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Aerospace Engineer Shot to Death by Police at Business

Tragedy: Officer was responding to predawn burglar alarm. Victim, 77, lived in the building while pursuing dream project.

September 12, 1996|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — A 77-year-old aerospace engineer who lived at a manufacturing company to pursue his dream project was shot and killed early Wednesday by a police officer investigating a possible burglary there.

Ted Franks had stepped unarmed into a dim hallway at Tolemar Manufacturing when the Huntington Beach Police Department officer opened fire from about five feet away, said Lt. Dan Johnson.

"Ted's so harmless," said Steve Ramelot, the 21-year-old owner of the manufacturing company. "He was just an old man in his underwear."

The silent burglar alarm that had gone off before dawn in a neighboring business turned out to be a false alarm, as more than 90% of commercial burglar alarms are, police said.

But an open door at the manufacturing company--where Franks had lived Mondays through Fridays for the past nine months--led officers to believe there was a burglary in progress.

One officer went to a door to the office at the front of the warehouse, the door swung open, the officer saw Franks, and the shooting occurred, police said.

The World War II veteran stumbled back into his bedroom after the 4:25 a.m. shooting, bleeding from a wound to his left leg. He died nearly two hours later at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, possibly from blood loss or a heart attack, Johnson said.

Franks worked late nights at Tolemar, listening to waltzes and cooking up his special chili in a makeshift kitchenette. He stayed there to avoid the long commute to his recreational vehicle near Temecula, Ramelot said.

Ramelot said Franks was scheduled to leave Wednesday night for a utility trade show in Denver to show off his prized project--marking spheres for electrical high wires designed to keep aircraft from colliding with the wires.

"One more day and he wouldn't have even been here," Ramelot said.

The unidentified 31-year-old officer who shot Franks has been with the Police Department for seven years and spent three previous years with another law enforcement agency, Johnson said. The officer was counseled Wednesday by a department psychologist and was placed on administrative leave for several days--routine in all officer-involved shootings, Johnson said.

Johnson said the two officers who entered a warehouse in the 7400 block of Lorge Circle shouted warnings for anyone inside to immediately surrender. The second officer was providing cover for the officer who fired the shot.

Franks began designing the marking spheres, and a system of bolting them to high wires by helicopter, about three years ago. He brought the design to Tolemar--which also manufactures motorcycle parts--about 1 1/2 years ago.

Energetic and warm, Franks often regaled his young employer and other co-workers with stories of his World War II experiences in the South Pacific.

"He never got shot," Ramelot said of his war years. "He was 77 years old and he never even got sick. He was healthier than us."

Franks grew up in Mojave, married his high school sweetheart and raised three children. He had 14 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife died three years ago, and Ramelot said the fit and genial engineer worked at a frenetic pace to keep his mind off his loss.

Forever the engineer, Franks installed a sink and garbage disposer at his office-turned-home, along with two microwave ovens, a convection oven, a hot plate and a full-sized refrigerator and shower to make his weeknights more pleasurable.

Frank Fleck, 53, an owner of Coast Aerospace in Garden Grove, said he had known Franks for about two decades. Franks was "very well-known" in the aerospace community, said a stunned Fleck, choking back tears.

"We had worked together for a lot of years," Fleck said Wednesday. "He was probably one of the most energetic people I ever met in my life. He was just always enthused in everything that he did."

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