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Robber Gets Life Term for Shootout With Police in Which Partner Died

April 03, 1997|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — An armed robber who initiated a deadly gun battle with Los Angeles police two years ago in the Ventura County community of Newbury Park was sentenced Wednesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

As two members of the controversial undercover police unit involved in the shooting watched, a Ventura County judge slammed Robert Wayne Cunningham with an additional three life prison terms for trying to kill the detectives and their partner.

Cunningham received an additional 51 years on lesser charges ranging from robbery to using a gun in the fight with police.

"Mr. Cunningham should never walk again in a free society, and I will do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen," said Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren.

At one point, one of the officers lashed out at Cunningham, a 33-year-old Reseda resident, and accused his attorneys of miscasting the LAPD's Special Investigations Section as a group of assassins.

"If we had been a death squad, you wouldn't be here today!" Det. Phil Wixon yelled at Cunningham, his voice cracking with emotion.

"I could have pulled the trigger with this finger," Wixon said, raising his hand and pointing it at the defendant. "But I didn't because I am a professional police officer."

Wixon, a senior member of the Special Investigations Section, or SIS, was shot during the June 1995 gunfight with Cunningham after a surveillance operation that led Los Angeles police into Ventura County.

Wixon and his partner, Lawrence Winston, urged Perren to hand down the stiffest possible sentence for the man they said felt no remorse for instigating a deadly confrontation with police.

Cunningham's sentencing brought his criminal case in Ventura County Superior Court to an end, although a civil rights lawsuit against the Police Department is pending in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Filed in November, that lawsuit seeks to disband the SIS or force imposition of new regulations on the undercover unit.

Both cases have raised questions about the tactics of the Special Investigations Section, which has gained notoriety over the last decade for following known criminals but not arresting them until after they committed further crimes.

Cunningham's partner, Daniel Soly, 26, of West Hills, was shot 27 times during the gunfight and killed. Cunningham, who popped out of a car sunroof to shoot at police, was shot in the back and paralyzed from the waist down.

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