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Slain Deputies Followed Procedure, Authorities Say

Ambush: Officials agree that the two Riverside officers went by the book when they answered domestic violence call.

January 07, 1997|TOM GORMAN and DIANA MARCUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WHITEWATER, Calif. — For all the second-guessing, all the evaluation, all the speculation, everyone was reaching the same conclusion on Monday:

Riverside County Sheriff's Deputies Michael P. Haugen and James Lehmann Jr. were going by the book when they were gunned down. They didn't have a chance against the sniper, waiting in ambush, apparently hiding behind desert scrub brush no higher than a knee, aided by the predawn darkness.

When the domestic violence call came in early Sunday morning, the deputies first converged just off the Interstate 10 offramp between Banning and Palm Springs, near a roughhewn sign announcing "West Palm Springs Village," little more than some widely scattered mobile homes on the desert floor.

They would have discussed their strategy, other deputies concluded: to drive a couple of blocks along a bumpy asphalt road in their patrol cars, then park down the street. That would have put them more than 100 yards from the pale yellow mobile home a woman had fled, running to a neighbor's place to call 911 to say her husband had threatened to kill her.

Haugen and Lehmann approached the house on foot, per the protocol.

"They were doing exactly what they were supposed to do," said Senior Deputy Pete Ortiz, who was Haugen's training officer. "If you drive right up to the house, the suspect can see you coming. So you want to walk up from a distance, so you can make observations. You can see things, and hear things, better when you walk up than if you drive up."

They walked together, Ortiz said, so that in case one got in trouble, the other was right there to help.

The deputies assumed they had darkness on their side. But about 50 yards from the house, they passed beneath the illumination of a tall home security light from across the street.

Several shots cracked the quiet--so loud that one neighbor said he thought someone was banging at his door.

There was no place to take cover, if the deputies even had the chance. The tallest thing between them and the gunman was a skinny fire hydrant standpipe, and a bunch of scraggly brush.

There were no witnesses to the shooting. A sheriff's sergeant, himself responding to the call but lagging behind by a few minutes, saw the bodies on the street.

About four hours later, deputies from as far away as Lake Elsinore were swarming the area and arrested Timothy Russell, 36, who was hiding behind another mobile home about a quarter-mile away. They recovered an old military carbine believed to be the lethal weapon.

Russell was booked on suspicion of murder and was scheduled to be arraigned today in a Riverside courtroom.

Authorities said Haugen, 33, and Lehmann, 40--each married and with two young children--didn't have a chance.

"There was no way they could have prevented what happened, or seen what was going to happen," said Patricia Erickson, the deputy district attorney in Riverside who spent all day Sunday at the shooting scene. "They were simply walking up the street."

Investigators found no night-vision scope or light-amplification glasses, Sgt. Mark Lohman said.

What prompted the shooting remained unclear Monday. John Gideon, who lives closest to Russell and in whose home Russell's wife sought refuge, said Russell had been drinking and, since Christmas, had shown signs of using methamphetamine.

"He stayed to himself, never bothered anybody and was nice to my own kids. But then he started drinking and was back on meth," Gideon said.

A woman who answered the door at Russell's home on Monday refused comment.

Deputies were still reeling from the killings--the first time in Riverside County Sheriff's Department history that two of its own had been killed in the same incident.

Deputy Kevin Smith said he and Lehmann had talked about what scared them about the job--"and what we talked about was not of dying--that was never mentioned--but simply of not doing well."

The patrol deputies normally assigned to the Banning station were allowed to stay home on Monday; deputies from other stations filled their ranks and wore black tape on their shields.

But there were other grim reminders of the tragedy. Just outside the sheriff's station door, Lehmann's vehicle remained parked. He was remembered as the consummate prankster, and his personalized license plates reflected the irony of it.

The plates bore the police code for a mentally deranged person.

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