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Fusillade Hits LAPD Car; Officer Killed

August 10, 1998|STEVE BERRY and CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 26-year-old Los Angeles police officer was shot in the head and mortally wounded in a hail of gunfire early Sunday as he sat in his patrol car while awaiting backup outside a loud wedding party attended by gang members in the Crenshaw area.

Filbert H. Cuesta, a four-year veteran and the father of two small children, was in the car with his partner, Richard Gabaldon, 27, when the shooting erupted behind them, shattering the rear window, police said.

Gabaldon, who returned fire, was not hurt.

Doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center worked throughout Sunday morning and into the afternoon trying to save Cuesta. But he died at 3:15 p.m.

"I have a tremendous anger against the coward who murdered Fil Cuesta," Mayor Richard Riordan said later in the afternoon at a press conference with Chief Bernard C. Parks hurriedly arranged outside the hospital.

"The message to gang members and others is that it's not macho, it's cowardly to strike down a young officer in the prime of his life."

Though it was clear that the two officers had been targeted by gunfire, authorities said Sunday they did not know why.

As Cuesta fought for his life, more than 200 officers fanned out in a search for the shooter and anyone else involved. The LAPD deployed helicopters, SWAT members, K-9 units and officers in riot gear.

At one time, police took in a dozen people for questioning, including the wedding couple. By late Sunday, however, no one had been taken into custody.

Parks, who drove through the night from Morro Bay after getting word of the 12:36 a.m. shooting, said, "The Los Angeles Police Department and its officers feel a great loss today, and the city of Los Angeles has suffered a great loss as it mourns the passing of Officer Cuesta. We believe we have lost a great young officer."

More than three dozen police officers, some crying, maintained a vigil Sunday at the hospital.

A little after 4 p.m, Cuesta's wife, Sylvia, left the hospital in a police car. She was holding their 4-week-old daughter, Sierra Rose. Another family member escorted their other daughter, Samantha, 18 months.

"We conveyed our sorrow to them," Parks said. "We told them they would not be forgotten, that we would work with them as they go through the grieving . . . process."

Cuesta, who was expected to be promoted to detective soon, was an officer in the department's anti-gang program, dubbed CRASH for Community Resources Against Hoodlums.

The precise sequence of events early Sunday remained sketchy.

Cuesta and Gabaldon were investigating the party in the 5300 block of Carlin Street--a few blocks south of the Santa Monica Freeway and just west of La Brea Avenue--because they thought gang members were there.

Police said Cuesta had recognized gang members at the party--it remained unclear how--and was waiting for backup when he and Gabaldon were attacked.

They were cruising slowly down the block when shots rang out. Police said the shots were fired from about 170 feet away.

"Several bullets struck the police car, shattering the rear window," an LAPD spokesman, Lt. Anthony Alba, said.

"Officer Cuesta was struck in the head by a bullet. Officer Gabaldon returned cover fire at the assailants while gaining control of the police car, driven by Officer Cuesta, [and] . . . broadcasted an 'officer needs help' call."

Gabaldon saw someone moving behind him but could not determine who it was.

The LAPD's Eduardo Funes said: "Everything indicates the officers were the intended target. The gunfire was directed at them."

Three witnesses at the party said several members of the 18th Street gang attended it uninvited.

When some party-goers first heard gunfire, they thought rival gang members were shooting, said Cindy Selas, 19.

Witnesses said events actually started unfolding a little earlier.

Maria Guzman, who said the party was her outdoor wedding celebration, said police first arrived at her house before the shooting, saying they were looking for a missing person. Police would not confirm that statement.

About 50 people were at the party, Guzman said.

She said the officers left the house after looking around and returned about 12:30 a.m., saying they would have to stop the party because there had been three complaints about loud music.

"I was going back into the house after telling everybody that the party was over" when the shooting started, Guzman said. About half the party-goers had left, she said.

"Everybody started panicking," said Selas, who was inside the house. "I grabbed my baby, and people were running everywhere."

Selas said the shooting stopped for a few seconds, and then started again, but this time it sounded as if it was coming from a different location, and the "sound was a lower tone," she said.

Shots hit the police cruiser several times. A second car--not an LAPD vehicle--also was hit.

Funes said police recovered a number of shell casings. He declined to say what kind of gun they came from.

Late Sunday, a police source said investigators believe the shooter used a handgun, perhaps a 9-millimeter.

Cuesta is the second LAPD officer killed in eight months, the 15th since 1990.

The last LAPD officer killed in the line of duty also died while responding to a call about a loud party. Officer Steve Gajda died on New Year's Eve after struggling with an armed murder suspect outside a boisterous party in Boyle Heights.

Gajda, who was part of a task force working to curb New Year's Eve gunfire, was shot in the head shortly before midnight as he attempted to subdue a 17-year-old gang member who moments later was shot and killed by two other officers. Gajda, 29, had been an LAPD officer for seven years.

* Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this story.

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