into the residence and hope he'll come out, we'll try to notify the SWAT team if a felony's been committed," Hill said. "We don't want to second-guess anyone, but that's pretty much our procedure."

Grim and bleary from a night of dissecting the death of one of their own, Carpenter and other department officials gave this account of the shooting:

A 911 caller complained that a man was fighting with his estranged wife and that a gun was somehow involved.

Aguirre and Senior Deputy Steven Sagely arrived in one car at the front door of the tiny house, while Deputies Jim Freyhoff and David Sparks pulled up to the side door.

Just as Aguirre knocked at the front door, Guillermina Johnson, the estranged wife of Michael Johnson, ran out clad in a towel, telling deputies that Johnson was in the shower and warning that he had two handguns.

As Sagely pulled her aside, Aguirre stepped through the front door, his gun still in its holster, and called out to Johnson. Seconds later, at least three shots were fired and Aguirre fell, fatally wounded.

Sagely was the senior officer and technically in charge, Carpenter said, and the watch commander in Ventura was listening by radio. But Aguirre did not necessarily overstep his rank by moving into the house without specific orders, he said. Everything happened too quickly for that to be an issue.

Aguirre acted at his own discretion, within department guidelines, said Chief Deputy Kenneth Kipp.

"We pay deputies to think on their feet," said Kipp, who commands the patrol division and worked in the Ojai station for several years. "We pay them to make decisions. We don't have hard and fast rules and regulations."

No one can say exactly what Aguirre was thinking when he stepped through the door, and common sense would have entitled him to pull his weapon at the time, Kipp said.

"But until that point, no one had seen a firearm, no one had heard a firearm being used," Kipp said. "Would he have been allowed to draw his weapon in this situation? Certainly. Should he have? I wasn't there. I don't know what his rationalization was.

"We don't want to jump to any conclusions," Kipp said. "We want to walk it through and put it together and reconstruct what happened as best we can."

Ventura County Sheriff's officials will review their training and field policies on domestic disputes, gun reports and house-entry procedures before they pass judgment on the deputies' handling of the Johnson incident, Carpenter said.

"And if there are changes to be made in our training," he vowed, "they will be made."

*

FYI: A scholarship fund for Aguirre's 3-year-old daughter has been created by the sheriff's deputies union. Donations may be sent to the Peter Aguirre Memorial Fund, in care of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Assn., Ventura County Sheriff's Department, 800 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura 93009.

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