Two brazen shootings six days apart, one on the shoulder of a south Orange County freeway and another at an auto accessories store in Garden Grove, have two common threads: They were alarming episodes of callous violence, and their perpetrators remain at large.
The shootings beg the question: How could two men, trailed by dozens of law enforcement agencies, scores of investigators and hundreds of citizens' tips, simply disappear?
The public would like to think that crooks on the lam are typically tripped up by sophisticated technology and investigative techniques. But as the trails of the gunmen begin to fray, it's becoming clear that's not always true. And the cases are bitter reminders of the complexity and serendipity of manhunts, which often require more luck than solid police work before they are resolved.
Worse, they are reminders that the Southland often serves as a sanctuary for crooks. Southern California's sprawl, its complex freeway system, its proximity to the notorious anonymity of Mexico or Las Vegas, or to remote deserts and mountains, combine to make the region "one of the easiest places to lose yourself in," said San Diego police spokesman Bill Robinson, whose agency was pulled into the manhunt after the CHP shooting.
"The proximity to the border makes it the most unique and challenging thing about that area of the country," said Bill Sorukas, a senior inspector for the U.S. Marshal's Service who has hunted fugitives for 14 years. "In Los Angeles, a person is two hours away from going to another country to seek refuge there."
It is difficult to measure the number of fugitives at any one time. The U.S. Marshal's Service, just one of the federal agencies that tracks suspects charged under federal warrants, has captured 24,300 people in the past year wanted on federal warrants for everything from bond violations to drug trafficking to prison escape.
Although estimates fluctuate wildly, officials say there are probably more than 500,000 fugitives in the United States at any given time.
And two of them, after committing highly publicized crimes in Orange County, are successfully eluding capture in Southern California.
On Aug. 25, the sun was still rising over San Clemente when CHP Officer Gary Burnett pulled over a speeding red pickup truck along Interstate 5. Before Burnett had time to pull his gun, the driver fired. One bullet ripped through Burnett's arm. Another pounded into the body armor covering his chest. The driver fled as Burnett drove himself to the hospital, the driver fled.
Monday, a young man strolled into the Robotek automotive store in Garden Grove and, without a word, fired with a semiautomatic handgun, killing two men and injuring four others before tucking the gun into his waistband and racing away in a gray minivan.
The two cases illustrate why manhunts are so maddening.
The CHP shooting, for example, couldn't have come at a worse time: 6 a.m.
"That's shift-change time [for police], when the graveyard shift is coming off and the first shift is going on," said Robinson of the San Diego Police Department. "There may have been fewer officers on patrol at the time. That could have been a factor."
Rush hour hadn't begun, so "at that hour of the day you can actually move very freely on the freeways. An hour or two later, it would have been gridlock," Robinson said. With an open road before him, the gunman could have made it to Mexico--where some investigators suspect he is today--in less than two hours.
There wasn't much evidence at the scene, investigators say. The truck had no license plate, and Burnett didn't get a very good look at the gunman, leaving officers with a "somewhat sketchy" description, Robinson said. There are thousands of similar trucks in Southern California.
"I think every guy with a red pickup truck in Southern California has been pulled over at least once," said Anaheim Police Sgt. Joe Vargas, whose agency is one of dozens participating in the search for the CHP case shooter. "The difficulty with this is, where do you start? And who do you start with?"
Sometimes, even finding a suspect isn't enough.
Earlier this month, Tustin police were summoned to a phone booth outside a 1st Street bar. There, well into a bender, was George Scherer. "He was passed out, just slumped over in the phone booth," Tustin Police Lt. Michael Shanahan said later. "This guy was a mess."
He was also a killer, authorities say. But what might have been a distinctly inglorious end to a criminal suspect's run from justice wasn't so simple, and it would take a tip from Scherer's friend before local authorities realized they had an accused murderer in their midst.
A week earlier, two men had been shot, one fatally, inside the T-Shots Bar in tiny Centereach, N.Y. Immediately, detectives there fingered Scherer, who had fled to Southern California with his girlfriend, as their suspect.