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2 Riverside Deputies Die in Apparent Ambush

Crime: Victims were gunned down as they responded to domestic violence call in remote desert area. Suspect arrested hours later.

January 06, 1997|JEFF LEEDS and NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WHITEWATER, Calif. — Two Riverside County sheriff's deputies were shot to death early Sunday morning when they responded to a report of domestic violence at a mobile home in this isolated desert community and walked into an apparent ambush.

Deputies James Lehmann Jr., 40, of Apple Valley and Michael P. Haugen, 33, of San Jacinto were gunned down shortly after 3 a.m. as they left their patrol cars outside a trailer home in the remote Whitewater area, between Cabazon and Palm Springs.

The two deputies, wearing bulletproof vests and walking in the dark of early morning, were struck by shots fired from about 50 yards away and died at the scene, said Riverside County Sheriff Larry Smith. One officer was killed by a shot to the head, the other by a bullet that penetrated the side of his protective gear.

About 7:30 a.m. Sunday, the alleged gunman, Timothy Russell, 36, was arrested a quarter of a mile from the home and booked for investigation of murder. Russell was unarmed, but a World War II-vintage M-1 military carbine was later discovered in the isolated neighborhood where mobile homes sit amid the rocks, scrub and chaparral just north of Interstate 10, about 70 miles east of Los Angeles.

For the two slain deputies, the morning had begun early, with a 3 a.m. call for help. At the time of the incident, Russell's wife, his sister and five children were inside Russell's mobile home in the 13000 block of Chaparral Road. Fearing her husband's temper, Russell's wife gathered several children and fled to a neighbor's house, where she called the Sheriff's Department. Her name was not released because she is considered a victim of domestic violence.

She told the dispatcher that her husband had hit her and that she believed he might have been under the influence of methamphetamine. The wife warned the dispatcher that her husband had a rifle stashed in his car and said he had military training that equipped him to use it, said Sgt. Mark Lohman, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

Russell was arrested seven years ago on domestic violence charges but not convicted, Smith said. Neighbors reported that arguments were frequently heard in Russell's home and that the couple had split up several times during the two years that they lived in the mobile home surrounded by chain-link fence. But each fight was smoothed over when Russell gave roses to his wife, one neighbor said.

Maria Pearce, a 58-year-old neighbor, recalled seeing several fights between Russell and his wife. "The screaming you could hear over everything."

In the weeks before Sunday's incident, neighbor Viola Foxwell, 78, said she spoke several times with Russell's wife, who was distraught, saying her husband had threatened to kill her.

In these conversations, Foxwell said she counseled the younger woman to get a job and leave her husband. The afternoon before the shooting, Foxwell came across Russell's wife crying in a dusty field between houses.

The weeping woman, Foxwell recalled, told her, "I can't take it anymore. I'm desperate."

Russell, who told acquaintances that he worked as a dental lab technician, often used a chain saw to craft sculpture in his yard. His favorite piece was a series of crows that he had lined up against his wall.

With dawn still hours away, Haugen and Lehmann arrived at the mobile home at the same time, but in separate cars. The two officers radioed to the sheriff's dispatcher that they had reached the scene and were preparing to check it out.

Both Haugen and Lehmann had emerged from their cars when they were gunned down. It was not clear whether the shots were fired from inside or outside the mobile home.

"We do believe he [Russell] was waiting for them to arrive," Lohman said. "I don't know what his intent was, but he shot them when they got out of their cars."

A few minutes after the shooting, several other deputies arrived on the scene. One, a sergeant, saw the men lying on the ground and ran toward them.

Shots again rang out as the sergeant tried to check on his fallen comrades. After determining that the men were dead, the sergeant backed away and called for more help.

As officers from throughout the area responded to the call, the Sheriff's Department deployed its Emergency Services Team, a SWAT unit. Several neighbors were evacuated from homes, and law enforcement sharpshooters blasted out street lights in an effort to lessen the likelihood of more bloodshed.

"At that point, we reasonably felt the suspect was still inside the location," Lohman said.

About 5 a.m., with the tactical officers in place around the home, deputies told Russell's sister and the children still inside the mobile home to come out.

Ninety minutes later, several deputies saw a man, later identified as Russell, walking toward them, Smith said. But when the deputies--whose view was obscured by rain and darkness--yelled for Russell to drop his weapon, he initially bolted but finally lay on the ground, surrendering unarmed, Smith said.

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